1st cent.

Roman mosaic at Boscéaz near Orbe in western Switzerland, shows a pastoral scene including a herdsman blowing a horn.

9th cent.

Monk Notker Balbulus from the monastery of St Gallen in eastern Switzerland wrote down music typical of the sort of music that a long horn can play, possibly. Some doubt about interpretation of clefs.

1030

Ekkehard IV, another monk at St Gallen, gave the first known written record of herdsmen in the Alps playing to cows with a horn.

1527

The monastery of St Urban in the canton of Lucerne recorded in its accounts the gift of two coins to an alphorn player from the canton of Valais. Out-of-work herdsmen wandered the streets in winter playing to earn a few coins.

1545

Earliest known printed alphorn melody, a tune from the Swiss valley of Appenzell in Georg Rhau’s collection of music Bicinia Gallica, published in Wittenberg in Germany.

1550

Performance in Bern of a play Goliath by Hans von Rüti, in which the alphorn was to be played.

1555

Zurich naturalist Conrad Gesner published De raris et admirandibus plantis, a description of the Pilatus mountain above Lucerne, in which he described an 11ft-long alphorn, composed of two slightly curved pieces of wood, hollowed and bound together with willow shoots.

1563

Prince Léonor of Orléans wrote to the Governor of Neuchâtel to ask for a Swiss alphorn player to work for him. The Governor’s reply is in the Neuchâtel Cantonal Archive (in French): ‘Sir, further to your request I have found you a horn player from Schwyz . . . you can get him to play songs on his horn, and other little soothing sounds, which he is used to playing to his cows to help them eat well.’

1595

Earliest known depiction of a herdsman playing to cows during milking, on a stained glass window from the former church at Hof Adelboden in the canton of Glarus.

1601

Etching by Daniel Lindtmayer of another mountain scene showing a herdsman playing an alphorn to soothe the cows during milking.

1615

Michael Praetorius in Syntagma Musicum described long wooden trumpets bound in bark with which Swiss herdsmen used to wander about the cities in search of food.

1653

People from the Entlebuch region were summoned to war with the sound of an alphorn.

16–18 c.

Spread of Calvinism in Switzerland. John Calvin (1509–1564) settled in Geneva. He encouraged devotional singing but disapproved of instruments. Widespread destruction of instruments over the next two centuries; alphorns only remained in the few cantons that did not become Calvinist.

c.1710

Queen Anne of England (reigned 1702–1714) requested a copy of an alphorn melody from the Swiss valley of Appenzell which was a favourite tune of hers.

1754

Etching by Abraham Kyburtz, showing an alphorn player leading a procession of cows up the mountain.

1755

Leopold Mozart composed Sinfonia Pastorella for alphorn and strings, and another work for alphorn, strings and two flutes, now lost. The tradition was to write music incorporating rustic musicians who gathered with their animals round the crib at Christmas.

1767

Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his Dictionnaire de Musique about the use of Swiss mercenaries in other countries, saying (in French) that it ‘was forbidden on pain of death to play it [the alphorn] among the troops because it caused those who heard it to burst into tears, to desert or to die, so much did it arouse in them a longing to see their country again.’

1767

Moritz Anton Capeler in Pilatus Montis Historia provided a sketch of an alphorn, transcribed some alphorn music and wrote (in Latin) that the cornu alpinum is made in various lengths from 4 to 12 feet.

1791

An alphorn melody from Appenzell was used by the composer Grétry in his opera about the Swiss hero William Tell.

1798

The French, under Napoleon, invaded Switzerland. Calvinism fell into decline. Secular music and the use of musical instruments began to return.

1799

Haydn used alphorn-like music to accompany an aria about a herdsman in summertime in his secular oratorio The Seasons, which describes a year in the life of a small farming community in Austria.

1805

Following agreement in Paris on Swiss independence, a Festival of Alpine Herdsmen was held at a meadow adjacent to the ruins of Unspunnen Castle overlooking Interlaken, to rekindle Swiss identity and unity, with ancient herdsmen’s pastimes including boulder throwing, wrestling, dancing, singing and alphorn playing. Zur Ehre des Alphorns (In Praise of the Alphorn) medallions were struck for the prize in the alphorn competition. Only two players came, so they each received the prize of a medal and a black sheep. The Festival itself was a huge success with more than 3000 herdsmen and guests attending from all over Western Europe.

