The Alpenhorn—Music From a Tree
FOR centuries, some residents of the Swiss Alps have used a unique instrument for communication—the alpenhorn. It may not seem handy—some alpenhorns are twice as tall as the men who play them. Nevertheless, the alpenhorn can be carried by hand. Some versions even separate into pieces that fit into a convenient case. The alpenhorn can be heard for up to six miles (10 km), clear across the high Alpine valleys!
Making an Alpenhorn
Traditionally made from mountain spruce, the alpenhorn is right at home in the beautiful Swiss Alps. Natural forces cause spruce trees growing on steep hillsides to develop a curvature at the base.
After selecting a tree, the alpenhorn maker carefully splits it in two and hollows out the halves using special chisels. This step alone may take as long as 80 hours! The craftsman then files and sands the inside of the tree to smooth it. He glues the two halves together, wrapping them tightly with birch rattan. He also attaches a wooden foot, which will support the alpenhorn when it is being played. Finally, after fitting a suitable mouthpiece to the instrument and decorating the bell with a painted or hand-carved design, the craftsman coats the alpenhorn with a weatherproof lacquer.
For generations, shepherds and herders have sounded the alpenhorn from high up on the meadow to signal a comforting “all is well” to their families in the valley below. Primarily, though, they used it to call in their cows for milking. Swiss dairymen have long believed that the sweet sound of the alpenhorn helps to keep cows quiet during milking.
In winter, when the cows were back in their stalls in the valley, many herders would take their alpenhorns to town and play them for donations, which would supplement their income. Historically, the alpenhorn has even been used to call men to war.
How Do You Play It?
At first glance, it may seem that playing the alpenhorn would be easy. After all, it has no holes, keys, or valves to manipulate. The challenge lies in regulating the passage of air into the pipe so that the desired tone will result.
Alpenhorns produce only 12 natural tones. Although not all tunes can be played on the instrument, melodies are written especially for it, and an accomplished player can demonstrate thrilling virtuosity.
Famous composers have included the sound of the alpenhorn in their orchestral scores. For example, Leopold Mozart, the father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, wrote his “Sinfonia Pastorella” for the orchestra and corno pastoritio—a kind of alpenhorn. Brahms mimicked a Swiss alpenhorn tone using flutes and horns, and Beethoven, in his Pastoral symphony, imitated the alpenhorn to evoke the atmosphere of pastoral life.
The alpenhorn was first mentioned by name in writing in Switzerland in the year 1527, in an accounts book belonging to St. Urban’s monastery. Now, nearly 500 years later, the gentle voice of the alpenhorn can still be heard rolling over the majestic Alpine meadows of Switzerland.
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The alpenhorn can be taken apart and carried by hand