Nothing stays the same

Panorama, Nachwuchs

Constant change is the only true constant in tradition. Folk music is neither immutable nor static. We take a stroll through the past 120 years.

Dieter Ringli - 2020-09-11
Nothing stays the same - Hujässler - Volksmusikfestival Altdorf © Johannes Rühl
Hujässler - Volksmusikfestival Altdorf © Johannes Rühl

The emergence of "Ländlermusik" as we understand it today can be dated back to the early 20th century, when the accordion arrived in countryside dance music bands in the form of the newly developed "schwyzerörgeli" or the chromatic accordion. This new instrument could produce whole chords simply by pressing a button, and was very efficient. A single accordion player could replace two to three instrumentalists such as trumpeters or violinists. That was a lucrative proposition, because the band’s fee could be divided up among fewer players, while there was also a musical advantage in that intonation was no longer a problem in the accompaniment. What’s more, the accompaniment didn’t have to be coordinated among three to five players any more, but could be played by the accordion alone. That in turn made much faster tempi possible. Once the accordion entered a dance band, the dance music could become quicker and wilder, and the off-beats could be far better accentuated. And smaller ensembles meant it was easier to play spontaneously and freely. 

This new dance music was young, quick, wild and drunk, and it conquered the Swiss towns in the 1920s and ’30s, Zurich in particular. Protestant Zurich was thrilled by the boozy, festive attitude of the musicians from Central Switzerland with their colourful costumes (for it was in Zurich that the musicians of the ländler bands abandoned their dark Sunday suits and started playing in costume instead). Ländlermusik became the in-demand dance music among blue-collar and white-collar youth in the towns and cities. And it was in the towns that the musicians from the countryside came in contact with other forms of music, especially with jazz – which was also enjoying an upswing. One result of this was that ländler musicians began to use the soprano saxophone (a typical jazz instrument of the time) as an alternative to their traditional clarinets. These encounters also resulted in a new dance form: the "ländler fox", which emerged in around 1930, bringing the ternary rhythms of jazz into the ländler bands. It became one of the most popular dances of the ensuing decades.

In the 1930s, Swiss politicians developed the concept of "Geistige Landesverteidigung" ("spiritual defence of the country") in order to try and construct a unified, Swiss identity. Ländlermusik was well-nigh predestined to serve as a vehicle for disseminating this notion of national identity, as it was a young, fashionable music that also seemed "typically" Swiss. During the Second World War, Ländlermusik accordingly rose from being a merry form of entertainment to having the status of a national cultural asset. Listening to Ländlermusik became almost a civic duty, part and parcel of consolidating one’s Swissness. But it was also the main type of music on offer – after all, the borders were closed. The war years from 1939 to 1945 were the golden era of Ländlermusik. It was also played and listened to beyond the bounds of German Switzerland, as far away as La-Chaux-de-Fonds, Geneva and Lugano.

After the war, when the borders opened up again, the popularity of Ländlermusik began to dwindle. Popular music and pop from abroad swept over Switzerland, promising progress and a new start, whereas Ländlermusik by comparison now seemed old-fashioned. Musicians no longer reacted to the competition by adapting it and adopting elements of it as they had done back in the 1920s and ’30s. Instead, they stiffened their resolve as "guardians of tradition". The war years now came to be regarded as offering a "gold standard" that ought never to be changed. It was suddenly forgotten that the pre-war years had seen other instruments employed in Ländlermusik, such as violins, trumpets and many others. The supposedly typical, "Central Swiss ensemble" of clarinet, accordion, piano and double bass was now regarded as quintessentially traditional, along with the "Graubünden ensemble" of two clarinets, schwyzerörgeli and double bass that had actually been invented by students in the 1930s and had been made popular by the radio. All the same, the standards of performance and of arrangement were further refined over the following decades. The Central Swiss style reached a highpoint in the 1960s with the Heirassa ensemble, while the Graubünden style was perfected by the Zoge-n-am Boge ensemble. Rees Gwerder set a new benchmark for schwyzerörgeli duos. But there were no new forms, dances, rhythms or instruments. Ländlermusik was increasingly regarded as a symbol of a backward-looking, narrow-minded Switzerland of the Cold War years, which made it seem even less attractive to the younger generation. Rock ’n’ roll music, then beat music, were soon the musics to which the young wanted to dance, and which seemed to reflect their attitude to life. The schottisch and the polka were ousted. Ländlermusik still had an audience, but it was getting ever older and ever smaller. 

