AskDefine | Define alpenhorn

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  1. alternative spelling of alphorn

Extensive Definition

The alphorn or alpenhorn is a brass instrument, consisting of a natural wooden horn of conical bore, having a cup-shaped mouthpiece, used by mountain dwellers in Switzerland and elsewhere. Similar wooden horns were used in most mountainous regions of Europe, from Sweden to the Romanian Carpathians.


Documented records of alpine societies using signal horns date back to a 2nd century Roman mosaic fragment in Orbe, depicting a shepherd blowing an instrument shaped like a bucina. The Acta Sanctorum report how, in 397 AD, the Val di Non's pagan inhabitants responded to the arrival of three Christian missionaries, by using an uspecified tuba to convene the community, and later sacrificing one of the missionaries, by beating him to death with axes while sounding the tuba at him.
For a long time, scholars believed that the alphorn had been derived from the Roman-Etruscan lituus, because of their resemblance in shape, and because of the word liti, meaning Alphorn in the dialect of Obwalden. There is no documented evidence for this theory, however, and, the word liti was probably borrowed from 16th-18th century writings in Latin, where the word lituus could describe various wind instruments, such as the horn, the crumhorn, or the cornett. 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.
17th-19th century collections of 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 artefacts, dating back to as far as ca. AD 1400, include wooden labrophones in their stretched form, like the alphorn, or coiled versions, such as the '"Büchel" and the "Allgäuisches Waldhorn" or "Ackerhorn". The alphorn's exact origins remain indeterminate, 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.


The alphorn is carved from solid softwood, generally spruce but sometimes pine. In former times the alphorn maker would find a tree bent at the base in the shape of an alphorn, but modern makers piece the wood together at the base. A cup-shaped mouthpiece carved out of a block of hard wood is added and the instrument is complete.


  • Bachmann-Geiser, Brigitte, Das Alphorn: Vom Lock- zum Rockinstrument.Paul Haupt Berne, 1999. ISBN 3-258-05640-4
alpenhorn in German: Alphorn
alpenhorn in French: Cor des Alpes
alpenhorn in Hebrew: קרן האלפים
alpenhorn in Luxembourgish: Alphorn
alpenhorn in Dutch: Alpenhoorn
alpenhorn in Japanese: アルプホルン
alpenhorn in Norwegian Nynorsk: Alpehorn
alpenhorn in Polish: Róg alpejski
alpenhorn in Romanian: Cornul Alpilor
alpenhorn in Finnish: Alppitorvi
alpenhorn in Swedish: Alphorn
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