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  • Deborah Kade

Unspunnen Day 6


Notes and Changes: The Unspunnen Day 7, September 1 will not be posted until September 2. On the evening of Sept. 1, I will be attending an evening of entertainment from 8 PM until midnight so I will not have time to do the evening writing or Travel Showcase pictures.

Today, we celebrate the alphorn and flag throwing.

It was raining this morning and I was hoping the rain might stop by noon when all the activities of the day start. No, it has rained all day! Since it was raining, all the alphorn players were trying to find a dry place. Alphorn players found shelter by the casino, in front of stores, by both the West and Ost train stations and even under the awning of the very expensive Victoria Jungfrau Hotel.

One of the couples staying at the house purchased tickets for the Jungfrau. Maybe, they will be able to see above the clouds. Doubt it. If it rains down here, it will definitely be snowing way up there!

School groups were encouraged to attend the Unspunnen today. Kids do not care if it is raining or not!!!! Steinstossen, Schwingen, alphorn playing, flag throwing, drum beating, yodeling, etc. were some of the events the children enjoyed. I would say the boys liked the steinstossen and schwingen while the girls liked the drumming and the flag throwing lessons.

I went to watch the cheese making, milking demonstration, biscuit (what we call a cookie) baking, embroidery demonstration and a few other things.

Hoping if it rains today, it will be nice on Sunday for the parade.

I was not about to sit in the rain and write my blog outside; so I asked Sarah if I could come into the breakfast room since this is the place with the only Internet connection.

She left the back door open for me to get in. Thought I saw something resting on top of a chair. It couldn't be a bird or could it? Yes, three of the windows were left ajar and somehow the bird got in. I couldn't chase it out. This is Sarah's last night in Switzerland and she planned on going out with friends but I found her just in time and the two of us chased it out. I had my phone and took a picture but I don't have the connector to plug the phone into the computer and download the picture.

This was the day where most of the animals I saw "pooped". The day started with Twisty, the black cat, jumping up on the chair next to me; four of the goats at the Höhematte; the sheep in the field; a St. Bernard; two carriage horses and finally the bird all over the breakfast room. Is someone trying to tell me something? Maybe so. I now have a full blown cold and I feel like "poop". I know if a bird poops on you it is good luck. What does mean if it poops all over the floor? Should I play the lottery?

Even though it rained I still had fun learning about the alphorn and flag throwing.


With the passing of time, the alphorn almost totally disappeared as an instrument used by Swiss shepherds. It was only with the romanticism of the 19th century and the revival of folklore and tourism that the alphorn experienced a renaissance and even became a national symbol. Like the didgeridoo, the Indian bamboo or wooden trumpet and the African horn, the alphorn is one of the original wooden wind instruments. The alphorn in Switzerland was first documented in the mid-16th century by natural scientist Conrad Gesner.

Communication with animals and humans

The alphorn has long been a tool used by shepherds. It was used to call the cows from the pastures and into the barn at milking time. An engraving from 1754 shows a shepherd using the alphorn to motivate the cows to cover the last steep stretch on their big climb up into the Alps. A glass painting from the Emmental Valley dating back to 1595 shows the alphorn being blown, probably to pacify the cows during milking. The blowing of the alphorn in the evening is also a traditional theme in art. This sound served as an evening prayer, and was mainly practiced in the Reformed cantons, while in the German-speaking Catholic cantons in Central Switzerland, the call to prayer was preferred. The main function of the alphorn was, however, for communication with the herdsmen on the neighboring Alps and with the people down in the valley below.

From a shadowy existence to the national symbol

After 1800, as the production of cheese increasingly shifted from the Alps to the dairies in the villages, the alphorn was used less and less. After the alphorn was hardly heard at traditional festivals any more, the Bernese official, Niklaus von Mülinen, began to repair alphorns in the 1820s and distribute them to talented players in Grindelwald. Although the alphorn had more or less lost its original function in the mountains, it now won the hearts of its audiences as a musical instrument – and has become a tourist attraction and a symbol of Switzerland.


