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History of the Alpine Horn

History of the Alpine Horn
Known by various names, Alpine Horn, Alpen Horn, Alphorn, it has its origins in central Europe, primarily in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Northern Italy. It is a natural conical (cone-shaped) horn made of wood, and is played with a cup shaped mouthpiece, similar to trumpet, french horn, or trombone. For many years, it was used as a communication device (like an antique cell phone) in the mountainous regions of Europe. The long, conical shape of the instrument has the ability to be heard over a distance of two to five miles, especially in areas with natural echoes, such as mountains and valleys.

There are many different ways to build an alphorn. Each alphorn maker has their own distinctive method in the production of their horn. Some use machines that remove a substantial part of the work, others do almost everything by hand. The first alphorn or shepherds horns were manufactured from a crooked tree or branch. It was split from top to bottom, and then hollowed out the two sides. Then they tied them together with beef strips. Later, strips of bark, or rattan, were used to keep the glue seams from separating as the wood dried. Today’s alphorns are made with great precision using both machines and hand craftsmanship.

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.

Seventeenth through nineteenth century 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 artifacts dating as far back as ca. AD 1400 include wooden labrophones in their stretched form such as the alphorn. Coiled versions include the '"Büchel" and the "Allgäuisches Waldhorn" or "Ackerhorn". The alphorn's exact origins remain unknown, 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.