Friday, August 1, 2014

My First Alphorn

I’d seen many photos before, but today was the 1st time I’d ever heard an “alphorn” played. The occasion was Swiss National Day, the 1st of August, inspired by the Federal Charter of 1291, regarded as the foundation of Switzerland.

The alphorn is traditionally played by mountain herdsmen and has even called soldiers into battle. Composers such as Bach, Mozart, and others wrote the instrument into their works.

In the 16th century, the uptight fundamentalist John Calvin disapproved of instruments, and many alphorns were destroyed, except in the cantons which did not succumb to Calvinism.

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau later wrote that it was forbidden “on pain of death” to play the alphorn among mercenary troops because it caused the Swiss 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.”

An alphorn is traditionally about 3.4 meters long. The musicians create the sound by buzzing their lips together, much like a brass instrument. They alter the pitch with the embouchure (use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips) and the tongue. By tightening the lips and raising the tongue in the mouth, they can narrow the airstream and play higher notes. By loosening the lips and lowering the tongue, they can widen the airstream and play lower notes. The alphorn is a long horn and therefore requires a lot of air to create a good sound.

We were treated to the mini-concert at a brunch hosted by the German ambassador to the United Nations agencies in Geneva. The ambassador kindly invited the entire village of Corsier, and how could we resist such a gracious diplomatic invitation (proceeds of donations went to charity). The serving staff was comprised of local volunteer pompieres (firemen).

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