1st cent.

Roman mosaic at Boscéaz near Orbe in western Switzerland, shows a pastoral scene including a herdsman blowing a horn.

9th cent.

Monk Notker Balbulus from the monastery of St Gallen in eastern Switzerland wrote down music typical of the sort of music that a long horn can play, possibly. Some doubt about interpretation of clefs.


Ekkehard IV, another monk at St Gallen, gave the first known written record of herdsmen in the Alps playing to cows with a horn.


The monastery of St Urban in the canton of Lucerne recorded in its accounts the gift of two coins to an alphorn player from the canton of Valais. Out-of-work herdsmen wandered the streets in winter playing to earn a few coins.


Earliest known printed alphorn melody, a tune from the Swiss canton of Appenzell in Georg Rhau’s collection of music Bicinia Gallica, published in Wittenberg in Germany.


Performance in Bern of a play Goliath by Hans von Rüti, in which the alphorn was to be played.


Zurich naturalist Conrad Gesner published De raris et admirandibus plantis, a description of the Pilatus mountain above Lucerne, in which he described an 11ft-long alphorn, composed of two slightly curved pieces of wood, hollowed and bound together with willow shoots.


Prince Léonor of Orléans wrote to the Governor of Neuchâtel to ask for a Swiss alphorn player to work for him. The Governor’s reply is in the Neuchâtel Cantonal Archive (in French): ‘Sir, further to your request I have found you a horn player from Schwyz . . . you can get him to play songs on his horn, and other little soothing sounds, which he is used to playing to his cows to help them eat well.’


Earliest known depiction of a herdsman playing to cows during milking, on a stained glass window from the former church at Hof Adelboden in the canton of Glarus.


Drawing by Daniel Lindtmayer of another mountain scene showing a herdsman playing an alphorn to soothe the cows during milking. One of a set of designs for heraldic stained glass window panels.


Michael Praetorius in Syntagma Musicum described long wooden trumpets bound in bark upon which Swiss herdsmen used to play in the cities for a few coins during the winter.


People from the Entlebuch region were summoned to war with the sound of an alphorn.

16–18 c.

Spread of Calvinism in Switzerland. John Calvin (1509–1564) settled in Geneva. He encouraged devotional singing but disapproved of instruments. Widespread destruction of instruments over the next two centuries; alphorns only remained in the few cantons that did not become Calvinist.


Queen Anne of England (reigned 1702–1714) requested a copy of an alphorn melody from the Swiss canton of Appenzell which was a favourite tune of hers.


Etching by Abraham Kyburtz in a prayer book, which shows an alphorn player who leads his animals to the high pastures. 


Leopold Mozart composed Sinfonia Pastorella for alphorn and strings, and another work for alphorn, strings and two flutes, now lost. The tradition was to write music incorporating rustic musicians who gathered with their animals round the crib at Christmas.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his Dictionnaire de Musique about the use of Swiss mercenaries in other countries, saying (in French) that it ‘was forbidden on pain of death to play it [the alphorn] among the troops because it caused those who heard it to burst into tears, to desert or to die, so much did it arouse in them a longing to see their country again.’


Moritz Anton Capeler in Pilatus Montis Historia provided a sketch of an alphorn, transcribed some alphorn music and wrote (in Latin) that the cornu alpinum is made in various lengths from 4 to 12 feet.


An alphorn melody from Appenzell was used by the composer Grétry in his opera about the Swiss hero William Tell.


The French, under Napoleon, invaded Switzerland. Calvinism fell into decline. Secular music and the use of musical instruments began to return.


Haydn used alphorn-like music to accompany an aria about a herdsman in summertime in his secular oratorio The Seasons, which describes a year in the life of a small farming community in Austria.


Following agreement in Paris on Swiss independence, a Festival of Alpine Herdsmen was held at a meadow adjacent to the ruins of Unspunnen Castle overlooking Interlaken, to rekindle Swiss identity and unity, with ancient herdsmen’s pastimes including boulder throwing, wrestling, dancing, singing and alphorn playing. Zur Ehre des Alphorns (In Praise of the Alphorn) medallions were struck for the prize in the alphorn competition. Only two players came, so they each received the prize of a medal and a black sheep. The festival itself was a huge success with more than 3000 herdsmen and guests attending from all over Western Europe.


