What Village are We, Anyway?

The picturesque village of Ernen in the Swiss canton of Wallis is perched like a promise on the lowermost flank of the Binn Valley, some two hours from Berne. Once the main village of the district of Goms, Ernen had a proud folk of mercenary soldiers and resident farmers. Most had to eke out a living for generations despite the challenges of the elements, and from the 19th century − like many rural mountain communities − it largely lost its youth to the attraction of jobs and greater prosperity in the urban areas of the country’s lowlands. Yet over the past four decades, the town has witnessed a Renaissance, in no small part because a music master class that morphed into a lively music festival – a unique summer event that attracts artists and visitors from all over Europe.

Now in it 42nd year – and with the strong arm of the local authorities, the allure of some prominent spokespeople, and the unbounded creative energy of its promoters – the Musikdorf Ernen festival continues to grow, both in reputation and breadth of offer. In July and August, it features a number of different musical genres: Chamber music “compact” (4-5 July), followed by Piano (11-17 July), Baroque (19-30 July), and Chamber music “plus” (2-15 August), each one of the concentrations under a different artistic director.

The musicians themselves are drawn from some of the finest orchestras in Europe, and many of them return regularly to Ernen from year to year. Not surprising, since the alpine setting is idyllic, and the events are held primarily in two charming venues – the 16th century Parish Church of St George and the municipal meeting house, Tellenhaus. Both buildings are steeped in history, and have a comely aesthetic. The church, particularly, enjoys acoustics that make music of this caliber a bracing experience.

What’s more, this year for the first time, Ernen is featuring a comprehensive art project “Zur frohen Aussicht” in conjunction with the festival. Installations done by seven young regional artists – and in unexpected spaces all around town – invite viewing of new artistic impulses. Some of the installations are humorous; some are thought provoking. But one stands out particularly, since Ernen was once the headquarters of the district’s jurisdiction; the so-called Galgen (gallows) on the hill towards neighboring Mühlebach still bear sobering witness to that time. Now, in the very same place where, last in 1764, three thieves were strung up and executed, an art installation, “Camouflage” superimposes images of a luxuriant green landscape onto the site’s three stone columns. In a spectacular setting overlooking the valley, “beauty over acts of violence” might be the position artist Raphael Stucky calls into discussion. As such, it speaks to all of us.

Ernen, 13 July 2015, by Sarah Batschelet