It was only with the emergence of the international folk movement in the late 1960s that Swiss folk music also shifted back to a younger generation. The long-haired hippies of the group Minstrels landed a big hit with their song "Grüezi wohl, Frau Stirnimaa!" ("Hello, Mrs Stirnemann"), which was based on an old Central Swiss "schottisch" dance, the "Schäfli-Schottisch". The folk movement of the 1970s saw a certain rapprochement between the new "folkies" and the representatives of traditional Swiss folk music. Rees Gwerder and Märku Hafner played Ländlermusik at the Gurten Folk Festival, Max Lässer transcribed old dances from the Engadin for the guitar, and the Schmid-Buebe quartet revolutionised the Bernese accordion style. But the two camps never really got on properly, for the be-costumed representatives of conservative, Swiss Ländlermusik were ideologically too far removed from the colourfully clad, pot-smoking folkies. Only the Rundum ensemble figured as a kind of bridge between these two very different worlds.
In the early 1980s, folk disappeared from the scene, and young people once more bade farewell to folk music. New Wave and synthesizers were the order of the day, not waltzes and mazurkas. To be sure, Ländlermusik attained new, virtuosic heights with Carlo Brunner and René Wicky, but there were no further developments. Ländlermusik became boring – just like the blues; Joe Bonamassa might play it far more virtuosically than did Eric Clapton in the 1960s, but his music remains only half as exciting because it all sounds well-known and exhausted. 

MINSTRELS - Ja Grüezi wohl Frau Stirnimaa


In the early 1980s, folk disappeared from the scene, and young people once more bade farewell to folk music. New Wave and synthesizers were the order of the day, not waltzes and mazurkas. To be sure, Ländlermusik attained new, virtuosic heights with Carlo Brunner and René Wicky, but there were no further developments. Ländlermusik became boring – just like the blues; Joe Bonamassa might play it far more virtuosically than did Eric Clapton in the 1960s, but his music remains only half as exciting because it all sounds well-known and exhausted. 

In the 1990s, there were tentative attempts to breathe new life into the folk music scene. In 1993, Cyrill Schläpfer released his film Urmusig, a two-hour-long portrait with traditional music from Central Switzerland and Canton Appenzell. The city folk meanwhile accustomed to world music were here given their first-ever opportunity to get to know the rugged exoticism of a hitherto unknown Swiss music tradition.

Urmusig Film Trailer by Cyrill Schläpfer


Also in 1993, Christine Lauterburg released her scandalous album Echo der Zeit, on which she combined yodelling and techno beats to create a contemporary, danceable music. Pflanzplätz, the group set up by the schwyzerörgeli players Thomas Aeschbacher and Simon Dettwiler, opened up new worlds of folk music by enriching their traditional Swiss repertoire with jazz and international folk music. Ils Fränzlis da Tschlin then won over audiences outside their native Engadin with a fresh mixture of traditional and newly composed pieces for strings and wind. The duo Stimmhorn of the alphorn player Balthasar Streiff and the overtone singer Christian Zehnder combined Swiss sounds and improvisation to create a successful new art form, while Dani Häusler and Markus Flückiger founded Hujässler, an ensemble that gave Ländlermusik a decisive push by opening it up to influences from the folk music of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. 



