This content was published on June 22, 2006 - 16:42

Cowherds have always used signal instruments out of material that was available to them. They produced sounds quite easily, for example by blowing on a single blade of grass held between the two thumbs. Another custom, dating from 1511, is to make music with a leaf (from either a pear tree or ivy bush). The leaf is held against the upper lip and the "performer", by lip vibration, is able to produce natural notes ranging over two octaves. A piece of hollow chervil stalk is cut, one end being blocked by a natural knot. A thin cleft is slit lengthwise and the pipe is blown at the open end.

And one day a herdsman had the idea to hollow out a young pine tree and to blow it as a horn. It is in this way we may imagine the invention of the alphorn. The alphorn was handled up to the early 19th century as a tool of the alpine cowherd. He used to blow it to call the cows from the pasture to the alpine dairy when it was time for them to be milked. A 1754 engraving documents how the alpine herdsman calls the cows with alphorn tunes to make them to climb the last steep ascent of the alp procession in early summer.
The very subject of the pasture with his alphorn is often to be seen in iconographical sources. In the late 16th century up to the 18th they document a special use of the alphorn which is played while the cows are milked.

This tradition is shown in a stained glass window, dated 1595 from Emmental in canton Bern and in a 1601 drawing by Daniel Lindtmaier. These and other iconographical sources prove that the alphorn was blown to calm the cows.

The main function of the alphorn was the communication with the herdsmen of the neighbouring alps and with the people of the village down in the valley.

The blowing of the alphorn in the evening is a traditional subject in Swiss art, as for example in a 1750 oil painting by Caspar Wolf. The playing the alpine horn during the alpine summer in the evening was as well a kind of prayer in reformed regions, while in the German-speaking mainly Catholic cantons the so-called alpine prayer was sung. The signal function of the alphorn and its use to call or calm the cattle is obsolete nowadays.

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