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Unspunnen Festival

A large, funnel-shaped meadow at the foot of the Jungfrau near Interlaken gave its name to the Alpine herdsman, Swiss Alpine wrestling and traditional costume festival first held in the meadow in 1805.

The first Unspunnen festival was officially ordered in the interests of reaching a reconciliation with the rebellious people of the Bernese Oberland following the invasion of France. The event was organised by Bernese artists as a national celebration for city and country dwellers alike. For the entertainment of the distinguished guests, some of whom had travelled far to get to Unspunnen, competitions were held in Swiss Alpine wrestling, stone-throwing, target shooting, alphorn blowing and singing. Singalongs and dances, an open-air country meal and a prize-giving ceremony, all of which became part of the ritual of later national festivals, made up the activities of the first two Unspunnen events. People from the cities met people from the country and found them to be decent folk. The people from the mountains rediscovered the old herdsman’s games, but performed them only reluctantly. So these first national festivals after the French Revolution were discontinued in Switzerland. On the other hand, they served as models for European princes who seized on the idea for their own festivals, e.g. the October Beer Festival in Munich.

The organizers of the first herdsmen’s festival at Unspunnen near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland, a festival which was meant to reunite the canton of Berne after political troubles, but was also a festival reviving old herdsmen’s games – putting the stone, wrestling, blowing the alphorn – inscribed the following on the commemorative medal: “Zur Ehre des Alphorns” (in praise of the alphorn).

What we are shown in an etching of this Unspunnen Festival by Franz Niklaus König, is confirmed in the festival’s report: only two candidates appeared for the alphorn-competition. So they received the only two trophies, a medal and a black sheep each, without any competition. But the festival itself was such a success – more than three thousand herdsmen and guests from the whole of Western Europe turned up – that it had to be repeated in 1808.

The organizers were clever enough to change the inscription on the medal to “Zur Ehre der Heimat” (in praise of our country) because there was only one successful player at this competition.

We owe it to the Bernese Governor Niklaus von Mülinen that the alphorn is still alive: he sent a young musician who was able to play the alphorn to Grindelwald to pick out several singers and teach them play the alphorn. These courses took place in 1826 and 1827 and inspired the Swiss painter Gustav Vollmar to illustrate an alphorn lesson.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR