The terms circular alto horn, alto horn and althorn have since the late 19th century been applied to a number of brass instruments, some of them wholly unrelated, but the origin of the duplication of terms seems to have originated with companies like Cerveny, who in their case used the term alto horn to refer to a modified version of the Koenig horn.
The original Koenig horn of 1855 was a tenor F instrument with Perinet valves and was the forerunner of the instrument we today call the Mellophone. The alto horn version, by contrast, is usually an Eb instrument with rotary valves (although F horns of this type are fairly common), and is also known as the althorn (in German, "alt" when referring to a voice, means "alto").
The inventor of the circular alto horn is not yet known with absolute certainty as there isn’t a single definitive candidate, but a recent e-mail from Frank Nordberg at Musica Viva, pointing out references in both the 1897/98/99 Pollman main catalogue and Cousenon’s 1915 export catalogue to one M. Ligner bear serious consideration for the instrument in one particular form.
Monsieur Ligner was said to have been a hornist in the French Republican Guard who designed his instrument to be an easier alternative to the French horn- this, in the late 1880's.
The problem with this claim is that in physical terms it could just as easily be used to describe the original 1855 Koenig horn- a wide-belled horn of this type which predates the Ligner design by three decades. Also, wide-belled Perinet-valve mellophones were being made in the Czech Republic since the late 1880's- the same time-frame as the Ligner claim.
However, if one focusses solely on the larger rotary-valve versions of this instrument, most of which are in Eb, the Pollman/Cousenon claim appears to make perfect sense as this particular design does indeed seem to be an attempt to produce an instrument more Horn-like in dimensions and sound quality.
Also, the Czech instruments, marketed as “mellophones,” were a cheaper instrument, not as well made, and the distinction between these two instruments is clear: the circular alto horn was designed, marketed and used as a concert instrument whilst the Czech mellophones were designed, marketed and used as band instruments.
Cerveny Circular Alto
There is also the matter of the original instrument called a “mellophone”. The earliest example of an instrument bearing this name, dating from 1881 at the latest, was made by Kohler & Son. This information was supplied to me by Arnold Myers, curator of the Edinburgh University Museum. Further, Arnold tells me that this instrument in terms of design resembles the Distin ballad horn rather than the “classic” mellophone design that is today associated with instruments bearing this name.
This raises the question of Which came first? The Czech version of the mellophone (the “classic”) or the circular alto horn?
The timing seems to suggest that the Czech version came first, followed hard upon by the circular alto horn which in all respects seems to be made up of design improvements rather than outright innovations. It therefore seems probable that M. Ligner saw the potential in the Czech mellophone and, seeing potential in his own area of music, made the required changes to the design.
Another related matter that seems to add support to the M. Ligner claim is the configuration of the “French” horn itself in France. Unlike other markets which seem to have imported the instrument as-is and taken it at face value, the “French” horn world in France at the time was very much its own unique milieu. For example, a C version of the Horn having Perinet valves was popular until only recently, and outside of France is deemed an oddity.
Two common misconceptions concerning the Hindemith alto horn sonata are that it was written for the Eb alto (tenor) Saxhorn or the Cerveny Eb alto tuba (called an alto horn). It was in fact written specifically for the circular alto horn (which unlike the aforementioned is a concert, not a band instrument) and was likewise first performed on this instrument.
This establishes two things: the association of the circular alto horn with concert music and the esteem in which it was held.
Further, in the latter instance there are historical references to performances of Horn music on the circular alto horn.
Other instruments which have been referred to as the circular alto horn, alto horn and althorn are the Cerveny Eb alto tuba (which Cerveny refers to as an alto horn, and is also referred to as a Baltic brass instrument), the mellophone and the Ballad horn.
In tracing the origin(s) of this multiple usage, the culprit again seems to be the Cerveny company who refer to both their Eb alto tuba and their Eb circular alto horn as “alto horns”.
It has often been said that the trumpet is the most difficult of the brass instruments to master, but it is probable that this is a belief mainly of players and fans of this instrument. Given the many modern advances in teaching the skills to play this instrument and quality of instrument manufacture, it would be more fitting to place the modern Bb trumpet somewhere in the middle of the brasses in terms of difficulty. In first place, undoubtedly, would go the triple Horn, which beyond being prohibitively expensive for the beginner is extremely demanding in terms of endurance, range, tone-production and intonation.
After the Horn would probably go the various period brass, which are difficult for reasons of timbre, intonation, inconsistency, and the growing gap between current and period performance-practice.
Dotzauer Circular Alto
Somewhere before the modern Bb trumpet would go both the modern mellophone and the circular alto horn because unlike the modern trumpet both present ongoing challenges in terms of instrument design and performance; challenges that to trumpet players are either negligible or non-existent.
The most profound thing about the modern Bb trumpet is what it can do. In terms of the modern mellophone and circular alto horn, the most profound things are what the players try to get these instruments to do, and how inconsistent these instruments are when it comes to getting the job done.
For example, one horn will have a great sound and intonation in one particular range but be deficient in one or more others- see Al’s remark on this site about his Doztauer being “squeaky” in the upper range, for example.
Also, circular alto horns often have a lovely sound in the low register but are suspect when one really tries to open up and push the instrument’s limitations. When one pushes these instruments hard they are somewhat limited in being able to accommodate the player’s wishes. This is in stark contrast to, say, some of the new rotary-valve trumpets which can take all a player can give and more.
A cursory appraisal of the differences between circular alto horns and mellophones might tell one that those differences are hardly worth mentioning, but the real differences become apparent in two situations: solo performance where a single instrument is exposed, and sectional performance where a number of these instruments are playing together.
To the casual ear a soloist performing on a circular alto horn is generally going to sound better than most mellophone players because circular alto horn players are often serious musicians, whereas a group of mellophone players is going to sound unlike a group of circular alto horn players. A mellophone section has a “band” sound and feel while a circular alto horn section has a “classical” sound and feel. This is perfectly in accordance with the popular view of these instruments.
A notion that is decidedly not in accordance here is that of the mellophone being a substitute for the “French” horn. This may well be a case of mistaken guilt by association if one infers that the circular alto horn and mellophone are one and the same instrument, which they are not.
Those who harbored such prejudices can perhaps be forgiven because this is a North American attitude towards a European instrument which, it seems, got confused with one particular version made for the North American market. People in the know at the time probably heard good things about the circular alto horn (which they may have been told was a mellophone), only to experience visceral repugnance at the sound of a low-quality instrument (a real mellophone) played by some child in a school band. Popular wisdom being what it was at the time, and a strong social tendency in people to divest themselves of their European heritage, may well lie at the root of much of the long-standing negativity towards both instruments in North America.