Mrs. BG and I were watching a PBS show about Switzerland the other night and I especially enjoyed some scenes that featured yodeling and alpine horn playing. (I’m easily entertained.) Since I’ve already written about the former a few years ago in a post titled Respecting The Art Of Yodeling, it seemed to make sense to write a companion piece about alpine horns, or alphorns as they are commonly known. You might remember seeing them in TV commercials for Ricola cough drops, but forget that because I’m going give you a whole new appreciation for the odd-looking and ungainly things, which can reach 12 feet in length.
Alphorns are in the labrosone family of instruments, which is to say ‘lip-vibrated’ like trumpets, tubas and trombones, but they don’t have the advantage of valves, buttons or slides like those instruments. The sounds alphorns make depend somewhat on the diameter and length of the instrument, but especially on the skill of the alphornist. And if you’re imagining a guy standing on an alpine hillside surrounded by cows and sounding long mournful notes, then you might want to reconsider. It seems that alphorns have been making a comeback and young modern alphornists are producing an amazing variety of gorgeous tones, like these by talented young Swiss artist Lisa Stoll.
The history of alphorns is a little fuzzy. They go back hundreds of years, and were often used for communication across mountain valleys, but they’ve mostly been appreciated and admired for their warm, mellifluous sound. Composer Gioachino Rossini’s 1829 opera William Tell, which was based on 15th-century Swiss folk hero Wilhelm Tell, includes several traditional alphorn melodies in the score. Other classical composers were also inspired by the instrument, among them Johannes Brahms and Leopold Mozart. (The famous Mozart’s papa.) And even though they are usually thought of as a Swiss instrument, they can also be found in those areas of the Alps that are in Germany, Austria, France, and Italy. At one time they were common in the mountainous parts of other European countries too, but Switzerland most often comes to mind when we see or hear them these days.
Traditionally made of wood, early alphorns were created by craftsmen who would search for just the right tree with a long straight branch ending in a larger section that could then be carved into the curved horn. Eventually that became tough to manage so the bottom horn part was carved separately and then attached. Modern alphorns are built by a variety of methods and are sometimes made to be assembled in sections. Also, wood has often been replaced by various man-made materials.
I know you’re waiting for it, so here’s an example of the more traditional sound of alphorns, complete with the Alps in the background.
And finally, one more video of Lisa Stoll in which she appears to be a little younger, making her abilities seem even more amazing. She just might represent the future of the instrument, judging by the number of videos she has on YOUTUBE and the many albums she offers on AMAZON.