Brass wind instrument made of wood

The key in which an alphorn can be played depends on its length. In Switzerland, the Fis/Ges (F sharp/G flat) alphorn is used, which is 3.5 meters long. Despite or indeed because of its simple design, the alphorn is a difficult instrument to play. This is because all other wind instruments have undergone technical advancements over time (finger holes, valves) while the alphorn has retained its original form. Musicians regard instruments made of wood as being brass instruments because the tones are produced by the same blowing techniques. The distinctive sound of the alphorn, however, combines the richness of a brass wind instrument with the softness of a woodwind instrument.


The distinctive alphorn Fa

In the past, the length of the tree determined the height of the basic pitch. Today, proven measures are used to achieve the desired tuning so as to enable ensemble playing with similarly-tuned alphorns or other musical instruments. Within the tempered tone system the octave interval is divided into 12 semitones. With the alphorn, this so-called chromatic scale can only be produced from the fourth octave on. Of particular note are three tones that do not occur in the tempered tone system. The 7th natural tone is a b that is a bit too high, the 11th is situated between Fa and F sharp (the famous alphorn Fa), and the 13th sounds a bit higher than A flat.


Making an alphorn

Although there have been repeated changes in the usage and playing of the alphorn between the 16th and 20th centuries, the form of this instrument has not fundamentally altered. The alphorn is still a long, conical tube, bent at the end like a cow's horn. Until the 1930s, the alphorn was made from young, crooked pines growing in steep places. Since this Alpine wood grows slowly, the growth rings are very close together. The trunks are cut up, hollowed out and then put back together. Nowadays, alphorn makers also use other types of wood such as ash wood or foreign materials. There are also horns made of carbon. The construction techniques have also changed, and usually the individual parts (hand tube, the central tube, tailpipe and bell) are bonded together and then carved into shape. Both methods – the hollowing out and the piece by piece assembly – require about the same amount of manual work. Over 70 hours are needed for the gouging until the walls are 4 to 7 millimeters wide. The hollowed assembled pieces are held together with rings. A small wooden floor support stabilizes the alphorn. Then the alphorn is wrapped in wicker (rattan). Formerly, linen strips, metal rings, bone or wood and bark strips of cherry or birch were used. For about the last hundred years a mouthpiece has been added to enable the blowing and the tones to be better controlled.



Alphorn as a musical instrument

The Swiss Yodeling Association, to which the alphorn players belong, now has some 1,800 Alphorn blowers in Switzerland and around the world as members – and this number is growing. The alphorn makes a grand appearance at the Swiss Yodeling Festival, in parades held by the Swiss Association for Traditional Costume as well as at the annual international alphorn festival in Nendaz. In addition, the alphorn is encountered in classical music. (Sinfonia pastorella for alphorn and strings in G major, Leopold Mozart, and Parthia on peasant instruments by Georg Druschetzky), in jazz or in various experiments in modern music.


Flag throwing

Flag twirling is one of the oldest national sports of Switzerland. Like wrestling or yodeling, this art is presented primarily at traditional festivals. As if there was nothing easier in the world, the flag throwers whirl their fluttering flags through the air while radiating an admirable calmness and serenity. But the apparent effortlessness comes only after an intensive training: any hasty little movements destroy the art. It is indeed an art to master 99 different kinds of flag twirling as skillfully with the left as with the right hand: from body turns to flat tossing to high tossing. Flag throwing, usually accompanied by traditional alphorn blowing, is part of the customs displayed at folk festivals. It is also one of Switzerland’s oldest national sports. At yodeling or wrestling festivals the candidates compete in three-minute “battle exercises".

From tradition to competition The custom of flag throwing was a privilege reserved for the urban guilds from the Middle Ages onward and was also introduced by soldiers returning to Switzerland from countries in southern Europe. Since 1910, flag throwing has been promoted by the Swiss Yodeling Association and rules introduced. In 1935, 55 flag throwers performed before a selection committee and by 1964 there were already 675 flag throwers. At the Swiss Yodeling Festival in 2005, in Aarau, each three-minute program was assessed. There is no Swiss champion for flag throwing, as the respective winners are chosen from four categories of points. The judges are appointed from among Switzerland’s finest flag throwers and instructed by the foreman in accordance with specified guidelines. Honorific titles such as Swiss champion, flag throwing king or even Olympic flag wavers are rejected. Regulated swings Flag throwing involves swinging a silk flag of a prescribed size and shape (120 x 120cm) back and forth on a short staff and then throwing it into the air and catching it by the staff as it comes down. What might appear to festival visitors as being so easy and "casual" is actually a continuously performed selection from over 90 regulated swings. In addition to the two grips there are body swings, plate swings, medium-high swings, leg and body combinations and passes for duets. The names of some of the moves usually come from an area where there is a strong tradition of flag throwing, with the real stronghold of this sport being Central Switzerland. For example, the "Pilatus thrust" is the name of one of the more attractive high swings.


