It is a transposing instrument pitched in F, a perfect fifth lower than the oboe (a C instrument), and is consequently approximately one-third longer. The fingering and playing technique used for the cor anglais are essentially the same as those of the oboe. Consequently music for the cor anglais is written a perfect fifth higher than the instrument actually sounds. This means that the fingering is the same as for the oboe. Its sounding range stretches from the E (or, rarely, E flat) below middle C to the C two octaves above middle C.
Its pear-shaped bell gives it a more nasal, covered timbre than that of the oboe, being closer in tone quality to the oboe d'amore. Whereas the oboe is the soprano instrument of the oboe family, the cor anglais is generally regarded as the alto member of the family, and the oboe d'amore, pitched between the two in the key of A, is the mezzo-soprano member. It is perceived to have a more mellow and more plaintive tone than the oboe. Its appearance differs from the oboe in that the reed is attached to a slightly bent metal tube called the bocal, or crook, and the bell has a bulbous shape.
Reeds used to play the cor anglais are similar to those used for an oboe, consisting of a piece of cane folded in two. Although the instrument itself is longer, a cor anglais reed is shorter than that of an oboe, and also slightly wider. Where the cane on an oboe reed is connected to a small metal tube (the staple) partially covered in cork, there is no such cork on a cor anglais reed, which fits metal against metal onto the bocal, in a manner not dissimilar to the bassoon.
Perhaps the best known makers of modern instruments are the French firms of F. Lorée, Marigaux and Rigoutat, the British firm of T W Howarth, and the American firm Fox. Instruments from smaller volume makers, such as A. Laubin, are also sought after. Instruments are usually made from African Blackwood or Grenadilla, although some makers offer instruments in a choice of alternative woods as well, such as cocobolo wood (Howarth) or violet wood (Lorée), which are said to alter the voice of the cor anglais slightly, reputedly making it even more mellow and warmer. Fox has recently made some instruments in plastic resin.
It has alternatively been suggested that the name of anglehorn developed as a reference to the English horn, a part which is not present in most of the smaller members of the oboe family. However, the name seems to have appeared first in German and Austrian scores of the 1760s, always in the Italian form as corno inglese. Prior to this, in the late Baroque period Johann Sebastian Bach referred to a similar double reed instrument pitched in F as taille.
The cor anglais originated in Germany sometime after 1720 when a bulb bell was added to the oboe da caccia, possibly by J. T. Breigel of Breslau. It has been suggested that the tenor oboe and the oboe da caccia resembled the horns played by angels in religious icons of the Middle Ages. This gave rise to the Middle High German name engellisches Horn, meaning angelic horn. But engellisch also meant English, and so the angelic horn became the English horn, a name which was retained for the bulb-belled tenor oboe after the oboe da caccia fell into disuse around 1760.
There are few solo pieces for the instrument. Examples of concertos are:
† Though concerto in nature, these are officially just extensive solos in orchestral works, as the players are seated within the orchestra
Better known chamber music for English horn include:
The English horn's timbre makes it well suited to the performance of expressive, melancholic solos in orchestral works (including film scores) as well as operas. Famous examples are:
In addition to classical music, the cor anglais has also been used by a few musicians as a jazz instrument; most prominent among these are Paul McCandless, Sonny Simmons, Vinny Golia, and Tom Christensen, and Nancy Rumbel of the Grammy-winning duo Tingstad and Rumbel. The cor anglais also figures in the instrumental arrangements of several Carpenters songs, most notably "For All We Know" (1971). It has also made some appearances in pop music, such as in Lindisfarne's "Run For Home" and Randy Crawford's "One Day I'll Fly Away." In Britain, Tony Hatch's theme tune to the long-running soap opera Emmerdale Farm was originally performed on the cor anglais.
Paul McCartney holds a cor anglais on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The instrument also features in the 2005 movie American Pie Presents: Band Camp (referred to as the oboe).