This content was published on August 30, 2006 - 08:28

Since primeval times cowherds have been making musical and signal instruments out of material available. The alphorn, the traditional herdsman's instrument, became rare in Switzerland after 1800. In 1805, at the first herdsmen's festival on the Unspunnen meadow near Interlaken, only two candidates appeared for the alphorn competition. And at the 1808 herdsmen's festival there was only one single blower, who was awarded the trophies without any competition.

Several authors from Canton Bern noticed that the alphorn was disappearing. In 1814 Franz Nikolaus König wrote: "Von dem Alphorn hört und siehet man fast nichts mehr. Ein Hauptzweck des angeordneten Volksfests bey Unspunnen war eben der, diese eigentliche Alpenmusik wieder zu erwecken, allein es blieb ohne einigen Erfolg" (The alphorn is hardly to be heard and seen anymore. One of the points of the herdsmen's festival was the revival of the very alpine music, but this was not successful).

The alphorn was dying out after 1800 because it was no longer necessary as a communication tool of the alpine cowherds. Increasingly, the individual dairies in the alpine chalets were replaced by big co-operative cheese-making companies in the villages. The whole tradition of alpine dairy production was breaking down; on many alps beef cows had replaced dairy cows.

We owe it to the Bernese governor Niklaus von Mülinen that the tradition of the alphorn didn't disappear. In the 1820s he made alphorns and lent them to good singers in Grindelwald, who were taught to blow them in the 1826 and 1827 courses.

In 1827 the musicologist Joseph Fétis pronounced the alphorn to be the Swiss national instrument. At the same time it had disappeared more or less from the Alps and become an attraction for tourists. It became a symbol; a symbol of Switzerland similar to the Edelweiss, even though it is long known that every Alpine culture used a signal instrument that could be heard over long distances.

Even in processions of the Swiss yodelling and costume associations today alphorns are carried along as a symbol of Swiss alpine traditions.

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