The alphorn or alpenhorn is a labrophone, consisting of a natural wooden horn of conical bore, having a wooden cup-shaped mouthpiece, used by mountain dwellers in Switzerland and elsewhere. Similar wooden horns were used for communication in most mountainous regions of Europe, from French Switzerland to the Carpathians.


Documented records of alpine societies using signal horns date back to a 2nd century Roman mosaic fragment in Orbe, depicting a shepherd blowing an instrument shaped like a bucina. The Acta Sanctorum report how, in 397 AD, the Val di Non's pagan inhabitants responded to the arrival of three Christian missionaries, by using an uspecified "tuba" to convene the community, and later sacrificing one of the missionaries, by beating him to death with axes while sounding the "tuba" at him.

For a long time, scholars believed that the alphorn had been derived from the Roman-Etruscan lituus, because of their resemblance in shape, and because of the word "liti", meaning Alphorn in the dialect of Obwalden. There is no documented evidence for this theory, however, and, the word "liti" was probably borrowed from 16th-18th century writings in Latin, where the word "lituus" could describe various wind instruments, such as the horn, the crumhorn, or the cornett. Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner used the words "lituum alpinum" for the first known detailed description of the alphorn in his "De raris et admirandis herbis" in 1555. The oldest known document using the German word "Alphorn" is a page from a 1527 account book from the former Cistercian abbey St. Urban near Pfaffnau mentioning the payment of two Batzen for an itinerant alphorn player from the Valais.

17th-19th century collections of alpine myths and legends suggest that alphorn-like instruments had frequently been used as signal instruments in village communities since medieval times or earlier, sometimes substituting for the lack of church bells. Surviving artefacts, dating back to as far as ca. AD 1400, include wooden labrophones in their stretched form, like the alphorn, or coiled versions, such as the '"Büchel" and the "Allgäuisches Waldhorn" or "Ackerhorn". The alphorn's exact origins remain indeterminate, and the ubiquity of horn-like signal instruments in valleys throughout Europe may indicate a long history of cross influences regarding their construction and usage.


The alphorn is carved from solid softwood, generally spruce but sometimes pine. In former times the alphorn maker would find a tree bent at the base in the shape of an alphorn, but modern makers piece the wood together at the base. A cup-shaped mouthpiece carved out of a block of hard wood is added and the instrument is complete.

, measures 8 ft. in length and has a straight tube.

The well-known Ranz des Vaches is the traditional melody of the alphorn from French Switzerland. The song describes the time of bringing the cows to the high country at cheese making time. Rossini introduced the melody into his opera "William Tell." Brahms was clear that the inspiration for the great melody that opens the last movement of his First Symphony (played in the orchestra by the horn) was an alphorn melody he heard in the Rigi area of Switzerland.

The Swiss alphorn varies in shape according to the locality, being curved near the bell in the Bernese Oberland. Michael Praetorius mentions an alphorn-like instrument under the name of Hölzern Trummet (wooden trumpet) in "Syntagma Musicum" (Wittenberg, 1615-1619; Pl. VIII).

Music for Alphorn

Among music composed for the alphorn:

*" Sinfonia Pastorella for Alphorn and String Orchestra" by Leopold Mozart
*"Concerto for alphorn and orchestra" by Jean Daetwyler
*"Concertino rustico" by Ferenc Farkas
*"Messe für Alphorn und Chor" by Franz Schüssele, CD and sheet music available at [ Alphorn-Center]


*Bachmann-Geiser, Brigitte, "Das Alphorn: Vom Lock- zum Rockinstrument". Paul Haupt Berne, 1999. ISBN 3-258-05640-4
*Franz Schüssele, "Alphorn und Hirtenhorn in Europa", book and CD with 63 sound samples, [ Alphorn-Center] , ISBN 3-927781-21-5

External links

* [ Alphorn in concert] Concert and composition contest taking place annually in Oensingen, Canton Solothurn, Switzerland
* [ International Alphorn Festival] in Nendaz, Canton Valais, Switzerland
* [ Alphorn-Composer, in German]
* [ Jacaranda Ensemble]
* [ Swiss Alphorn Players, in German]
* [ Rocky Mountain Alphorns, in English]
* [ Alphorngruppe Chrystal, in German]
* [ UK alphorn player, in English]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Alphorn — Konzert in Vals GR (2005) Das Alphorn ist ein Blechblasinstrument auf dem Prinzip der Polsterpfeife und gilt als ein Nationalsymbol der Schweiz und Österreichs. Seine Zugehörigkeit zur Familie der Blechblasinstrumente ergibt sich ungeachtet… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Alphorn — (Alpenhorn), ein primitives, 1,5–1,8 m langes Blasinstrument, aus Holzdauben zusammengefügt, dessen sich die Hirten in den Alpen bedienen …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Alphorn — Alphorn, s.v.w. Alpenhorn …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • alphorn — ● alphorn nom masculin En Suisse, nom de la trompe de bois ou cor des Alpes …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • alphorn — [al′pən hôrn΄alp′hôrn΄] n. a curved, wooden, powerful sounding horn, from five to twelve or more feet long, used by Swiss Alpine herdsmen for signaling: it is sometimes used in orchestral scores: also alpenhorn [al′pən hôrn΄] …   English World dictionary

  • Alphorn-Fa — Das Alphorn Fa steht für den 11. Ton der Naturtonreihe. Das Frequenzverhältnis von Alphorn Fa zur dritten Oktave beträgt 11:8 entsprechend 551 Cent. Das zugehörige Intervall ist zwischen einer Quarte und einem Tritonus anzusiedeln.… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Alphorn — Ạlp|horn 〈n. 12u; Mus.〉 altes, einfaches, wahrscheinl. aus Asien stammendes Holzblasinstrument mit bis zu 4 m langem Rohr, auch in den Pyrenäen u. in Sibirien gebräuchlich * * * Ạlp|horn, das <Pl. …hörner> [zu ↑ 2Alp]: volkstümliches,… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • Alphorn — Alpenhorn Al pen*horn , Alphorn Alp horn , n. [G. Alpenhorn.] A curved wooden horn about three feet long, with a cupped mouthpiece and a bell, used by the Swiss to sound the ranz des vaches and other melodies. Its notes are open harmonics of the… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • alphorn — /alp hawrn /, n. alpenhorn. * * * ▪ musical instrument German  Alpenhorn   long horn played by Alpine herdsmen and villagers, sounded for intercommunication and at daily ceremonies and seasonal festivals. It is carved or bored in wood and… …   Universalium

  • Alphorn — Ạlp·horn das; ein sehr langes Blasinstrument aus Holz (das besonders in der Schweiz verwendet wird) <das, auf dem Alphorn blasen> || K : Alphornbläser …   Langenscheidt Großwörterbuch Deutsch als Fremdsprache

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