Finding a New Voice for the Hand Horn

Isaac Shieh

In 1835, Jacques-François Gallay, regarded by Fétis as the ‘last great hand horn virtuoso in France’, composed Douze Grands Caprices which embody the capabilities of the instrument in its most virtuosic form. In the past few decades, as ‘Early Music’ develops, there is a renewed interest in hand horn playing, with an increasing number of horn players now pursuing historical horns as a specialisation. With a new generation of players capable of pushing beyond the boundaries and perceived capabilities encapsulated by Gallay in his Douze Grands Caprices, this project aims to create an extension of the hand horn playing tradition, reflecting the capabilities and aesthetics of our time: 12 new works for solo hand horn are being commissioned from 12 living composers.

Image Credit: Samuel Middleton

There are four components. A ‘composer’s toolbox’ contains a series of videos, which form a kind of kaleidoscope of the historical, technical and musical capabilities of the hand horn. A thorough investigation of Douze Grands Caprices’ history and 19th-century Performance Practice will help us understand the languages and settings of the past and how they can provide a foundation for us to extend the hand horn playing tradition. The dynamic processes that come out of collaborations with composers will be documented to reflect the challenges and rewards of trying to find new ground for an (un)familiar instrument, and a final examination of the cultural and social contexts surrounding the creation and sustainability of new works will help to establish an environment that will allow the new caprices to find their own lives.

As a professional period hornist with a strong background in contemporary music making, this project allows me to combine my two passions into one whilst enjoying the process of collaborative art making. It also allows me to explore the artistry behind hand horn playing, and create meaningful ways for others to experience the complexities of playing this instrument. The distinctive focuses on performance and composition research studies at the Royal Academy of Music, along with the rich history and reputation of the institute, draw some of the most talented performers and composers into the same space. It is the perfect environment for me to undertake this collaborative project and explore unfamiliar territories for an instrument that is filled with a rich and colourful history.

Header Image Credit: Samuel Middleton

Audio and Video

Further Links


If you would like to find out more about this project, please don't hesitate to get in touch:

Isaac Shieh

Neil Heyde (Supervisor)