Swiss National Day (August 1st) is right around the corner! Some of the key ingredients for a successful celebration include Swiss flags, fireworks, fondue/raclette, cervelas (sausages), paper lanterns, and (don’t try this at home) a huge bonfire that’s organized by each commune. Stay tuned for a full post on Swiss National Day this Sunday.

In the meantime, let’s take a closer look (or lend an ear), to another Swiss icon: the Alphorn. If you venture to your neighborhood Swiss National Day celebration this weekend, you’re likely to see one or more Alphorn players. These musicians can play any style of music on their horn, but most often play traditional songs like the one below:

This impressive instrument, first documented in the mid-16th century, was used by people living in the Alps to communicate. For example, alphorns signalled the return of cows from their mountainside pastures. By the 1980s, as modern technology replaced the use of the horns, they began being played solely for entertainment.

The precise origins of the horn are unknown, as records show many different horn-like instruments in use across medieval Europe. The horns are carved from solid wood, often spruce or pine, and then wrapped in rattan. They can measure 2-4 meters in length when assembled, but can be conveniently transported in (surprisingly small) gig bags.

Care to try your hand at learning to play? Travel to Nendaz today (aka Alphorn Central) to visit the annual Valais Alphorn Festival, or to sign up for introductory courses there throughout the year. Ready to invest in one, either for practice or for show? These beautiful pieces will set you back anywhere from 2-4K CHF. It’s also possible to rent an alphorn before taking the plunge.

Making one is a labor of love, and the work is carried out by hand in small workshops throughout the Alps. Some of the process is featured in the video below, filmed in a family-owned workshop in Habkern, near Interlaken.

Would you like to visit an alphorn workshop, or take a group lesson? The AIWC often organizes excursions to explore Swiss culture. If you’re interested in an outing like this, tell us in the comments below!

We are a group of international women living in Geneva, Switzerland. If you would like to learn more about our activities and excursions, visit our website at  http://www.aiwcgeneva.org/