The magic of bells

  06.09.2018 Profile

For this last interview of the summer, GstaadLife met with Mr Hannes Moor, who contributed the section on the Schopfer bells to the recently published book Passion. This short interview cannot do justice to the range and depth of this subject. For anyone interested in learning more, Moor gives guided tours in the Museum der Landschaft Saanen on request.

Mr Moor, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you became so interested in the Schopfer bells?
I am a vet by profession and was born in Saanen. When I was a young boy I used to spend time in the village with my friends and we would often linger in front of the old Schopfer foundry. At that time, there were still many different tradesmen in the region and the last bell-founder (Alfred von Siebenthal) was still alive. We were lucky enough to be able to watch them working and see what they were doing. The presence of the old man Schopfer – Charles, the most well-known – was always felt, even though he had died in 1922. Many people talked about him. This all fascinated us – the man, the foundry, and the secret that surrounded this work.

What is the tradition behind the use of cowbells?
It’s a very old tradition dating back to the 15th century, based on the notion that the bells chase away evil – even sickness – and attract goodness. They put bells on cows to purify the region as the cows moved around. Only small cowbells were used; the big cowbells don’t date back that far. You have to understand, these farmers were very aware. This notion that the high mountains were haunted also existed in other mountainous cultures – in Tibet for example they fly prayer flags of different colours, featuring various symbols to ward off evil spirits.

So the cowbells are not simply to help the farmers find their cows?
This is one of the reasons. The farmers put small cowbells on the cows in the summer pastures to help locate their animals and to know what they are doing – walking, running or chewing the cud. The bell is a signal, you can hear it coming, you can even know who it is if you know the configuration of bells. A farmer with a good ear can tell you who is coming by and with which herd of cows.

When are the big cowbells used?
The bigger bells are used when the cows go up or come down from the summer pastures, the inalp and the desalp; they are also occasionally used for special festivities. These big bells are heavy – weighing as much as 8 kilograms – so are worn by the larger and older cows. For a cow that weighs about 700 kilograms this is not too heavy.

There are two types of bell. One is forged from iron and the other is cast in bronze in a mould. The forged bells (sonnailles) have a deeper sound, a more earthy sound, that gives a rhythm when the cows are walking. A good cow will make the bell ring in a specific rhythm – rather like a good dancer – and with this rhythm the herd can walk much faster and further. It’s like soldiers on the march, when they are tired they start singing in order to energize themselves. The big bells also prevent the herd from stopping and grazing all the time.

I understand there is a specific procession for the desalp/inalp?
Yes. In Saanenland you may find white Saanen goats at the head of the herd, led by a young girl or boy – this signifies chastity and purity. Then comes harmony – those who have stayed with the cows over the summer walk at the head, followed by the alpha cow, the strongest cow, wearing the biggest sonnaille and leading the other cows. The alpha cow’s bell is forged in the form of a heart as opposed to a bell. After that it’s the people who help in the mountain pastures or members of the family, who separate the subsequent groups of cows. It’s important that these different groups don’t get mixed up; they have to remain in this order. At the end come the heifers and calves.

Within the ensemble the cowbells are also harmonised. Each bell is an orchestra so the farmer needs to arrange these five or seven ‘orchestras’ to combine and produce an even greater orchestra. The practice of harmonised cowbells is particularly prevalent and professional in Saanenland, thanks to the famous Charles Schopfer, who was capable of creating bells that could ring together, rather like church bells. The old Schopfer ensemble would comprise 5 or 7 bells – always an odd number.

Within a herd would there be more than one ensemble of cowbells?
Not so long ago a farmer who had 8 cows was already a big farmer. If he had a set of 5 bells plus 2 or 3 sonnailles it was more than enough! An ensemble represented a big investment; it was a sign of wealth, something of a status symbol. Now this has changed – bigger herds, more sonnailles, less bells.

Do the cowbells have a religious and spiritual significance?
Absolutely. Bells were originally the reserve of churches and, according to tradition, the farmers were only able to put bells on cows if they added Christian symbols to the bells. These symbols were created in the bells, but for the sonnailles they were inscribed on the halters.

Do the bells make the cows deaf?
No, not at all. Each bell is a small orchestra producing a harmony of sounds – about 12 that are audible and about 20 that we do not hear. This harmony of sounds is less harmful to the hearing than a single sound and is not louder than 100 decibels.

What effect do cowbells have on you?
The bells touch me so deeply that it’s not possible to explain. It’s more than pure emotion. Someone who has not heard cowbells from a very young age, who hasn’t grown up with this tradition, cannot really understand how important it is to us. It’s not something that you can understand with the intellect, you need to feel it, it’s closer to intuition in this respect. Science can’t explain everything. The sound of bells has been associated with increased levels of happiness hormones. If I hear a herd of cows coming with their cowbells, I get goose pimples.

I read in your book that Swiss mercenaries weren’t allowed to yodel or listen to cowbells because it made them so homesick that they would desert.
Yes, at that time the farmers were very poor and many became mercenaries in order to make money. In my section of the book I talk about the relationship between bells, the planets and the cosmos. Each human being is a small cosmos so these sounds produce a certain resonance in each of us. Imagine, if you are fighting in a war, far from home, as soon as you hear a sound that is very deep and familiar to you, it immediately takes you back to your homeland and reminds you of situations in the past that moved you deeply. This sound opens the heart.

This seems to illustrate that the bells can have a profound effect on an individual.
Yes, and it can even be an unconscious effect. The resonance can touch parts of our inner world that we don’t usually access. We are normally imprisoned by our emotions and all of a sudden this can open us to an inner world. These are concepts and aspects that some people may find challenging or even strange – we are all influenced by our own traditions and conditioning.

Guy Girardet



The book Passion is available at the Museum der Landschaft Saanen and in bookshops in Saanenland. All texts are in French and German.

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