Alphorn accompaniment Flag throwing requires great concentration and so to ensure that the viewers remain attentive it is accompanied by alphorn music although the throwing and the alphorn playing are not rhythmically co-ordinated. Flag throwing

Fahnenschwingen - flag tossing

Flag tossing or flag throwing in Switzerland involves swinging a flag of a prescribed size and shape back and forth on a short staff and then throwing it into the air and catching it by the staff as it comes down. In the Middle Ages, this skillful activity was a privilege of urban guilds. It was brought back to Switzerland by Swiss mercenaries who had been serving in foreign European armies. Since 1914, flag tossing has been a discipline promoted by the Swiss Yodeling Association. Every three years at the Federal Yodeling Festival, flag throwers – in 1984 there were 675 members – take part in a competition. There are around 50 different moves in flag tossing which are divided into five groups for the purpose of judging and which are described by such names as the Unterschwünge (low swings), Leib- und Körperschwünge (body swings), Tellerschwünge (plate swings), mittelhohe Schwünge (medium-high swings) and Hochschwünge (high swings). The competitor develops a three-minute program using a combination of these basic moves.


Flag tossing calls for complete concentration and is often accompanied by the music of alphorns or Büchel, trumpet-shaped alphorns, to reduce the conversation of the audience to a minimum. But the flag throwing and alphorn music is not (yet) rhythmically coordinated which means that the musicians play any tune during a series of moves. Flag tossing is an integral part of any event whether a yodeling evening, a country festival or an Alpine wrestling competition. Flag tossers also demonstrate their skills at the Alpine festival in Bürglen in canton Uri and at the 1st of August National Day celebrations.

Flag twirling is one of the oldest national sports of Switzerland. As if there was nothing easier in the world, the flag throwers whirl their fluttering flags through the air while radiating an admirable calmness and serenity. But the apparent effortlessness comes only after an intensive training: any hasty little movements destroy the art. It is indeed an art to master 99 different kinds of flag twirling as skillfully with the left as with the right hand: from body turns to flat tossing to high tossing. Flag throwing, usually accompanied by traditional alphorn blowing, is part of the customs displayed at folk festivals. It is also one of Switzerland’s oldest national sports. At yodeling or wrestling festivals the candidates compete in three-minute “battle exercises".

From tradition to competition

The custom of flag throwing was a privilege reserved for the urban guilds from the Middle Ages onwards and was also introduced by soldiers returning to Switzerland from countries in southern Europe. Since 1910, flag throwing has been promoted by the Swiss Yodeling Association and rules introduced. In 1935, 55 flag throwers performed before a selection committee and by 1964 there were already 675 flag throwers. At the Swiss Yodeling Festival in 2005 in Aarau each three-minute program was assessed. There is no Swiss champion for flag throwing, as the respective winners are chosen from four categories of points. The judges are appointed from among Switzerland’s finest flag throwers and instructed by the foreman in accordance with specified guidelines. Honorific titles such as Swiss champion, flag throwing king or even Olympic flag wavers are rejected.

Regulated swings

Flag throwing involves swinging a silk flag of a prescribed size and shape (120 x 120cm) back and forth on a short staff and then throwing it into the air and catching it by the staff as it comes down. What might appear to festival visitors as being so easy and "casual" is actually a continuously performed selection from over 90 regulated swings. In addition to the two grips there are body swings, plate swings, medium-high swings, leg and body combinations and passes for duets. The names of some of the moves usually come from an area where there is a strong tradition of flag throwing, with the real stronghold of this sport being Central Switzerland. For example, the "Pilatus thrust" is the name of one of the more attractive high swings.


Alphorn accompaniment

Flag throwing requires great concentration and so to ensure that the viewers remain attentive it is accompanied by alphorn music although the throwing and the alphorn playing are not rhythmically coordinated.


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