From the turn of the new century onwards, this phenomenon grew continually. The Alpentöne Festival in Altdorf took up these new developments, and numerous other festivals were thereafter founded for this so-called "new folk music". Dide Marfurt took up Swiss folk song once more in his eCHo project, and reintroduced the long-forgotten neck zither in his ensemble Doppelbock. Nadja Räss liberated yodelling from the narrow corset imposed by the Swiss Yodelling Association, while Max Lässer and his guitar took up where they’d left off in the 1970s: engaging with Swiss folk music. Fabian Müller published the Hanny Christen Collection, a ten-volume anthology of 12,000 Swiss folk melodies from the 19th and 20th centuries. The scene broadened and became disparate. Some came from traditional folk music, expanding it with fresh ideas or resorting to old, forgotten pieces and instrumental combinations, while others were at home in jazz or classical music, and desired to exit their cul-de-sac by returning to their Swiss roots and transforming what they found into art. Folk music was suddenly no longer a backward, boring national music, but an exciting source of archaic, indigenous identity that was waiting to be rediscovered. The traditionalists initially looked askance at these developments. But they soon noticed that they weren’t being pushed out by these innovations, and could in fact profit from them because folk music was gaining recognition again. The schwyzerörgeli and dulcimer are today more popular than ever before among the younger generation. Together with the School of Music at Lucerne University, the folk music centres Roothus in Gonten and the House of Folk Music in Altdorf today manage to unite traditional music with new forms and genres in an unconstrained manner. 

Nadja Räss in interview


The storm-and-stress phase of folk music is over. There is nothing more that needs to be burst open or shaken up. The art experiments of previous years were important – both to ensure the acceptance of folk music among a broad public, and also so that it could assume a place for itself in the concert hall. Functional dance music and pub music won’t work in the concert hall, for such a venue requires more subtle musical structures and different forms of presentation. This artificial processing of folk music elements will continue. Erika Stucky will continue to explore her private, Alpine sound universe, of which she has never even claimed that it’s folk music. Balthasar Streiff will continue fathoming the sound possibilities of his alphorn, also without any claim to be making folk music.

Erika Stucky Solo


Works will continue to be commissioned for classical orchestra and Swiss folk instruments, and rightly so. This is producing a lot of exciting music – though it’s also not folk music. The Hujässler, by contrast, are rooted in tradition, and younger ensembles are imitating their Balkan-influenced 2-3-3 divisions of eight quavers in a bar. Andreas Gabriel, Matthias Lincke, Eva Wey and many others are bringing back the violin. Dide Marfurt and Thomas Keller have set off a new boom in the popularity of the neck zither. Ambäck are developing a new form of artificial dance music. Beni Betschart, Flavia Vaselle and Natalie Huber are giving courses in the archaic "Juuz" and "Zäuerli" yodelling techniques from the Muotha Valley and Canton Appenzell respectively. Folk musicians are jamming again, making music spontaneously with all kinds of instruments. At the Steiner Chilbi festival in Schwyz, accordionists from the Muotha Valley play Ländlermusik until the early morning hours alongside guitarists from Zurich and violinists from Schwyz, Nidwalden and Bern. In El Local, Zurich’s loveliest bar by the River Sihl, we find regular "Geigenstubete" (violin jam sessions) and yodelling evenings open to everyone. Folk music is alive and kicking, both new and old – the new generally on the concert podium, the old as a form of musicking that is a kind of musical dialect in which everyone can understand each other spontaneously and without any problems. The "new folk music" has fulfilled its purpose. 

MANNEBERG - Echo vom Locherguet (Vocals : Natalie Huber)


Dieter Ringli was born in Küsnacht in Canton Zurich in 1968. He has a doctorate in ethnomusicology and is a lecturer in music ethnology, pop aesthetics and research methodology at the Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK. Ringli is an expert in Swiss folk music and is the author of the book Schweizer Volksmusik. Von den Anfängen um 1800 bis zur Gegenwart ("Swiss folk music. From its beginnings in ca 1800 to the present"). He plays guitar, neck zither and the traditional wooden "Chlefeli" in the folk music band Drüdieter.