Alphorn player in the bandstand in Mittelberg | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Frank Drechsel

22 Sep. 2014 · Culture | Family
Sarina Berchtold

The Alphorn – the Mobile Phone of Yesteryear

As we walked down the steps to the music pavillion in Mittelberg, we don’t know exactly what to expect from our Alphorn course, which is taking place as part of the Alphorn event.

It would be a bit embarrassing if we are not able to produce a single sound out of it. Before we are allowed to try it out, we are first given a welcome ‘Grüezi’ from Gilbert Kolly, composer, Alphorn teacher and professional musician from Switzerland, who goes on to introduce us to the history of the Alphorn.

The Land of the Alphorn

Alphorn - Sicht auf Bödmen | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen

The surprising news first: it is not possible to say with any degree of certainty whether the Alphorn actually originates from Switzerland. Other cultures also used animal horns as wind instruments even earlier in history. Incidentally, the oldest known illustration of a shepherd’s horn can be seen a short walk away in neighbouring Rohrmoos in the chapel on the mountainside. Another interesting fact: the Alphorn had nearly died out in Switzerland around the year 1800 and was considered to be an instrument that was just used by poor herdsmen. It is now becoming ever more popular not just in Switzerland but also here in Kleinwalsertal and in Allgäu. This is why we are here today. We also want to get involved.

The Right Alphorn

Das Alphorn | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen

Let’s get started! After he has taken a closer look at our lips, Gilbert opens his case and deliberately selects a specific mouthpiece for each of us. He also gives us an Alphorn each to hold. As it happens, the length of the Alphorn used is not dependent on body size, it actually determines the key in which it is tuned. First of all, we do a few breathing exercises to warm up. Breathe deeply into the stomach and exhale. We then do the whole thing again but this time with the mouthpiece before we then pick up the Alphorn. This is effectively just used to amplify the sound that comes out of the mouthpiece. The first attempt – take a deep breath – and we both manage to produce a sound. It didn’t exactly sound beautiful, but we still managed it nonetheless. Gilbert corrects my posture, I am probably standing in a slightly tense way, and then we continue. After a few minutes, I am really out of breath. I am surprised by how exhausting all the deep inhalations and long exhalations turned out to be.

The Sound of the Mountains

Alphorn Festival in Kleinwalsertal | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Frank Drechsel

We could play 12 notes – we had to be satisfied with that, however, this is not actually that bad for a first attempt. At the end of the session, I am standing in the rays of the morning sun looking directly at the mountains and I manage to hold a note reasonably well. This gives me a good feeling and playing the instrument somehow has a calming effect. This certainly has something to do with the conscious deep breathing. Perhaps I should try this out every morning – I could simply blast out a specific note across the mountains that reflects which mood I am in. This is actually what the shepherds used to do over the different alps. They would use the Alphorn to announce good news from alp to alp with a happy melody so other people would know, ‘There is a reason to celebrate, drop by and see me.’ Just like the mobile phone of yesteryear

Altes Walserhaus | ©  Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Fotograf: Antje Pabst

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