The sound of this instrument is often called “the Echo of the Alps”. The musicians say it has a therapeutic effect. It has an impressive history with its falls and rises, it is well-known and loved all around the globe, it cannot be confused with any other musical instrument. Meet the alphorn – the musical companion of the Swiss people!
An old legend has it there once was a shepherd who stood on a high cliff above the Belmont fortress blowing the alphorn with all his might. He saw the enemy troops and wanted to warn the guards of the fortress. He was blowing the horn so hard that he fell dead, but the guards heard his warning – they lifted the bridge and shut the gates. Everything this legend says is true – the powerful sound of an alphorn was often used to warn the citizens about danger.
The horn also helped the Swiss to call for evening prayers and in the Reformed cantons its sound itself served as a prayer due to the lack of church bells. Still the alphorn’s main purpose was to call the cows from the pastures and to pacify them during milking. The shepherds used this instrument since the ancient times. However in the beginning of the 19th century the usage of alphorns started to decrease. The individual dairies got replaced by co-operative companies in the villages so there was no need for the shepherds to use the horn anymore. By the 1808 only one alphorn blower appeared at the traditional music competition – the alpine music seemed to be gone in history. It was so until the 1820s when the Bernese governor Niklaus von Mülinen started making alphorns and give them to talented singers in Grindelwald. The tradition was saved and the alphorn soon became one of the symbols of Switzerland.
The alphorn is one of the biggest woodwind instruments in the world. You can only play it in standing position – the instrument’s length can reach a few metres! The horn has no side holes and therefore it can only produce the notes of the natural harmonic series. Until the middle of the 20th century the alphorns were made of young Alpine pines, nowadays different types of wood are used. Keeping a horn is a true challenge – it may lose the shape or crack due to humidity and temperature changes. In order to avoid the damage the instruments are sprinkled with sawdust and covered with varnish.
Today the popularity of an alphorn often increases day by day, The instrument takes part in jazz and folk music concerts. It is used even in classical music – there are a few pieces composed especially for the alphorn! The Swiss Yodeling Association has about 1800 alphorn players from around the world as members. There’s a competition of alphorn players that takes place each summer in Switzerland, the village of Nendaz, canton of Valais, gathers several hundred musicians from all over the world. The rules are strict – the judges don’t see the musicians, so only the most talented alphorn player wins!
The alphorn might not be the most compact or the prettiest among the rest of the instruments. But as soon as you hear its sound it becomes unbelievably beautiful.
Enjoy fantastic music in Fantastic Switzerland!