History of the Alphorn

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The blowing of tube instruments has been practised for a very long time. Already the people of the Stone Age blew into hollow bones (warning whistles).

We know cave-drawings of the Australian Didgeridoo still being blown the present days; they have an estimated age of 100'000 years. The Jew have known the "Schofar" already for 2000 years - the "Trumpets of Jericho"!

The Gauls must have known a similar horn too! Once they had impressed Julius Caesar with this horn: within a short time they were able to make known dates of war and short messages by a signal over a considerable territory! And in the second century a.D. at the Swiss Vaud a scene of a shepherd with an instrument like an Alphorn, named LITUUS has been discovered on a roman mosaic.

Long ago the special instrument with its peculiarity has already been estimated. In the year 1563, Prince Leonor of Orleans has taken an Alphornblower from Schwyz in his service. Because blowing on the nature trumpet was very difficult and much knowledge was required, the blowers in the 16th and 17th century have been highly respected people and have been closed together in a own guild.

We know from the history of Switzerland how in critical times the "bull from Uri" (a long curved grown horn of a bull) brawled to the battle and how in the Peasant's War (1653) the peasants from the mountains in the "Entlebuch" assembled under the sound of an Alphorn and prepared for war.

From the Middle Ages we know long straight wind-instruments which have got lager a wounded form (nature trumpets). Until the 15th century only nature instruments have been made. Our Alphorn therefore is a nature wind-instrument hold in good repair from ancient times that has not taken part in the development to a well tempered instrument.

Asking for age and origin research workers are in doubt about, if the "Cornua alpina" of the southern Teutons of the mountains of which the Roman Tacitus is reporting, already has been the Alphorn of the present time. Furthermore we have to consider that the wooden or cortical shepherd's horn is not at all found only in the occidental Alps. Similar types of this instrument can be found in many foreign countries.


THE HISTORY OF THE ALPHORN IN SWITZERLAND

In the 9th century the monk Balbulus from St. Gallen has made notes to sequences that are very similar to dances of Alpine cowherds.

1527 for the first time it has been written about Alphorns occurring in Switzerland. In an arithmetic book of the monastery of St. Urban the following notice had been made: "Two coins for a Valaisan with Alphorn". In these decades the Alphornblowing was misused for begging.

1619 a learned man of music described how begging blowers were lolling about in the cities and begging for food. These begging blowers were in most cases Alpine cowherds, who did not earn enough money for their livelihood in winter.

1653 the Alphorn blew the persons together for war, when the reserves were called out for the Peasants' War.

In the 18th century learned travellers began to write down melodies for the Alphorn. A famous person who did so was Johannes Brahms: On 12 September 1868 he had heard near the Stockhorn a melody being blown with an Alphorn; he made a note of that on a postcard which he sent to Clara Schumann. At a later point of time he integrated this melody into the Symphony No. 1 in c-moll.

Leopold Mozart has written the well-known Symphony Pastorella.

Also poems have been written. But for centuries the government had tried to suppress a self-reliant national culture. Prohibitions of songs, dances and festivals have not proved ineffectual. The Alphorn was blown only rarely. But now the national culture began to reconstruct: festivals were celebrated, songs were sung, people enjoyed and danced. By that the Alphorn fell a bit into oblivion.

On 17 August 1805 at the meadow named "Unspunnen" near Interlaken a festival of shepherds took place with the motto "For the honour of the Alphorn" which had been coined onto medals in memory of the festival. For this festival a competition for blowers had been organised, but only two Alphornblowers took part there.

Things could not go on like that! Therefore the village mayor of Bern in those days gave to a music teacher from the Institutes of Fellenberg the following order: "Mr. Huber (that was his name), you are blowing the Alphorn, as I have heard. Now I would like to prevent that this wonderful national instrument will disappear from our mountains and valleys. I shall have made half a dozen new ones of them, if you would engage in going in the upland, looking there for six young people and teaching them in blowing the Alphorn, and I think, Grindelwald would be the best place for doing that."

No sooner said than done! In the years 1826/27 Mr. Huber realised during the summer his courses in Alphornblowing. This impulse gave a fresh impetus to the Alphornblowing; the original shepherds' instrument was growing to a Swiss national symbol that could not anymore be imagined as absent.

1805 the great shepherds' festival Unspunnen took place, that has been perpetuated by the coloured etching of J.G. Volkmer.

1826 the first course in Alphornblowing managed by F.F. Huber took place in Grindelwald. At the instance of the cantonal president of Mülinen six Alphorns were handed over to young people who were obliged to practise active blowing outside.

1827 the second course in Alphornblowing managed by F.F. Huber took place in Grindelwald. Again free instruments were handed over. The Alphorn was blown in 2 or 3 parts on divers hills.

1869 Festival of Swiss cowherds at Siebnen. Noted down are 15 - 20 blowers. Report by Hch. Sczadrowsky.

1876 Fair of alpine cowherds in Wäggithal. Six persons participated in the competition of blowers.

1881 First competition of blowers in Muotathal. Report by Ernst Heim.

1885 Second competition of blowers in Muotathal. Report by Ernst Heim. Final picture: Seven Alphorns blowing together.

1910 Foundation of the Swiss Federal society of yodelers.

1921 First Alphorn-day at Trueb, managed by J. R. Krenger of Interlaken. 12 participants. Owing to a donation of several thousand francs ten instruments could be handed over to young blowers.

1924 Alphorn-day at Interlaken. Handing over of 13 Alphorns to young blowers.

1938 The musician A.L. Gassmann enlivens the scene of the Alphorn lastingly with his working and his booklet "And blow the Alphorn once again for me".


Christian Schneider, 8308 Illnau, Switzerland