Updated: Aug 9, 2021
The alphorn, also called ‘alpine horn’, is an original wind instrument that is in the same form today as it was in ancient times.
Unlike other instruments, it has not undergone any advancements or changes and is a simple, straight wooden horn with a cup-shaped mouthpiece. It is several meters in length, meaning its end is placed at quite a distance from the blower.
If you go look for an alphorn today, you’ll be blowing an instrument identical to the one herders and mountain dwellers blew hundreds of years ago! The fact that it has retained its original form makes the alphorn stand out amongst other instruments that have changed over the years.
Although it nearly disappeared around the 1800s, the alphorn instrument gained popularity and received more appreciation than ever in the 20th century. Eventually, it gained so much worth that it became the national instrument of Switzerland.
To learn more about the iconic alpine horn that now forms an integral part of Swiss traditions, read right through.
The Making Of An Alphorn
Back in the day, alphorns were made directly from the boles of red pine trees. The trees were carefully selected; their length had to correspond with that of the instrument, and they were cut off steep slopes, so their ends were curved by the pressure of overlying snow. After clearing out their insides, the trunks were put together to form an alphorn.
Today, alphorns are constructed from fir trees, and more modern methods and professional craftsmanship is required in their making. The trees are carefully cut into planks and then allowed to dry for up to eight years - the drier the wood, the better the sound quality.
After drying, the pieces are cut with rotary saws and refined into three pieces: the horn bell, the central extension, and the mouthpiece extension. These three pieces are put together, after which a small mouthpiece is attached at the end. And voila, the ‘king of Swiss traditions’ is produced.
The methods of making the alpine horn have evolved over the years from simply finding the correctly shaped trees to mastering the skill of carving out a pipe from wood, but this does not change the fact that the structure and sound quality has retained its originality.
From A Work-based Tool …
Back in the 1500s, the alphorn, because it was a trumpet-like device that played a limited number of notes, was used for non-recreational purposes. It was more of a work-based tool utilized by mountain-living folks and shepherds.
Their primary purpose was to act as a signal of communication; herders would call their cows and sheep back to the farm by blowing through it and producing a distinct sound. It was also used to communicate with other herdsmen and people residing across valleys and in far-off areas.
Some herders used the alphorn to calm cows, and at times, its sound also served as an evening prayer.
… To Winning Hearts As A Musical Instrument
In the 1800s, the need for alphorns in the Alps subsided, leading to the disappearance of the once-famous instrument. In 1805, a herdsman aimed to revive it by playing it at a festival, but there was not much success.
Efforts to revive the alphorn bore fruit in the 1820s when Niklaus von Mulinen pledged to give courses of playing it. Finally, in 1827, the instrument got the recognition it deserved when it was named the Swiss national instrument by musicologist Joseph Fétis.
In 1910, its use got integrated further by the commencement of the Federal Yodelling Association, which delivered alphorn blowing courses.
Consequently, more and more people got drawn by its natural tones, and the appreciation for the instrument as a source of music and recreational activity grew massively. It also formed a tourist attraction, with people around the world showing interest in the Swiss national instrument.
Significance Of The Alphorn In Swiss Traditions
Because alphorns were initially used in the Alps of Switzerland as communication signals, the instrument holds massive importance in the traditions of Switzerland.
After being named the Swiss national symbol, it made grand appearances in various festivals and parades, such as the Swiss Yodeling Festival and the alphorn festival in Nendaz. In these festivals, alphorns were blown in front of masses of people, who appreciated the natural tones produced and gave the instrument the recognition it long deserved.
Today, there are over 4000 players of the instrument in Switzerland alone, and alphorns still make appearances in traditional festivals and parades.
Different Types Of Alphorns
The different types of alphorns depend on their varying lengths. Because it is a basic instrument, the length affects the tones it produces.
Essentially, there are eight types of alphorns, with lengths varying between 2.45 and 4.05 meters. In Switzerland, 3.5 meters has been set as the standard. This produces the keynote f#.
The Sound Of The Brass Instrument
The word “brass” instrument confuses many. Although it is constructed from wood, the way it produces sound and the blowing techniques involved place it under the category of brass.
Alphorns are challenging to play, perhaps owing to their simplicity. They do not have finger holes or valves like modern musical instruments and require skillful playing.
Typically, the instrument produces sounds in G and F (depending on the length of the particular alphorn), and the tones produced resemble that of a trumpet. The sound is characterized by rich tones beautifully merged with soft ones. When blown in mountainous areas, the wind can carry their unique, natural sound up to 10 kilometers away.
Alphorns - the highlight of Swiss traditions and the national symbol of Switzerland - are unique, simple musical instruments. Their uses have varied over the years; from being a means of communication with humans and animals back in the day, they are now enjoyed as sources of music, including jazz.
From the making of the alphorn to its significance in Swiss traditions, this blog has everything you need to know about the alphorn instrument!