alphornSeveral years ago, on a weekend excursion to the mountains near Lucerne, my husband and I met a troupe of alphorn players from Canton Argau. They had gathered in the countryside to practice for the upcoming International Alphorn Festival. They were in costume, treating the weekend as a dress rehearsal. As the only non-alphorn-affiliated guests in the small hotel, we were treated to several impromptu concerts. We were intrigued with the possibilities for alphorn overload that an international gathering of avid instrumentalists might offer.

Last weekend, Canton Valais hosted the 12th annual International Alphorn Festival. It was the perfect opportunity for another weekend getaway filled with alphorns, this time to the village of Nendaz, in the mountains above Sion. Nationalities represented in the alphorn competition included France, Austria, Italy, Germany and the USA, as well as Switzerland.

Alphorn players bring the same love of Swiss traditions as that associated with Switzerland’s famed cheese and watch makers. Of the estimated 4,000 alphorn players in Switzerland, about 150 are from the Valais, and ten of those hail from Nendaz. When July rolls around, they host more than 150 alphorn instrumentalists: some compete, but all come to the festival ready to share their love of the mountains.

Celebrating tradition and folklore

In Nendaz, solo and group alphorn performances were supplemented by folk dancers, yodelers, wrestlers, bell ringers and more.

bell ringers
Bell ringers parade from the Tarcouet gondola platform down to the festival grounds. Later, they will march onto the meadow and ring the area where flag throwers and alphorn players perform.
folk music
The Jodlerdoppelquartett Zug takes to the stage beside Lake Tarcouet.
In Schwingen, the Swiss form of wrestling, the combatants wear jerseys or shirts and long trousers over which short pants made of jute are worn, their legs rolled up to form a handle. Originally a herdsman’s and farmer’s pastime, Schwingen was elevated to a national sport after the 1805 Alpine shepherd’s festival in Unspunnen.
In the mountains wind can carry the sound of an alphorn up to 10 kilometers. In the past, the alphorn was used to call the herd in the evenings, and as a means of announcing news from one valley to another, sort of a precursor to the megaphone.
The ‘morceaux d’ensemble’, with more than 150 players, is accompanied by flag throwers. Cooling breezes lift the national and cantonal flags high above the Rhone valley.

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Thanks to Nendaz Tourism for hosting our visit to the festival!

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  1. Such lovely photos! I didn’t previously know the name of the alphorns. I’d seen them on TV but didn’t know what they are called!

    Switzerland is filled with so many wonderful diversions. Not to mention the exquisite chocolate!

    • It must be the air, indeed! Something pretty special about these incredible mountains, you’re pretty much guaranteed a good time at the alpine festivals. Hope to see you here one day!

  2. Back in the 80’s I visited Lucerne with my sister and we attended a dinner where they played some traditional Swiss folk music, I remember the alphorns especially because I had never seen such a musical instrument before. I would love to back and explore more of Switzerland, Lucerne was so picturesque, I loved it! Thank you for bringing back some fond travel memories 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed the music, and the post, Susan. Rest assured, Lucerne–and the rest of Switzerland–will go on being picturesque, so there will be plenty more memories to make here!

  3. I love it. Last year we went to the crowning of the prettiest cow in Bern, and they had the alpenhorns, Triechel band, and the flag throwing and the carnival atmosphere and it was brilliant.

  4. I’ve been wanting to see these alphorn players forever! I’m actually surprised to see the USA in the competition — go USA! 🙂 This would be such a nice little slice of Switzerland to experience – just like in a postcard.

    • Well, it’s a pretty good bet there will be Alphorns playing somewhere when you visit Switzerland! Besides the postcard version, there is also jazz Alphorn music and even a somewhat John-Cage-like style as well!

  5. It must be wild to hear the Alphorns played in the beautiful Swiss mountains. I see that you say the sound can carry, but does it also come back and echo around a bit Anita? The second to last photo does look like a picture postcard Swiss experience.

    • Hi Alison, It’s pretty special, especially since the instruments are purpose-built for the wide open spaces! I have not noticed any echoing, and I’ve also heard them played in museumsand acoustically rich places like churches.

  6. I hope you and your husband resisted the urge to start shouting, “USA, USA, USA”. 😉 I went to the Swiss Alps when my husband had a June conference in Davos. My recollection is that they took us up a mountain for the conference dinner and one of the parts of the entertainment was an alphorn demonstration. Sitting on top of a mountain and listening to an alphorn is definitely a “Pinch me, I’m in Switzerland” moment.

    • Yes, Suzanne, alphorns do evoke the Swiss mountains like nothing else…and there were plenty of other only-in-Switzerland moments, too: the children’s choir in traditional outfits doing traditional dances and playing spoons; the yodelers; and more. You’ve been up a mountain here, so you have a pretty good idea what happens. 🙂


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