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Alphorn maker blows out the competition

Craftsman Hansruedi Bachmann tests out a new creation

On a bright winter’s day, the haunting sound of an alphorn drifts across the farm-dotted hills above Eggiwil in the Emmental.

Cows continue to graze the frosted but still verdant meadows, and farm dogs do not even lift their heads to see where the sound is coming from.

The locals have grown accustomed to Hansruedi Bachmann testing his latest creations, all lovingly hand crafted in the converted barn he calls his workshop.

The establishment has the longest tradition of alphorn production in Switzerland, dating back to 1925.

Ten years ago, Bachmann took over the reins from his father-in-law. He’s been making alphorns for 29 years, and now sells between 25 and 30 per year to customers from Switzerland, the United States, Canada, Japan and China. He charges upwards of SFr 2,900 ($2,119) per piece.

Blowing in the wind

The alphorn consists of a long spruce tube with a mouthpiece, but no valves, no keys, no holes, no spit valve: just a bit of walnut trimming.

Bachmann maintains that it would not be possible to make the instruments if he were not able to play them himself. Smiling broadly, he picks up one of his latest models and shows how it’s done.

The craftsman is a valued member of the local alphorn group, and is no stranger to public performances.

Getting a tune out of the alphorn is not as easy as Bachmann makes it seem. Its simplicity, as well as its size, makes it a difficult instrument to master.

The most popular alphorn is the standard F-sharp/G-flat model, measuring 3.36 metres, which has a clear and resonant, but soft sound. Its three sections, bridged by lightweight aluminium cartridges, can easily be taken apart and stashed away in a car boot.

Sawing and boring

A dozen or so instruments in progress hang in a rack above the sawdust-strewn floor, where workbenches, vices, drills and clamps stand ready for action.

The craftsman demonstrates how a template is used to draw the right and left arches of the alphorn on a single trunk of spruce, which must measure at least 12cm in diameter.

Forked grooves are cut into the top of the arches, so that they can be fitted together with the long stems of the horns. These four pieces form the body of the instrument, which has to be smoothed on the outside before being hollowed out.

Long strips of bamboo are wrapped around the pole, to seal and insulate the wood. When the body is finished, linseed oil is poured through the mouthpiece to line and protect the inner tube.

Chipping, chiselling and sanding, Bachmann makes sure the elegant rim of each instrument is the same thickness all round. He tells swissinfo; “I keep looking for new ways to improve the pitch of my alphorns. The work never gets boring.”

The manufacturing process normally takes a painstaking 80 hours per horn.

Labour of love

Bachmann grows so attached to his creations that he insists on holding on to them for a few weeks after each one is finished, so that he can admire them for a while before handing them over to their new owners.

He says he’s not worried about the competition from 50 or so other alphorn manufacturers around the country.

“The key to keeping ahead of the competition is quality. I don’t have to advertise. Word spreads about my instruments and people just phone or turn up on my doorstep. I wouldn’t want to take on any more work – I really have enough to be getting on with.”

Bachmann’s son joined the business four years ago and is expected to continue his father’s work. Not that the avuncular 60-year-old has any plans to quit soon.

“I won’t stop when it comes time to collect my pension. I love this work and I’ll carry on for as long as my health allows.”

swissinfo, Julie Hunt in Emmental

The earliest alphorn found in Switzerland dates back to the 14th century
The horns were originally used by mountain shepherds to warn villagers of impending danger, and to gather the herd for milking.
The wooden instrument can be heard from a distance of up to 8 kilometres.
After hearing the horn played while he was climbing the Stockhorn mountain in 1868, Brahms featured the instrument in his Symphony No.1 in C minor.
Today the alphorn is mainly played at country festivals.

Hansruedi Bachmann runs the oldest alphorn workshop in Switzerland, hand producing between 25 and 30 instruments per year for customers around the world. swissinfo visited his Emmental workshop to find out what it is that sets his instruments apart from the rest.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR