The post horn is an end-blown lip-reed aerophone of the natural type, meaning it is restricted to sounding only a single fundamental and the notes in the harmonic series above it. Originating in Europe, the post horn was historically associated with the service of mail delivery. Even today, well over a century after this instrument fell out of use to signal the arrival of the mail coach to villages, towns, and cities, its image appears on the postal service emblem of many European countries. The post horn pictured here was made in the second half of the 19th century (after 1871) in Germany by an instrument maker who produced such instruments with royal permission. On the instrument’s bell garland the following inscription is found: Franz Hirschberg / Königl(ich). Großherzogl(ich). u(nd). fürstl(icher). Hoflieferant / Breslau I Weidenstr. 19 (roughly translated: [the instrument maker] Franz Hirschberg / [granted by] His Royal Highness the Grand Duke and the grand purveyor to the royal household / [located in] Breslau I [at the address] 19 Weidenstrasse). Breslau, although now in Poland, was at that time part of the German Empire. A responsibility of any governing body of that time was to ensure mail delivery, and thus makers such as Franz Hirschberg would be granted exclusive rights by royal decree to produce equipment that was an essential part of that service. Characteristic fanfares would be sounded by a member of the mail coach team to signal its arrival and departure from a delivery point. So quotidian was the sound of the post horn in European life over many centuries that it is no wonder that composers would occasionally incorporate at least its associated fanfares and, in some instances, the instrument itself in a few of their works (listen to audio #1 for an example of a work by Mozart featuring a natural post horn playing passages reminiscent of late 18th century postal fanfares). It is unclear when the post horn stopped being sounded in its original context of usage, most likely at different moments in the late 19th century in different regions of Europe as postal systems’ methods of delivery modernized. Apparently in late 19th century Germany the post horn design of the instrument pictured here was also called the Fürst Pless (the “Prince Pless” post horn), after the Prussian Prince H. von Pless, who used it as a hunting horn (see Baines 1981, p. 175; and the illustration in Baines and Rycroft 2014, p. 142).
This post horn is an approximately 4.5-foot length of brass conical tubing (similar in profile to a cornet) with a cup mouthpiece inserted at one end and a moderately flaring bell at the other. The instrument’s tubing coils three times and is wrapped in a long and narrow strip of leather. The bell is reinforced with a metal (probably nickel) garland about 1.2 inches in width.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The player, standing or seated, grasps the tubing coil between the mouthpiece and the bell with either hand and positions the post horn so that the mouthpiece touches their lips and the bell is facing forward and upward. With the given length of tubing, the performer may produce a fundamental pitch (called a pedal tone) and the notes in the natural harmonic series above it by controlling the force of the airstream (with their diaphragm muscles) and its modulation (with their embouchure muscles adjusting lip tension). The fundamental of this post horn is B-flat2. Most surviving notations of post horn fanfares use no more than the first 6-8 partials, including the fundamental B-flat2, a range of one-and-a-half to two octaves.
Post horns in several regions of Europe began to be constructed in a small coil form in the early 17th century. By the early 18th century German post horns were being constructed similarly to the instrument pictured here (though it was made in the 1870s), with three coils, and in a variety of sizes that produced various fundamentals. Valves and tuning slides were added to it by some makers as early as 1825, a design that eventually was referred to as cornet à pistons in France and from which the modern cornet descends.
Baines, Anthony C. 1981. Brass Instruments: Their History and Development. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Baines, Anthony C. 1984. “Post horn,” NGDMI v.3: 142-143.________, and David K. Rycroft. 2014. “Post horn.” GDMI v.4: 152-153.