The timeless music of the shepherds  

by
22 December 2016

Pamela Tudor-Craig relates a journey and a musical awakening

Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France/Bridgeman Images

Interrupted by angels: Nativity and Visitation of the Shepherds, from the Duke of Berry’s Très Belle Heures, begun c.1382 (vellum), French School (14th century) (Nouv Lat 3093 f.42)

Interrupted by angels: Nativity and Visitation of the Shepherds, from the Duke of Berry’s Très Belle Heures, begun c.1382 (vellum), Frenc...

IT WAS an unforgettable journey that I made with a colleague, Julie Badiee, from Italy into Switzerland, in the late summer of 1992. We were to give papers at the opening conference of a new college devoted to the cause of universal peace and understanding, at Handegg. No two of the first students came from the same country. The speakers each represented a different country, too — Julie, the United States, me, Great Britain. It was an inspired pro­gramme, and it is sad to have to add that the college closed in 2003. “The Light moves about,” and maybe it has reopened elsewhere.

We visited three magical places on our way. The first was Reichenau, the impregnable island now reached by a man-made spit of land, with its trio of Carolingian churches, the first of them covered in wall-paintings. Thence we made our way to St Gall, with its Irish seventh-century origins and its important library. Never have I more vividly regretted my lack of a classical education than in observing such an ancient array of impenetrable texts, enshrined in reticent rococo furniture.

Our third, and spontaneous, encounter was in another partly ruined monastery, where, wandering in the whitewashed cloisters further adorned with the remains of light-hearted 18th-century floral painting, we were astounded to hear, coming from a room on the far side, exquisite singing. Holding our breath, we crept round, to find a bare 18th-century chapter house containing a few chairs, a grand piano with their teacher playing, and three lovely young girls singing the song of the three boys from The Magic Flute. I have heard it at the Met., at Glyndebourne, and in Venice, but never so exquisitely performed.

Thus prepared, we reached Handegg on the lower slopes of a mountain falling to Lake Constance, where a little steamer could take you across to a French port, twinkling in the background. Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France — all in one day. Thence to a brave conference, with another musical revelation on the Sunday.

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I woke to an unknown sound: remote, but as clear as if in the room — a horn, compelling. I had a free morning, and started as soon as I might to climb the gentle slope behind us, through quiet pine woods, following that insistent command. A couple of gentle rising miles, and the woods gave way to a flat plateau, surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks. On a long low bench was seated a small elderly man, playing an instrument I had never heard or seen before, but which I now know to have been an alpenhorn. Longer than he was tall, he had stretched it out before him. The stops, of course, had to be near his mouth. Its long stem was curved at the end into a bowl which rested on the ground.

Standing there, breathless at the beauty and solemnity of the sound, not appreciably louder than it had been two miles below, I realised that it would have been equally audible on any of those white peaks around us. Like yodelling (but much more beautiful and solemn), this was music to communicate between the worlds above the snowline: music to link all Alpine countries.

Alpenhorns have a range of nearly three octaves. They have been found in Europe from the French Alps to the Carpathians. Originally, they were made from spruce or pine wood, with a bent base to accom­modate the bowl. Nowadays, trees with so convenient a shape are rare; so the base is usually jointed in. There is an alpenhorn with a straight tube in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Brahms told Clara Schumann that his inspiration for the introduction of a horn in the last movement in his first symphony was an alpenhorn melody he had heard in Rigi, Switzerland. J. S. Bach’s “O Jesu Christ Meins Lebens Licht” may use the lituus, its classical forebear.

The alpenhorn also occurs in Rossini’s Ranz des Vaches in his William Tell overture. My musician father told me that a horn solo in Wagner’s Ring cycle is annotated by the composer to begin in the street outside the opera house, and to then be played continuously as the musician makes his way to the orchestra pit.

The first detailed description of one appears to be in an account book from the Cistercian Abbey of St Urban, near Pfaffnau, of 1527. There are surviving labrophones, like alpenhorns going back to about 1400, and it is suspected that they derive from the Romano Etruscan lituus.

I can add some more substance to this pedigree. In the Très Belles Heures de Notre-Dame (Bib. Nat. Paris Ms. Nouv. Acq. Lat. 3093), begun for John, Duke of Berry, in the year 1382, the miniature of the nativity has, in the bottom margin, three shepherds about to make their journey to the crib. Night is conveyed by the dark sky, studded by singing angels, behind Joseph and Mary, and by a long-eared owl in the lowest border. The shepherds, their dog and sheep, have heard the music of the angels scattered around the border and filling the dark night sky behind the stable. It has inter­rupted their own musical performance. The central shepherd has a primitive bagpipe; the other two carry alpenhorns.

In the nativity scene in the Bedford Hours, Paris 1414-23 (British Library Add. Ms 18850), it is St Joseph who carries an alpen­horn as he approaches the crib with his very pregnant Mary.

My third example is in a Parisian Book of Hours of 1407/08 (Oxford, Bodleian MS Douce 144 fol. 68v.). One of the shepherds has been delayed in the bottom margin. He lies fast asleep in the lap of a shepherdess, crowned with leaves, who holds his hand. A second representation of her in the left-hand corner shows her making her wreath. The sheepdog is trying to wake them, while the two other shepherds scramble up the tangled border, alpenhorns in hand. The sleepy shepherd catches them up, and the trio stand in the shepherds’ field, gazing into the sky.

There again are the angels, ghostly heads against the dark sky, carrying the open manuscript of their song. In both this manuscript and, more particularly, the Bedford Hours, the background suggests rocks and a hint of snow. Bur­gundian artists of the early 15th century were not necessarily well informed about the Palestinian landscape or climate.

Groups of alpenhorn performers still gather and make music together on special occasions. A friend of mine heard them on the island of Reichenau. But it is an instrument specially created in and for high and inaccessible places: to communicate, in short, between mountains. It can speak not only over great distances, but over a long time. That solitary alpenhorn I heard above Handegg in 1992 still rings in my ears. Only one sound can travel further: the shepherds lean on their silent instru­ments, although one of them still plays his smaller pipe. The alpenhorn had met its match in the Christmas song of angels from beyond the further stars.

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