The Alphorn is a very old traditional instrument and the oldest known document using the German word “Alphorn” is mentioned in an accounting book from 1527. An accounting document from the former abbey of St. Urban near Pfaffnau in the Canton of Luzern mentions that an itinerant alphorn player from the Valais was paid two Batzen (about 20 rappen.).
The earliest known printed Alphorn melody is a tune from a valley in the Appenzell (North East Switzerland) and was published in 1545. The oldest description of an Alphorn was written by the author Gesner in the "De raris et admirandis herbis" in 1555. In this description it was made of two bent and hollowed pieces of wood, put together and bound with willow shoots.
The Alphorn belongs to the same group of labrophones (a.k.a. labrosones) which includes the trumpet, trombone, tuba, etc. with the sound produced by the vibration of the lips. It is made of a soft wood such as spruce (sometimes pine) and has a weight of about 3 to 4 kg. The mouthpiece is made of rosewood, olive, ebony, or the plum tree.
How is the tone produced in an Alphorn?
Like other brass instruments, the sound is produced by exhaling air and vibrating the lips. By controlling the vibration and tension of the lips, facial muscles, and tongue (referred to overall as the embouchure), the air flow can be carefully selected to provide the specific harmonic note from the available series. These wave vibrations follow a natural mathematical harmonic series. Slowly vibrating the lips produces long waves and a bass tone while a quicker vibration of the lips produces the higher tones.
The Alphorn can be considered difficult to play because all notes are controlled by airflow and the embouchure of the player. There aren’t any keys or valves to correspond to different pitches. The person blowing the Alphorn uses not only the lungs, but the diaphragm as well. The diaphragm can act as a bellows for the lungs, and when the lungs and diaphragm are combined, well controlled dynamic sounds can ensue which can delight the ear.
Brass instruments are the only instruments that rely on the involvement of the player to generate the tones. By “buzzing” the lips, training the muscles surrounding the mouth, adjusting the tongue position, expelling air in a controlled manner, and changing the tension of the lips, the pitch can be adjusted over several octaves. Mouthpiece pressure on the lips forms a seal and must also be practiced as too little pressure between the mouthpiece and the lips will result in air leaks. If too much pressure is placed on the mouthpiece by the lips, then the result will be limited vibration of the lips and could even results in damage to the lips (in extreme cases).
The length of the Alphorn gives the tonality
The melodies for Alphorn or Büchel are mostly written in the key of ‘C’. The real pitch is given by the basic register of the instrument.
The longest alphorn in the world is 47 m long and was built by our founding and honorary member Josef Stocker from Kriens, Switzerland and the American Peter Wutherich. The longest playable alphorn was also built by Josef Stocker and is 14 m long.
Nature tone scale
More than 13 tones can be played over a natural harmonic range of over four octaves. Keeping in mind that there are not any valves or flaps available to adjust the tones, there are three tones that sound “wrong” or “off key” to our “modern day” ear as they are a bit too high or too low and these tones do not exist in the tempered tone system.