Its a part of Switzerland like chocolate and cheese (“Schoggi und Chäs”) and whoever has been lucky enough “luusche z döfre” (en.: hear it) the melodic tones of an alphorn can understand why this unique instrument is so much part of Swiss culture. It is hard to imagine that the alphorn was once scorned and, for nearly two centuries “so guet we verschwunde isch gsi” (en.: disappeard).
What is an Alphorn?
Although it is made almost entirely out of wood, the alphorn actually belongs to the category of brass wind instruments. It is essentially a long conic tube, at the end of which it is bent “we s Horn vo rä Chue” (en.: like the horn of a cow) and is usually on a stand. In days gone by, the alphorn was made out of pine trees that grew on a slope and were thus already bent. Today, other materials such as ash, spruce or cherrywood are used; some alphorns are even made of synthetic material. What hasn’t changed is the traditional “gleischteti Handarbet” (en.: hand work) in small workshops, where it can take up to seventy hours to craft an instrument.
Many factors influence “d Tonlaag” (en.: the pitch); length and diameter as well as thickness, curvature and material all play a role in the pitch of the end product. The Fis-Alphorn with a length of 3.4 meters is the standard size of an alphorn in Switzerland. An alphorn has no valves, keys or pitch holes; “D Tön werdet über d Lippe erzügt”. The vibrations of the air blowing through the tube stimulate the air already in the horn and pushes it though the bell, thus producing the unique sound of the alphorn.
Who invented the Alphorn?
Nobody really knows who and which people invented the alphorn. It is surmised that the instrument was known to mountain people “zur Zyt vo de Germane” (en.: like the times of the Germans) as the „cornua alpinum“. The first mention of an alphorn in Switzerland was in 1527 in the accounts book of the “Chloschter zu St.Urban im Lozärnische be Pfaffnau”; The ledger entry was “two batzen to a man of Valais with an alphorn”. It’s not sure if the word “alphorn” referred to the instrument known today as the alphorn, but it is the first written mention of it.
In the 17th century, the alphorn got a bad name due to shepherds “im Schwyzerdüdsche, Älpler” who came down from the mountains in winter into the cities to beg. The instrument was associated with these beggars and nearly completely disappeared “vo dr Bildflächi”. Some town councils even enacted official bans on the alphorn. However, it may also have been that the unwieldy horns were just too cumbersome for the beggars to carry and they replaced them with smaller instruments.
The alphorn was rediscovered when tourism started up in the 19th century and became, together with folklore associated with it, “en feschte Beschtandteil vo unsere Kultur”.
What does an alphorn sound like? Listen to this CD to find out.
Uses of the Alphorn Then and Now
“I dr hüttige Zyt”the alphorn is mainly played “als Musiginschtrument a Veranschtaltige” like the traditional Swiss wrestling or yodelling festivals. Occasionally, it gets “nennenswerti Beachtig” when integrated with jazz or funk music styles.
Originally, though, as portrayed by various writings and paintings, the alphorn was used by shepherds as a “vielsiitigs Werkzüg” (en.: allround tool). For instance, they used it to communicate with the “Dörfler in dr Täler”, called “s Vieh zum Melche”, chased away “bösi Geischter” (en.: angry ghosts) or to accompany “s Obedgebet” (en.: evening prayer).
In summary, it might be said that the alphorn “e interessants und unverkennbars Naturinschtrument isch” (en.: interesting nature instrument) and delights everyone within earshot with its soothing tones and rich cultural heritage.
Find out more interesting facts about “euses Land und d Kultur” in our online language course www.learn-swiss-german.ch
Would you like to buy an alphorn and learn how to play it? We’ve found the most inexpensive alphorn for you here.