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The Alphorn Comes To Dartington


The AlphornThe Alphorn
A traditional orchestra is made up of strings, brass and woodwind sections, but this summer things are about to change…

Gavin Henderson, Artistic Director of Dartington Summer School of Music, on why they are using Alphorns in their orchestras.
John Timpson and Bob Holness talk about the first time the alphorn visited the Today studio.
Playing the alphorn

Big lungs are needed to play the alphorn.

Dartington International Summer School

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Edward Stourton plays the alphorn

Edward Stourton attempts to play the alphorn.
Bob Holness

Former Today presenter Bob Holness remembers the first time we had an alphorn in the studio.
'Today' studio manager 'Adrian' playing the alphorn.

Today Studio Manager 'Adrian' provides us with photographic evidence of his alphorn playing ability following a holiday to the Alps in the '70s.
Today SM Adrian playing a genuine alpine alphorn.

Adrian playing a genuine alpine alphorn (ed – great technique Adrian, plus great shorts!).

The Dartington International Summer School and Music festival will be playing a new piece of music this year, which is somewhat out of the ordinary.

This piece is called 'Thin Air' and was designed for six alphorns, a brass orchestra, an ensemble of drummers and two yodelling choirs.

The first instrument, the alphorn, is traditionally found in Switzerland alongside shepherd boys tending their flocks in the mountains.

The instrument starts life as a pine tree, bent at its base by the forces of nature. The traditional length of the alphorn is ‘two men’ and (once cut) it is split into halves, carved and shaped to the boy’s height. The halves are then glued together and wound with strips of bark and hemp twine.

The final thing which completes the horn involves the boy painting, with his mother’s help, a garland of his favourite alpine flowers on the bell of his horn.

Modern versions of the horn are plastic and lighter than the traditional ones. This makes them easier to transport and provides the option of making them telescopic.

Gavin Henderson, Artistic Director of Dartington Summer School of Music & principle of the Trinity School of Music,told us:“The alphorn lives in Switzerland, that’s its natural home.”

“Six alphorns sounds wonderful if you get really good players, it’s an amazing sound, very haunting, very soft and it carries for miles, so you don’t have to blow hard.”

When asked how the sound is made without any holes, he replied: “No, holes, no keys, no valves. It’s a conical wooden tube like a pipe really.”

Today presenter Ed Stourton discovered that playing the alphorn isn't necessarily as easy as it looks. “Blimey, you need some puff to do this don’t you," he observed.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the studio has had an alphorn in it. Former Today presenters Bob Holness and John Timpson were there the first time around.

30 years ago and recalling it as if it was yesterday, John Timpson said “It’s the one instrument that beat us for getting it into the studio.We compromised by having the bell end inside the studio with us and the alphorn player in the corridor outside to blow down the other end.”

He continued, “This required a complex set of signals via an intermediary as the player was actually out of our sight. After as many blasts as we thought the listeners could stand, we gave him the signal to stop.”

“And to our relief he did, or so we thought. It was only when we started announcing 'Thought for the Day' that he played his final deafening, earth shattering note, a combination of a trumpeting elephant and the siren on the QE2. It gave 'Thought for the Day' a most remarkable send off!”

We have since learnt that the alphorn incident in question was on the morning of Saturday, August 1, 1970 ... just over 34 years ago.

Unfortunately, whilst the dusty old pre-computer age BBC archives have furnished with a date (thanks to the hard toil of archives' super-sleuth Jeff Walden), like a long-lost episode of William Hartnell's Dr Who, the tape remains elusive.

But due to the following email from former Today producer Joanna Hickson, we do know a little more about how the offending (in the nicest possible use of the word) noise managed to encroach on the usual studio serenity.


I was studio producer for Alphorn Episode No 1.

As I remember it, it was an item on one of the Saturday Today programmes which at the time had a rather different flavour from the daily fare - much lighter in tone, including arts reviews and special features and presented by people other than the weekday team, hence the presence of Bob Holness at the mike.

Michael Aspel was also a regular Saturday presenter. I don't actually think John Timpson was there on the day, but would certainly have been regaled with a vivid description of the occasion afterwards!

We rigged up a mike in the corridor, as previously described, because the horns were too long to get into the studio (there were two of them by the way!) and it was because the mike was inadvertently left up that there was a sudden blast from one of them later on, not during Thought For The Day (which didn't happen on a Saturday) but during another live studio item which escapes my memory because we were all falling about laughing too much to register anything!

The bit about the unintelligible interview was absolutely right - the players couldn't speak English because they spent their time up in the Alps playing their horns and tending their cows, not usually cooped up in BBC corridors talking to a lot of silly radio people!

Another treasured 'funny' from the same period was the day a mouse ran up Des Lynam's trouser leg while he was doing the live sports news. Thereby hangs a tale!

- Joanna Hickson

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