Second Unspunnen Festival – this time only one alphorn player turned up to compete.


Beethoven used typical alphorn calls in his 6th Symphony.


Sonnet written by William Wordsworth: On Hearing a Ranz des Vaches on the St Gothard Pass. Traditional alphorn melodies were called Ranz des Vaches or Kühreihen, meaning ‘Processions of cows’.


The Governor of the canton of Bern, Niklaus von Mülinen, had six new instruments made and asked Ferdinand Fürchtegott Huber, a local composer and music teacher, to find some students. Huber’s alphorn course was held in Grindelwald, above Interlaken, where they performed 2-part and 3-part music across the valley.


Second alphorn course in Grindelwald, directed by Huber. Again devoted to playing outdoors, with 2- and 3-part playing.


Schubert wrote The Shepherd on the Rock for clarinet, voice and piano, containing alphorn-like music and text about music that echoes over valleys.


Rossini used an alphorn melody in his opera William Tell.


Gabriel Lory, fils: A Herdsman from Oberhasli. A picture of a herdsman with the tools of his trade including an alphorn.


Berlioz quoted an alphorn melody in Symphonie Fantastique.


Liszt included five movements based on alphorn music in his collection of piano works entitled Album d’un Voyageur.


Wagner while living in Paris wrote parts for alphorns in a vaudeville interlude for large choir and orchestra called La Descente de la Courtille.


Wagner used an alphorn melody that he heard on the Rigi in his Opera Tristan.


12th September, Brahms sent an alphorn melody to Clara Schumann on her birthday, with the following text: Also blus das Alphorn heut; Hoch auf’m Berg, tief im Tal, grüßich dich viel tausendmal! (‘So the alphorn blew today; from high in the mountains and deep in the valley, I send you many thousand greetings.’) Later he used the melody in his 1st Symphony.


Festival of Swiss Herdsmen in Siebnen. 15–20 alphorn players attended.


Swiss composer Joachim Raff used alphorn-like melodies in his 7th Symphony In the Alps.


Alphorn competition held at a herdsmen's festival in Wäggithal. 6 men took part.


Richard Strauss wrote a trio for French horn, soprano and piano entitled Alphorn featuring the alphorn music from Appenzell.


First alphorn competition in Muotathal.


Second competition in Muotathal: the finale was an alphorn septet.


Richard Strauss used alphorn motifs in Don Quixote.


Richard Strauss used alphorn motifs in his Alpine Symphony.


Alphorn day at Trueb in Emmental. There were 12 participants. A donation of several thousand francs enabled ten new instruments to be provided for young players.


Second Alphorn day at Trueb. 7 new instruments were provided.


Alphorn day in Interlaken. 17 participants. 13 new instruments provided.


Richard Strauss included parts for three alphorns in his opera Daphne, though with a footnote that the parts could be played on trombones.


Alphorn course in Eigenthal near Lucerne. There were 42 participants from all over Switzerland.


A L Gassmann published a landmark collection of alphorn music s'Alphornbüechli: Blast mir das Alphorn noch einmal!


A number of new compositions have been written for the alphorn with orchestra, notably concertos by Jean Daetwyler and Ferenc Farkas. Alphorn players themselves, mainly in Switzerland, have composed hundreds of works for solo alphorn and alphorn ensemble. Annual alphorn festivals can now be found all over the world, and especially in Switzerland.


Frances Jones completed her doctorate on the influence of the alphorn on classical music!

Copyright © Frances Jones 2020.

Find even more fascinating facts about the alphorn in articles and books by Frances Jones: Publications

See lots of historic pictures of alphorns:
Historic paintings, etchings and postcards 




About Amazing Alphorn

Frances is a classical musician performing professionally all over the UK and overseas. A real enthusiast, Frances probably knows more about alphorns than anyone else in the UK.

More about Amazing Alphorn

Enquiry/Book Me

Find out what Amazing Alphorn can do for you: