The gemshorn is an instrument of the ocarina family that was historically made from the horn of a chamois, goat, or other suitable animal. The gemshorn receives its name from the German language, and means a chamois horn.
The gemshorn was in use in the 15th century. Examples have been unearthed in Italy, in Hungary and in Germany, including one intact instrument made of clay which dates at least to 1450, as it was found buried beneath the foundation of a house built at that time. The early history of the instrument is not well-known, but the oldest known illustration of one in a reference work is in Musica Getutscht (1511), by Sebastian Virdung. A skeletal figure is seen holding one in a Danse Macabre illustration dated to 1485. There is also mention of this instrument in "The Complaynt of Scotlande" as "ane gatehorn"(goat horn). They were primarily a pastoral instrument and were not widely known after the mid-to-late 16th century. With resurgent interest in early music in the 19th and 20th centuries, they have received new attention. Horace Fitzpatrick developed a form of gemshorn which adopted the fingering method of recorders and produced them in consort families, which have proven very popular since the 1960s.
Modern gemshorns are often made of the horns of domesticated cattle, because they are readily available, and their use prevents endangering wild species. The hollow horn has tone holes down the front, like a recorder or clarinet. The pointed end of the horn is left intact, and serves as the bottom of the instrument. A fipple plug, usually of wood, is fitted into the wide end of the instrument, with a recorder type voicing window on the front of the horn, for tone production.
On more advanced models, there is a "tuning ring". This is a metal band or ring, placed between the voicing window and the top tone hole. A hole is drilled through this ring and the horn beneath. When the ring is turned with the fingers the hole is partially blocked. This lowers the flute's keynote by up to about 1 major tone. Partial wax closure of the dorsal (rear) thumb hole will accomplish the same keynote tuning.
Playing and sound
16th-century illustrations show an instrument which had only a few tone holes, and a very limited range. The intact clay gemshorn, mentioned above, which was found beneath a 15th-century house, had a chromatic range of one octave. Modern makers have often chosen to build them using the Baroque recorder fingering.
The sound of the gemshorn is like that of other flutes, but with an ocarina-like lack of harmonic overtones.
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There is a gemshorn organ stop, modeled after this instrument. Its pipes are conical, with the wind going in at the wide end, as in the actual gemshorn. In organ pipe classification it is a flute/string hybrid.