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ALPHORNS - ALPINE MUSIC FROM SWITZERLAND

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Mention traditional Swiss music and most people visualize alphorn-players in the mountain meadows of the Switzerland Alps.

Swiss alphorn-players and flag-swinger
Swiss alphorn-players and flag-swinger
Photo: Switzerland Tourism

What is an alphorn? The wind instrument consists of a long tube that widens as it stretches from the wooden mouthpiece to the bell-shaped opening at the end, which curves up.

Between the mouthpiece and bell, it has no holes, valves or buttons. Traditionally, the alphorn is twice as long as the person playing it.

History

"Every June, farmers herd their Swiss cows up to the high-altitude meadows, because the grass up there is rich in herbs," says alphorn player, René Wälti. Milk from cattle that graze on these herbs makes the best cheese.

"The cow-herders are up in the Alps by themselves and their families are down in the valleys. They play alphorns every night to let relatives know that everything is okay," explains René, who comes from Boeningen (near Interlaken, Switzerland), but now lives in Toronto.

"They also communicate from one mountain across the valley to another one and respond back. At other times, alphorns play specific tunes as an evening blessing."

What does an alphorn sound like?

More mellow, powerful and lingering than a bugle, the sound of an alphorn is determined by its pitch. "Alphorns have different pitches," says René.

"In Switzerland, the most common is G-flat. If you unwind a French horn, it will be the same length as my Swiss alphorn and the same pitch."

Alphorns can also have other pitches, including E, F and F-sharp. It is the length of the tube that dictates the pitch, according to René Wälti.

Making an alphorn

The best alphorns are still handmade, although people who travel to Switzerland can visit an alphorn factory in Habkern.

"Alphorns were originally made from fir trees," says René. "Alphorn-makers split the wood in half, hollowed it out and tied it together with rope."

Making an alphorn
Making an alphorn
Photo: Switzerland Tourism

Nowadays, alphorns are made with spruce or other wood, such as maple, and sometimes covered with wicker. Some are works of art with wood carvings and original paintings on the bell. A good handcrafted alphorn costs about $5,000.

To make it easier to transport alphorns, they have three-to-five sections that can be taken apart and placed in a bag or case, and then re-assembled before playing.

How to play the alphorn

"All the notes on an alphorn are made with the lips," says Eva Hajda, an alphorn-player who was born in Lucerne. She lived in Winterthur, Switzerland before moving to Mississauga, Ontario. "A good alphorn musician can play the melodies without the horn, which acts as an amplifier."

Eva's 3.7-meter (12.3 foot)-long F pitch alphorn weighs about five kilograms (11 pounds). Hand-carved from Sitka spruce, which was air-dried for at least three years, it was made by William Hopson, from Calgary, who played it in the Calgary Symphony.

Alphorn classes

Eva learned how to play the alphorn after her husband bought one for her birthday present. "He knew how much I loved listening to alphorn music whenever I was in Switzerland. It always brought tears to my eyes."

After taking a few alphorn lessons from Mike Cumberland in Port Hope, she took two one-week alphorn courses in La Tsoumaz and Wilderswil, Switzerland. Today, both Eva Hajda and René Wälti play alphorns for special events, such as weddings and the Swiss National Holiday (date: August 1).

The Swiss Alphorn School in Schönried (located near Gstaad in southwest Switzerland) offers alphorn lessons in English.

Where can you hear alphorns?

Around the world, you can listen to alphorn music in solo and orchestra performances. The best place to hear alpine music in Switzerland is at folkloric festivals where you can also see flag-throwing and hear yodeling.

Alphorn-players
Alphorn-players
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tradition and culture are so important that, every July, Nendaz, located nine miles (15 kilometers) from Sion's airport, holds an International Alphorn Festival. You can see up to 150 alphorn players and even try to play the traditional Swiss instrument yourself.

Swiss cow bells

At some alphorn performances, you may see a performer hold a talerschwingen (translation: making money go around) in one hand. The pottery bowl was originally a milk bowl. Now, it's a musical instrument that accompanies alphorns and yodelers.

René Wälti dropped a silver coin into the bowl and swirled it with his other arm so that the coin rotated around, creating the tinkling sounds of cow bells. As Eva Hajda's alphorn music blended with the jingling from the talerschwingen, we recalled the sound of cow bells ringing as cattle walk to and from Switzerland's alpine pastures.

It was a harmonious reminder of the origins of the alphorn and the importance of traditions in Switzerland today.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Switzerland Tourism

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Fun Things to Do in Geneva, Valais, Matterhorn and Lake Geneva Region

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