Comparing Descant Horns

Last weekend my wife and I took a day trip over to Shreveport. Our trip had two purposes: 1) shopping for some items we couldn’t find in Monroe, and 2) visiting Craig Pratt, a colleague and friend from the Shreveport Symphony. Craig has played with the SSO for a number of years, and is an active freelancer throughout the area. He also has an amazing collection of horns, mouthpieces, and other related equipment. Craig is generously letting me borrow his Paxman model 40M descant horn for some upcoming performances, which I picked up during our visit. More on the horn later, but first here are some pictures (posted with permission) of a few of the items in Craig’s collection.


And I thought I had lots of mouthpieces! There are a number of vintage and otherwise rare pieces in this collection. Craig also owns a natural horn built by Carl Geyer, a Trompe de chasse, and another natural horn built by Lowell Greer. Oh, and he also has a few mutes.

mutecollection mutecollection1 mutecollection2

Of particular interest in his arsenal are an original Rittich mute, as well as a cup mute (top image, far left) and a Harmon mute (top image, fourth from left). I wasn’t aware that a Harmon mute for horn had ever been manufactured, although Allan Mathieu Perkins has discovered that a bass trombone Harmon mute fits very well in a horn bell.

As for the descant horn, it is a great little instrument, and I am enjoying playing it. I had already planned to use my Holton H200 descant for some upcoming performances, but jumped at the chance to try out one of Paxman’s earlier Model 40’s, which in the opinion of many players are among the best descants around. Looking at the two horns side by side, it’s clear that they are based on a similar design – the Holton is on the left and the Paxman is on the right.


After playing on it for a few days, here are the differences I’ve noticed.

  • The horn is a bit lighter, and more resonant throughout the range.
  • The B-flat side is much easier to tune than on the Holton, and in general locks into the center of each note more quickly.
  • The high F side is more responsive than the Holton, and has a less brittle quality to the sound.
  • The grip is less comfortable than my Holton, which has an Alexander flipper installed, but I have ordered a velcro hand strap to see if that will help.

This is not to say that the Holton is a poor instrument, and for the price it would be hard to find a better entry-level descant. However, the Paxman was probably built to much closer tolerances, and plays like it. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick up a similar model on the used market in the future. In the meantime, my gratitude goes to Craig Pratt for the generous loan!

Thoughts on the H200 Descant Horn

Recently a reader inquired about my H200 descant horn, which I briefly mentioned in my post on Tools of the Trade. Here’s what I said about the H200 then.

I also own a Holton H200 double descant horn, which I purchased from Douglas Hill.  I was in the market for a descant horn but I didn’t necessarily need (and couldn’t afford) a top of the line instrument, and the Holton fit the bill very nicely.  It is a nice horn at a very reasonable price, and I’ve used it several times over the last few years.  I would like to do more playing on it in the future, particularly Baroque solo works like the Telemann and Förster concertos. My only complaint about the horn is  that the intonation is sometimes a bit quirky, tending towards the sharp side.

I have a few more comments to offer on the horn but first here’s a little background on my experience with descants in general. Until I started graduate school I’d only seen a descant horn up close a handful of times, although I knew that they existed. As a high school student and college undergraduate I had seen and heard a descant horn played by John Ericson – an expert on the topic – during summers at the Brevard Music Center, but didn’t really pursue playing on one myself until starting a masters degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For a semester I worked part time in the School of Music’s instrument repair shop, which, in addition to the normal run of the mill specimens, also had a large collection of interesting horns. Among these were natural horns of the Classical and Baroque variety by Richard Seraphinoff, a few trompes de chasse, a set of four Wagner tubas, and several models of descant horns. The descants included horns by Alexander (single F alto), Hoyer (some type of double descant), and Paxman (pre-85 model 40). I got a chance to play on most of these horns at one time or another, but spent the most time on a Seraphinoff Classical era natural horn and a Paxman descant. At one point I had both the descant and natural horn checked out on loan, which made for an interesting time getting all three horns (double, descant, and natural) into a locker at the same time. My primary use for the descant horn at the time was for some parts in the UW Symphony Orchestra, and for some orchestral excerpts (Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, Beethoven Symphony No. 7, etc.), although I also remember working on the Telemann concerto with that instrument as well. It was a great experience, and set up a good foundation for further study on the instrument.

Ok, jump ahead to 2007, when I purchased my H200 second hand from Douglas Hill. The horn was essentially in brand new condition when I bought it, as Doug had only used it for a couple of performances I believe. Since then I’ve used it several times, but as noted in the quote above I plan to program some more solo works that make use of the horn in the future. For anyone new to descant horns it can take some time to get used to making the switch back and forth from your regular double horn. When I first started playing the H200 I didn’t really like it that much – it got the job done, but I felt like I had to continually fight the horn to center notes and to keep the pitch in general down. Over time this has gotten much easier, and I really enjoy playing the horn now. Using a slightly more covered hand position has helped with the intonation, as well as giving the high F side a more mellow tone. I’ve used a couple of different mouthpieces on it, including my normal Laskey 75G, and a Moosewood BD (descant horn model) with a copy of a Laskey 75 rim (pictured above). The valves are pretty good, although the mechanical action can get a little clunky at times.  I’m not really sure why Holton made this design decision; the H200 is based on the pre-85 Paxman model 40, but I don’t remember the Paxman I played on having mechanical linkages except on the change valves. The B-flat side is quite good on this particular horn, and I actually have had an easier time centering notes on it after playing regularly on my Schmid double (as opposed to the Yamaha 667v I played before the Schmid). The high F side is good too, although I remember the Paxman descant I played in school having a really exceptional high F side – it’s hard not to compare the two even now! The stopping valve works very well, although I’ve never used the extra little bit of tubing they include to make the stop valve a B-flat/A valve. Maybe someday I’ll be willing to plunk down the extra cash for a top of the line descant, but for now I’m very happy with the Holton.

By the way, if you are interested in hearing someone perform on the H200, check out the newer European Style Surveys by Dan Phillips on the International Horn Society’s site. The player is Corrado Maria Saglietti,  Principal Horn of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Turin. He is playing an H200 with F extension. NB: You must be an IHS member and log in to view the videos.

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