Folk music in Switzerland

It is no longer possible to determine exactly where folk music starts and ends - music has become such an everyday matter of course that the boundaries of the individual areas are now largely blurred.

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Swiss folk music is more of a collective imagination that includes such phenomena as alphorn music, Ländler music, and yodeling. The world of Swiss folk music also includes folk singers from Ticino, choirs from Western Switzerland and songwriters from Bern.

Ländler music as part of Swiss folk music

Swiss folk music is often equated with Ländler music, a key genre within instrumental folk music. Unlike in other Alpine countries, Ländler not only includes dances in three quarter time, but also marches, Scottish, mazurkas and foxtrot. Ländler music and the concept behind it gradually emerged with the invention and establishment, since around 1880, of the accordion, especially the Schwyzerörgeli. Up until then a colourful mix of tunes from many countries and periods had developed in Switzerland. In addition to German, Austrian and Italian melodies, opera and operetta themes were included – and sometimes even the courtly dances introduced by the Napoleonic occupation. Mercenaries and brisk trade relations have always contributed to a lively cultural exchange with new and strange ways being readily adapted and used in the local style before being further developed and made to be one's own. The music was played by mixed dance bands consisting of 5 to 7 men who accompanied the dances with such instruments as the clarinet, violin, trumpet, cornet, tuba and contrabass.

Standardisation and regulation

The concept of the Ländler band dates back to around 1880, and from 1900 it only applied in respect to the playing of the clarinet (saxophone), Schwyzerörgeli (accordion), and the plucked bass. A further standardisation took place in the 1960s – with the unifying of the instrumentation and the distinction between the regional styles. Today there are seven recognised styles. The most important are the:

Graubünden style

The Graubünden style, which is not only limited to the canton of Graubünden, is noted for its use of the Ländler quintet (two clarinets, two Schwyzerörgeli and the double bass) as a feature. The two clarinets (in B, more often in A), produce the melody while the other instruments provide the harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment.

Central Swiss style

Typical of the Central Swiss Ländler style is the fast pace and the piano accompaniment with the melody not only being produced by the clarinet - often the somewhat garish clarinet in C, but by the chromatic accordion.

Appenzell style

Appenzell music today is still largely based on the music of the 19th century. Stringed instruments are very much in evidence in this type of folk music. The original Appenzell string music consists of two violins, dulcimer, cello and double bass, and should not really be described as Ländler music.
Since 1971, Ländler musicians have been meeting up every four years at their Swiss Ländler music festival. They are organised as the Swiss Folk Music Association. Ländler music is harmonious and is mainly simple in form, which facilitates its ad-lib nature, much like a jam session in jazz. Held in restaurants, the meetings of the musicians are known as Stubeten or Musikantenhöcks.
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