1808

Second Unspunnen Festival – this time only one alphorn player came.

1808

Beethoven used typical alphorn calls in his 6th Symphony.

1820

Sonnet written by William Wordsworth: On Hearing a Ranz des Vaches on the St Gothard Pass. Traditional alphorn melodies were called Ranz des Vaches or Kühreien, meaning ‘Processions of cows’.

1826

The Governor of the canton of Bern, Niklaus von Mülinen, had six new instruments made and asked Ferdinand Fürchtegott Huber, a local composer and music teacher, to find some students. Huber’s alphorn course was held in Grindelwald, above Interlaken, where they performed 2-part and 3-part music across the valley.

1827

Second alphorn course in Grindelwald, directed by Huber. Again devoted to playing outdoors, with 2- and 3-part playing.

1828

Schubert wrote The Shepherd on the Rock for clarinet, voice and piano, containing alphorn-like music and text about music echoing over valleys.

1829

Rossini used an alphorn melody in his opera William Tell.

1830

Gabriel Lory, fils: A Herdsman from Oberhasli. A picture of a herdsman with the tools of his trade including an alphorn.

1830

Berlioz quoted an alphorn melody in Symphonie Fantastique.

1840

Liszt included five movements based on alphorn music in his collection of piano works entitled Album d’un Voyageur.

1841

Wagner while living in Paris wrote parts for an alphorn to play in a vaudeville work for large choir and orchestra called La Descente de la Courtille.

1859

Wagner used an alphorn melody he heard on the Rigi in his Opera Tristan.

1868

12th September, Brahms sent an alphorn melody to Clara Schumann on her birthday, with the following text: Also blus das Alphorn heut; Hoch auf’m Berg, tief im Tal, grüßich dich viel tausendmal! (‘So the alphorn blew today; from high in the mountains and deep in the valley, I send you many thousand greetings.’) Later he used the melody in his 1st Symphony.

1869

Festival of Swiss Herdsmen in Siebnen. 15–20 alphorn players attended.

1875

Swiss composer Joachim Raff used alphorn-like melodies in his 7th Symphony In the Alps.

1876

Alphorn competition held at Sennekilbe in Wäggithal. 6 men took part.

1876

Richard Strauss wrote a trio for French horn, soprano and piano entitled Alphorn featuring the alphorn melody from Appenzell.

1881

First alphorn competition in Muotathal.

1885

Second competition in Muotathal.

1897

Richard Strauss used alphorn motifs in Don Quixote.

1911

Richard Strauss used alphorn motifs in his Alpine Symphony.

1921

First alphorn day at Trueb in Interlaken. There were 12 participants. A donation of several thousand francs enabled ten new instruments to be provided for young players.

1922

Second alphorn day at Interlaken. 7 new instruments were provided.

1924

Third alphorn day at Interlaken. 17 participants. 13 new instruments provided.

1936

Richard Strauss included parts for three alphorns in his opera Daphne, though with a footnote that the parts could be played on trombones.

1937

Alphorn course in Eigenthal near Lucerne. There were 42 participants from all over Switzerland.

1938

A L Gassmann published a landmark collection of alphorn music Blast mir das Alphorn noch Einmal!

Post-war:

A number of new compositions have been written for the alphorn with orchestra, notably concertos by Jean Daetwyler and Ferenc Farkas; and alphorn players themselves, mainly in Switzerland, have composed hundreds of works for solo alphorn and alphorn ensemble. Annual alphorn Festivals can now be found all over the world, and especially in Switzerland.

Copyright © Frances Jones 2014.

For even more details, see this extensive article by Frances Jones: The Alphorn: Revival of an Ancient Instrument, published in the early music journal The Consort, Vol 62, 2006 (opens in new tab): Read Article

See lots of historic pictures of alphorns:
Historic Pictures

 

 


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About Amazing Alphorn

Frances is a classical musician performing professionally all over the UK and overseas. A real enthusiast, Frances probably knows more about alphorns than anyone else in the UK.

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