It was on our drive back from Dalpe (in Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland) to Geneva that we learned about alphorn festivals. We had stopped in the Swiss region of Valais at a cheese shop to pick up some local (and organic!) cheese and I saw a sign for the Valais region’s alphorn festival. Googling that, we learned that the following weekend was the International Alphorn Festival, which would be held for the 11th year in Nendaz, part of the Four Valleys ski area.
But let me stop here and explain about alphorns. These are the long wooden horns — commonly seven or eight feet, though they fold up to a more reasonable size that can be more easily carried around — dating back hundreds of years. They are used by mountain dwellers in Switzerland and neighbouring countries. Curved at the end and finishing in a cup-shaped bell, they make a deep sonorous (and sometimes haunting) sound. They are similar to Tibetan horns except that those are made of brass.
We first encountered alphorns in Zermatt last summer. Getting out of the cablecar at Rothorn, ready for a summer hike, we came upon three alphorn players playing glorious music — it still sends chills up my spine thinking of it now. You also hear alphorns if you take the train between Zurich’s airport terminals, where they play a very Swiss soundtrack — cowbells, alphorns, cows.
Apparently, Mozart’s father composed music for alphorns in 1775, the Sinfonia Pastorella for alphorn and string orchestra.
My family is not as fond as alphorns as I am but agreed to attend the festival which runs for three days. It includes a competition (for individuals and groups) as well as folkoric performances by many groups from around the region and a parade. Though ‘international’, most competitors were from Switzerland or bordering countries — France, Germany, Austria.
The competition was held in a quiet field overlooking the mountains. Signs admonished us to be silent, and except for the wine bar providing drinks, we were. The judges sat in a fully enclosed tent to avoid any possible bias. Like Gregorian chant the music was hugely relaxing, so relaxing my husband was quickly asleep.
Folkloric performances in the centre of town were less serious and included a large troupe of male and female cowbell performers — they hold these incredibly large cowbells while hunched over and play them on their knees. Unfortunately, the cowbells only play a single note.
The finals were held Sunday at the top of the Tracouet cablecar, 2200 metres. Spectacular views, food stalls, a wine bar (of course!) and the thrill of all 100+ alphorn players in an ensemble! I’m keen on a week of alphorn lessons next summer, but haven’t yet convinced the family.