Figures of Speech HOME

Swiss National Day, 1 August

Posted by George Meredith on  UTC 2019-08-01 07:12

A meditation on the alphorn

Sooner or later even the most cheerful and optimistic Swiss person is overtaken by a deep longing to hear the mournful tones of the alphorn sweep down upon them. One alphorn is good, a dozen or more are better.

It is easy to quench this longing: just organize an alphorn concert.

After listening to an ensemble of alphorns hoohting, woohing and moohing in heart-rending harmony for an hour or two, the longing will be permanently sated, certainly for foreigners. Swiss natives find the sound very elevating; foreigners have mixed reactions.

Alphorns can be played anywhere – I've even heard one on a train. There may be carriages where the use of mobile phones is banned, but for the Swiss patriot an alphorn is never out of place.

However, learners are advised to shun human society during their practice sessions and to seek out wild, uninhabited places – the remoter the better.

FoS image, size 708x453

The lady here had brought her family out for a picnic and took the opportunity of the remote location to whip out her alphorn and get some practice in. Her practice session could be heard one kilometre further down the hill. Image: FoS. [Unless otherwise credited, all images on this page are ©Figures of Speech. They may only be reused in assocation with a link to this page.]

An alphorn church service

Once proficient, the best location for a performance is somewhere high up, so that as many people as possible can enjoy the sadness. And what better context than a church service, where the afflicted can pray to their God for release:

FoS image, size 708x546

The event illustrated here took place nearly a dozen years ago in a churchyard at 1,250 m (4,100 feet) above sea level. No dead were awakened during this concert, but the term 'rest in peace' took on an ironic tone.

FoS image, size 708x431

There are a number of alphorn clubs in Switzerland. The performers at this particular event came from the Zuger Alphornbläser-Vereinigung, an excellent body of skilled amateur alphorn blowers.

FoS image, size 708x878

This performance was part of a service in the village church. Whilst the priest was doing his thing inside the church, the alphornists could get their breath back:

FoS image, size 708x381

Whenever the priest ran out of things to say, the alphornists took back control:

FoS image, size 708x402 FoS image, size 708x499 FoS image, size 708x425 FoS image, size 708x299 FoS image, size 708x386 FoS image, size 708x563 FoS image, size 708x489 FoS image, size 708x349

Every good alphorn group relies on a good conductor:

FoS image, size 708x703

The instruments

Alphorns at rest should be arranged in an orderly semicircle – this is Switzerland, after all.

FoS image, size 708x157 FoS image, size 708x138

Each one is decorated with images of wild alpine flowers such as gentians (great and small), edelweiss and alpine roses. The coat of arms of Switzerland is also present, here on the waisted 'Renaissance' shield (the form traditionally held by the standing personification of Helvetia, familiar from the obverse of several denominations of Swiss coins).

FoS image, size 708x2128 FoS image, size 708x354

Trying it out

For those unfamiliar with the sound of an alphorn group here are some members of the Zuger Alphornbläser-Vereinigung in action in a concert in the Landsgemeindeplatz in Zug on 24 July 2013. They are playing the popular tune Bim Weidgatter, 'At the meadow gate', by Hans-Jürg Sommer (1950-).

The composer has an audio clip on his website of his own solo performance of the opening of this work.

FoS image, size 708x703

Hans-Jürg Sommer. Image: website.

God's own country.

If you want an alphorn and have about 3,500 CHF under the mattress here are some suppliers (all [DE]). The suppliers given here are well worth supporting, but there are many others: google 'schweiz alphornbau' and make your own selection.

If you have particularly unpleasant neighbours then that 3,500 CHF could be money well spent.