Intimacy reigns at Ernen music festival

The church is the focus of Ernen’s religious and cultural life. Ernen Tourism

Every August internationally renowned classical musicians gather in the tiny alpine village of Ernen in the Goms region of canton Valais.

This content was published on August 11, 2003 minutes

They are drawn by the village’s charm and a tradition which was started around 30 years ago by the late Hungarian pianist and teacher, György Sebök.

It was the charm of this ancient, well-preserved village that first appealed to Sebök and his wife when they stumbled upon Ernen in the early 1970s while on vacation.

Sebök decided to give a regular series of masterclasses in the village, and the chamber music, “Festival of the Future”, eventually sprung out of these classes in 1987.

His protégées have been carrying the torch since his death four years ago.

“Three-quarters of the musicians performing in the festival started their careers here in Ernen,” says festival president Francesco Walter.


This is certainly true of American musician Sally Chisholm, who attended one of Sebök’s masterclasses in 1978 and has been coming back ever since.

“[Learning under Sebök] changed my musical life and made my life better,” she says. “I celebrate that every time I come back.”

Taking a break from rehearsal in Ernen’s 16th century church, Chisholm carefully puts away her priceless 200-year-old viola.

Yet, her instrument is much younger than many of the timber houses in Ernen and the surrounding hamlets.

Some of them date back to the 15th century, making them the oldest surviving wooden houses in Switzerland and much older than the earliest Amati or Stradivari violins.

Initial scepticism

The 400-odd residents of Ernen were at first sceptical when Sebök tabled plans for an international festival.

“Not everyone was thrilled about the idea because they didn’t want to see the church turned into a concert hall,” remembers Johann Mutter, a member of the village cultural foundation.

“But the festival has become a permanent fixture in Ernen, and it brings musicians here from around the world, and of course many paying guests too,” adds Mutter.

Francesco Walter says the villagers have now fully embraced the festival.

“There are 40 people from the village who belong to the music festival foundation and who help out any way they can,” he says. “That’s about ten per cent of Ernen’s population.

“Can you imagine if ten per cent of all the inhabitants of New York worked for a cultural event – that would be fantastic!”

Status quo

And far from changing the village, the musicians and festival patrons want to keep Ernen just the way it is.

“You can play at an event because it’s good for your career. You can do it because you make a lot of money or you can do it because of all the other things it gives you and that’s why we’ll always come here,” explains Chisholm.

Like all the performers, Chisholm is paid a nominal fee and put up in a rustic apartment in a traditional house.

“Here you have a home. It belongs to someone else but you stay in the same place every year. It’s as if it’s your own home,” she says.

“I know of many festivals that are similar in some ways, in that they take place in small places but nothing at this international level,” adds Chisholm.

“[The Ernen festival] has high ideals in a very intimate setting.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Ernen

Key facts

The Festival of the Future takes place annually in August, and is considered a leading event for chamber music.
Ernen was awarded Switzerland’s prestigious Wakker Prize in 1979 for preserving its architectural heritage.
The village and neighbouring hamlets boast the oldest surviving timber houses in the country, some dating back to the 15th century.
There are two museums in Ernen – the one in the church possesses a priceless collection of chasubles – ecclesiastical vestments.
Switzerland’s oldest surviving frescoes relating the story of William Tell are found on the outer walls of the “Tellenhaus” in the central square.
Ernen and the Goms region are about 3.5 hours by train from Geneva, and close to the major ski resorts of the Aletsch region.

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In brief

Up until the 19th century, Ernen was an important political centre in canton Valais, and the birthplace of a powerful cardinal in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

The people of Ernen opposed the building of a road through the village in the 1800s, which slowed economic development but was a key factor in the preservation of its old buildings.

The Hungarian pianist and teacher, György Sebök, fell in love with Ernen while on vacation in Switzerland in the 1970s, and decided to begin a series of masterclasses in the village.

Sebök started the Festival of the Future in 1987.

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