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How the Swiss set a world record with 425 alphorns

Alphorn Concert in Milan 2015

Much of what we take for granted here in Switzerland today was not created overnight. The events and systems that made things like Swiss neutrality and our daily train travel possible are, in fact, very complex.

This year, the Swiss Yodel Association was looking for a way of celebrating three events at once: The long-lasting peace between Switzerland and the Italian region of Lombardy, Swiss neutrality and the opening of the Gotthard tunnel in 2016.

They wanted to organize something big. Their idea: 420 alphorn players would perform the famous Rossini overture from Wilhelm Tell on the square in front of the Duomo in Milan. To top this, they would also make a pre-appearance at the Swiss pavilion at Expo Milano 2015.

Alphorn Concert in Milan 2015

This time around, the Swiss would not be invading Italy with halberds, but instead with a mission to celebrate peace with alphorn music. The challenge for the operation was how to transport 420 musicians and just as many alphorns from various corners of Switzerland to Milan and back home — in a single day.

For the Yodel Association, the answer became pretty clear pretty soon: Only the Swiss Federal Railway (SBB) could be relied upon to organize this masterpiece of transport logistics, ensuring seats for everyone including Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer.

So on September 26, loaded with over 400 alphorns and their owners, a few journalists and yours truly, the "Alphorn-Express" chugged through Switzerland and down to Milan.

Alphorn Concert in Milan 2015

Smooth ride to the world record

It is early morning on this Saturday and I am already on the platform at Zürich Main Station. The train to Bern will be departing at 6:02 AM, but there is not a single alphorn in sight. „Did I not get the memo?“

Despite the queasy feeling, I get on the train. Where are all the alphorns? Zürich is Switzerland’s largest train hub, and surely some of the alphornists would be on my train...

After nearly an hour, we arrive in Bern, and shortly afterwards in Thun. Finally, there they are: Dozens of alphorn players in their traditional costumes! The musicians are joyfully greeting each other on the platform, and I realize that they must all know one another.

In this extra train to "Rho Fiera Milano Expo", every single seat is occupied. To my surprise, alphorns can be packed away and stowed in the overhead bins with relative ease. As I walk up and down the aisles, I can feel the camaraderie in the air.

Alphorn Concert in Milan 2015

The atmosphere is relaxed and everyone seems to be looking forward to their performances in Milan. Some are playing an early morning game of Jass, while others are enjoying a cup of coffee.

Joseph from the Basel area tells me that he had already played with many of today’s train passengers up on the Gornergrat in Zermatt. He, too, was up before 5 AM to catch the train to Milan. And he is happy that the journey in the newest SBB wagon is so convenient.

During the trip, Peter Ackermann from SBB let me in on the immense logistical challenge this voyage posed. Although the transport company ensures the safe and convenient travel of millions of passengers daily, the project "Alphorns instead of halberds" was particularly challenging.

Very few of the alphornists come from big cities like Zürich, Basel or Bern. Instead, most are from rural areas with only an hourly bus connection. This was likely the reason why I did not spot a single alphorn player at Zurich HB this morning. Instead of from Zürich, the town of Thun was the logistical hub for this project.

Alphorn Concert in Milan 2015

Final destination: Expo Milano 2015

At the "Rho Fiera Milano Expo" station, we are welcomed by an employee of the Swiss pavilion. Together with the first 260 alphornists on the train, we quickly snake our way across the grounds of Expo Milano to the Swiss pavilion.

The alphornists, sporting traditional outfits from various areas of Switzerland, are already drawing attention from curious Expo visitors. Despite not having performed in this constellation for at least three years, it takes mere minutes for the alphornists to assemble in a ring formation. We are greeted by the head of the Swiss Yodel Association and Swiss Federal Councillor, Ueli Maurer.

Alphorn Concert in Milan 2015

At the opening of the Rossini piece, the 260 alphornists sound like a fleet of postal buses. The applause from the audience tells me that the concert has been well received. I could not agree more.


Then, on to the Duomo with a police escort.

The first concert is over and we are hustling through the crowds of visitors again. This time, we take the back exit near to where the buses are parked. Despite their age and all the luggage in the shape of alphorns, the musicians with an average age of 65 years move quickly.

With surprising order, everyone files on to one of the six buses and we are off! As we get on the freeway, we are suddenly surrounded by police: An escort of motorcycles accompanies us and allows us to drive through every red light on our way to the Duomo.

On the square in front of the Duomo, we meet more even more members oft he group - some are already busy taking pictures with young pedestrians. No selfies here, these guys are old school and ask others to take a picture!

Alphorn Concert in Milan 2015

This time, the organization is taking slightly longer. The dimensions are bigger, and a rehearsal is called for. Then, one and a half hours after our arrival, they are ready to perform. Again, we are greeted by important figures in the alphorn business, as well as by politicians from Switzerland and Milan. The Swiss, in turn, reciproce the warm welcome by thanking for the Milanese hospitality.

Alphorn Concert in Milan 2015

The concert begins with Rossini, and the sound resonates deeply. We can literally feel it in our stomachs. Though interrupted by car horns, sirens and the gentle roar of thousands of spectators, everyone is thrilled by the echo, which is similar to the real thing in the mountains.

Alphorn Concert in Milan 2015
Alphorn Concert in Milan 2015
Alphorn Concert in Milan 2015

After the record-breaking "jam", the attendees are accounted for: In total, there are 425 alphornists on the square today. Never before have so many played together outside Switzerland!

A few more pictures of the group later (plus the compulsory ones with politicians), the first group of musicians is leaving to make it onto the next train home.

For about 40 of the musicians, this was their first trip outside of Switzerland. They were surely happy to get home that night and will remember this crazy trip for the rest of their lives...

From the most remote valleys of Switzerland to Milan - and back, meanwhile setting a world record: What a day!

Alphorn Concert in Milan 2015(This article has originally appeared in German on the SBB Blog)


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