For many hundreds of years yodelling, the typical Swiss art of singing, has been as much a part of the Swiss Confederation as cheese and chocolate. What is behind this old tradition from the Swiss mountains?
The great diversity of Swiss folk culture
Cultural life in the countryside and in the mountains is different from that in the cities. Given the great regional diversity, there are few Swiss traditions that are known nationally as typically Swiss. In music, apart from yodelling, the Schwyzerörgeli and the alphorn are certainly among them.
A yodel – what is that?
The word yodel denotes both the yodel song and the singer who sings this yodel song. Typical of yodelling is the often rapid change between chest and head voice, that is between low and high notes. The actual yodelling is a singing without comprehensible lyrics. It often sounds like “chuderwäusch”, a language that nobody really understands. But many Swiss yodels certainly include lyrics in “Schwiizerdütsch”, the verse is then sung and the chorus yodelled.
Who the heck came up with the idea of yodeling?
The Swiss yodel is older than Switzerland itself, because yodeling has been around for several thousand years. With the help of yodel calls, the inhabitants of the Alps were able to communicate across valleys back then. So yodeling was not primarily for pleasure. It was rather a form of communication that was vital for survival. Yodelling was also used to summon the cows scattered across the extensive alpine meadows. Over the years an art of singing developed from an everyday necessity, which we can still hear today in the form of yodelling songs. Swiss yodels are often accompanied by an alphorn. This likewise typically Swiss musical instrument made of wood is up to four metres long and has existed for 500 years. Over the centuries, the alphorn and yodelling have developed into an indispensable Swiss tradition.
Yodelling – a Swiss invention?
Yodelling is the actual Swiss national song, and yodelling songs have been heard here for centuries. A Swiss yodel is often simply called “Jutz” in dialect. But yodelling is not only practised in Switzerland. Our German and Austrian neighbours also yodel. But yodeling does not sound the same everywhere. Every country, even every region, has its own way of yodeling. A trained ear can tell yodelers from the Bernese Oberland from yodelers from Appenzell. But the art of yodelling does not only exist in the Alpine region. Yodelling songs were widespread throughout the world as a form of communication. In the past, yodelling was also practised in Spain and Sweden, for example, as well as in China and Thailand. But nowhere has yodelling developed into such a great tradition as in Switzerland. Throughout the country there are many Swiss yodelers and yodel choirs, often regionally well-known. Yodelling is still a popular hobby of many Swiss people and every three years the Swiss Yodelling Festival is held with several thousand participants. Yodelling clubs from all over Switzerland present their skills there and are judged by an expert jury.
Does every Swiss yodel?
Although yodelling is a firmly established tradition in Switzerland, not every Swiss can yodel. There are about 22,000 professional yodelers in Switzerland. One could quickly get the impression that yodeling is very easy, quick to learn and not a great art. But in fact yodelling is a unique style of singing that has to be learned with a lot of patience. You too can learn to yodel with targeted breathing techniques and specific vocal exercises, preferably under expert guidance.
5 typical instruments of Swiss folk music
The typical musical instruments for yodelling are the alphorn and the Schwyzerörgeli, as already mentioned. But Swiss folk music also knows other traditional instruments. Some have their roots in a particular canton or region and are hardly known outside of it.
The hammered dulcimer is regarded as typically Appenzell, but is also played in the Valais. The strings are not plucked, but struck with wooden mallets. The height of the notes depends on the length of the strings. That is why the resonating body of the dulcimer has the shape of a trapezium. Bridges divide the strings into segments, thanks to which different tones can be produced. The Appenzell dulcimer traditionally has 25 choirs of 5 strings each, all tuned to the same pitch. The Valais dulcimer has fewer strings.
The Büchel is a close relative of the alphorn and has its origins in Central Switzerland. The Büchel is a kind of alphorn in trumpet form. It is made of spruce wood and is held in the hands like a trumpet. In contrast to the alphorn, however, its reed is not straight but folded twice. The bueche produces a brighter and higher tone than the alphorn and allows a faster tone sequence. The instrument is technically demanding to play. The pitch is produced exclusively by the different ways of blowing with the lips.
Swiss folk music also uses simple everyday objects, such as wooden or metal spoons that accompany an accordion as a percussion instrument. The pair of spoons is held by the handles and rhythmically struck on the forearm or thighs. The spoon has been used in Switzerland since the end of the 18th century. Until the mid-1970s, metal soup spoons were used for this purpose. Since then there has been a trend towards carved wooden spoons. The improvised household instrument has become a fashionable drum set, which is ordered in music stores or made to measure from specialized spoon carvers.
The Hexenscheit and Swiss Zithers
The Hexenscheit is a Bernese string instrument from the zither family. In this older, rather simple version of a zither, a metallic tone is produced by plucking the strings. There is a wide variety of zithers in Switzerland, including the Glarus zither and the Schwyz zither. They have existed in Switzerland for almost 200 years. The trapezoidal instrument is played on a table or on the knees, the Toggenburg and Kriens.
The sound of this small hand organ is characteristic of Swiss folk music. The Schwyzerörgeli owes its name to the village of Schwyz, where it was built in 1886 in reference to a hand organ that originated in Vienna at the beginning of the 19th century. Bass and melody are played by means of 18 buttons for the left hand and 31 buttons for the right hand.
Learning Swiss German while listening to yodelling songs?
Swiss yodels are sung in dialect and are usually about love of the homeland and nature or about socialising. Since yodel songs are sung at a leisurely pace, they are ideal for learning new words in Swiss German. This old Swiss tradition offers not only the pleasure of listening but also the opportunity to learn Swiss German on the side.
How much do you understand already?
Test yourself! How much do you understand of this excerpt from the Swiss yodel “D’Jodler” by Max Huggler?
mir do zäme,
bim ä Glesli guetem Wy,
fröhlich söll ä Jutz erklinge,
und au s’Alphorn isch derby,
fröhlich söll ä Jutz erklinge,
und au s’Alphorn isch derby.“
As you see, you can actually learn Swiss German while listening to yodelling songs.
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