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Alphorn players in Zermatt: Tradition sets a new record on Gornergrat

13.08.2013

Zermatt, Matterhorn, Switzerland, Alphorns – words that call up exciting visions for visitors, be they from Switzerland or abroad. On Saturday, 17 August 2013, over 550 Alphorn players will assemble on Gornergrat to set a new world record. Alphorns are fascinating instruments, especially when played at the foot of the imposing Matterhorn mountain. The cherished Swiss tradition of Alphorn playing is alive and well in Zermatt.

The Alphorn is the quintessential instrument to accompany Älplerchilbi country fairs and outdoor festivals dedicated to the celebration of ancient customs and traditions. Swiss folk music just wouldn’t be the same without Alphorns, Schwyzerörgeli accordions and the art of yodelling. Zermatt has its very own Alphorn band. Founded in 1990, the ‘Zermatter Alphornfreunde’ consist of 8 players - seven men and one women. Martin Biner (53) has been the group’s president for the last 13 years. Together with his fellow Alphorn players, he provides a comfortable and cosy atmosphere at all important events hosted in Zermatt. Every year, the ‘Zermatter Alphornfreunde’ take part in the Zermatt Folklore Festival, perform at parties and weddings and let tourist groups have a peek at their unusual instruments.

World record on Gornergrat
Naturally, the ‘Zermatter Alphornfreunde’ will also be among the over 550 players on Gornergrat on Saturday, 17 August 2013 who will attempt to set a new world record. The musicians will premiere a two-and-a-half-minute composition for three Alphorn sections by Gilbert Kolly, entitled “Uf em Gornergrat”. On top of this, one of the musicians will play the world‘s longest Alphorn, which measures an impressive 47 metres.

“The Alphorn epitomises composure and calm“, says Peter Baumann, the president of the Alphorn commission of the Swiss Yodelling Association. According to his estimate, there are as many as 5,000 Alphorn players in Switzerland, 2,000 of which are members of the Yodelling Association. Time and again, it is this “escape from daily stress”, as Baumann puts it, that attracts people with long-term careers to the world of Alphorn playing. “However“, he says, “only ten years ago, it was typically people in their 50s who started learning to play. Today, more and more young people are learning the instrument as a counterbalance to the daily toil”. Zermatt resident Martin Biner was given an Alphorn by his father 27 years ago and has been playing ever since. At 86, his father Emil Biner will probably be the oldest musician to play at the world record event on Gornergrat.

Fascinating harmonic series
Its distinctive harmonic series sets the Alphorn apart from other instruments. The mystic sound – referred to by experts as overtones – has a calming effect on players and listeners alike. Complex melodies which have not been written for the Alphorn can only be played by virtuosos. Alphorns have 16 fixed notes and only three semi-tones. Most of the three-metre instruments are tuned to F sharp.

“Players must practice to get a good sound out of their instruments”, says the president of the ‘Zermatter Alphornfreunde’: “We rehearse twice a week and give around eight to ten performances in the summer months. In winter, there are few performances but we keep up our twice-weekly rehearsals”, explains Martin Biner. With a whimsical smile, he says in Zermatt dialect: “Im Summer läufts vellig” – a lot goes on in summer.

There will definitely be a lot happening on Saturday, 17 August. When asked what it will be like to play with over 550 fellow musicians, Martin Biner smiles: “I will hardly hear myself”. Having participated in the Gornergrat Alphorn world record in 2009, he speaks from experience. Players from the lowlands may be a bit short-winded at the altitude of 3,100 metres - Alphorns require a lot of breath.


Traditional in Switzerland for over 500 years

The origins of the Alphorn are obscure. It is assumed that they were already popular in Asia in primeval times. The first written reference to Alphorns in Switzerland dates back to the year 1527. The instrument can thus look back on at least 500 years of history in Switzerland. It is likely that it was originally used as a signalling and communication instrument in the Alps. At the same time, it has always been played for entertainment on cosy evenings after a strenuous day of work.

Experience the unique Alphorns

  • Mondays and Wednesdays in summer, 6 to 7 p.m., Schulhausplatz Walka, Zermatt
  • Saturday, 17 August 2013, attempt at breaking the world record on Gornergrat. Start: 11.15 a.m. Alternative date: Sunday, 18 August, same time
  • Saturday, 17 August 2013, 4.30 p.m. Joint Alphorn concert on the tennis courts, Obere Matten

Martin Biner, President of the ‘Zermatter Alphornfreunde’.

The mystic sound of the Alphorn is fascinating people all over the world.

The Alphorn can be taken apart and can be easily transported in a backpack.

Zermatt Tourismus | Tel +41 27 966 81 00 | info@zermatt.ch