Small village, great talent

Ernen village, Valais, Switzerland

With a population of barely 500, the “music village” of Ernen has just won the 2019 Culture & Economy prize of Valais. Its festival attracts performers from all over the world.

You have probably met the sort of people who like to tell you they have “done the Trans-Siberian”, or “just done South-East Asia and Hong Kong, and next year we’re thinking of doing Costa Rica.” You can imagine them with their map of the world dotted with coloured pins showing all the places they have ticked off on their travels across the globe – and through life. You could also travel to Ernen. That takes a little courage, because you cannot “do” this village. Ernen is a place you have to experience.

You reach it via the main road up the Goms valley: a sharp right turn between Lax and Fiesch brings you onto a country road that leads for about three kilometres through an idyllic landscape. The lane narrows and suddenly, after one last turn, you are in the middle of the village square, from which narrow alleys thread between the huddled wooden chalets, blackened by the Valais sun. Well-tended gardens, a cat basking in the sunshine, an other-worldly atmosphere of timeless tranquillity – as if you have found your spiritual home.

Center of the village of Ernen, Stories, Valais, Suisse

That is how the Hungarian concert pianist and piano teacher György Sebök felt when he first came in the 1970s. A professor at Indiana University in the USA, he had travelled and performed throughout the world, and immediately recognised the village’s unique atmosphere. After a conversation with the village priest, he founded a summer academy for young musicians in 1974. The pianos had to be transported from Geneva to Upper Valais; the 30 musicians rehearsed in the presbytery and in the ancient “William Tell” house on the village square. Afterwards, the first concerts took place in the baroque church of St George, a listed monument. “That is my thank-you to Ernen,” Sebök explained. After all, culture is not the preserve of big cities: it belongs everywhere.

Ernen's church, festival, music, Valais, Switzerland

No one could have imagined back then that this initiative would evolve into a festival that now draws world-class musicians to Upper Valais every summer. Nor could György Sebök have foreseen that Ernen would make him an honorary citizen in 1986, or that the canton of Valais would award him its Culture Prize in 1995, or that one of his former students would today be responsible for the baroque concerts. The Hungarian musician was the heart and soul of the music academy that evolved into the “Festival der Zukunft” (Festival of the Future) and finally today’s festival, “Musikdorf Ernen” (Ernen, village of music). His death in 1999 was mourned by many. According to his wishes, his ashes were scattered in his adopted home village of Mühlebach, close to Ernen – as were those of his wife Eva, who died in 2010.

festival orchestra Ernen, Stories, Valais, Switzerland

“Anyone who wants to understand the Musikdorf Ernen festival has to understand György Sebök,” says Francesco Walter, the festival’s Artistic Director. “He remains our guiding star.” Francesco Walter also arrived here years ago: a professional arts manager, he is a board member of the Musikdorf Ernen Society as well as deputy mayor of the municipality of Ernen, member of the Grand Council of Valais, and president of the canton’s cultural commission. Walter gave the festival its current structure, with concerts in a variety of categories – including baroque, piano, chamber music, organ and jazz. Musicians from the different categories help him with the programming.

Ada Pesch, for example, took part as a young woman in a masterclass in Ernen with Sebök, and is now leader of the orchestra at Zurich’s Opernhaus. For her, too, Ernen has become a second home: during the concert season, in her free time, she loves exploring the pristine Binntal valley. It was she, too, who inspired her friend, the American novelist Donna Leon, to take part in the literature courses in Ernen. This year, once again, the best-selling author of the Commissario Brunetti crime novels, set in and around Venice, is coming to Ernen, and is leading a writing course with the Canadian writer Judith Flanders. Donna Leon is also involved in organising the concerts of baroque music – one of her great passions. She manages to persuade international stars to take part and also helps give young talent an opportunity. “Anyone who has been to Ernen keeps coming back, whether they are musicians or visitors,” says Donna Leon. “Top-class music in a convivial atmosphere – that’s unique,” she says.

Proof of the festival’s special appeal lies in the fact that musicians come for modest fees – not just once, but time and again. Audiences are faithful, too. The village does not have the facilities to accommodate all the visitors – more than 6,000 each season – so some stay at hotels in the vicinity, helped by a bus shuttle service. The festival is financed partly through sponsorship and subsidies and partly through contributions by members of the Musikdorf Ernen Society. “But our budget is still very limited,” says Francesco Walter.

Ernen village, Valais, Switzerland

It was the Artistic Director who decided to give each year’s festival a theme. For 2019, it is “Togetherness”. A fitting idea: after all, it was Eva, György Sebök’s wife, who visited Ernen first, and later persuaded her husband to return to this special place together with her.

Story Ernen, Francesco Walter, Valais, Switzerland

Text : Monique Ryser Published : May 2019

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