The player for whom Haydn intended this charming curiosity – a theme with two variations and a tiny finale – dating from 1767 (but not published until nearly 200 years later), must, for starters, have been accustomed to the high-lying horn parts in Haydn’s symphonies. The dedicatee was one or another of the four horn players (two permanent) in Haydn’s Esterházy orchestra of the time: accounts vary as to who was capable of surviving these approximately eight minutes of extraordinary exigency. Playing in the instrument’s highest register of the (then) valveless horn’s natural harmonic series had become a requisite in the first half of the 18th century. Subsequently, hand-stopping, i.e., inserting the cupped hand into the instrument’s bell, became a widespread practice, popularized by the Bohemian hornist Giovanni Punto (born Jan Václav Stich), allowing the player more flexibility as regards range. (Celebrated quote by a local critic following a performance in 1800 in Pest of Beethoven’s Op. 17 Sonata for horn and piano: “Who is this Beethoven? His name is not known to us. Punto, of course, is very well known.”)
Earlier, before hand-stopping, two players would be required to cope with a work such as this, one playing the high notes, the other the low, which would have been impractical, to say the least. Here, however, no mercy is given to the sole executant, whether on the “simple” horn of Haydn’s day or the complex marvel of plumbing that is today’s French horn.