The Ranz des Vaches – from A Complete Dictionary of Music (1779)



The term ranz-des-vaches denotes a type of Swiss melody, traditionally played on the Alpenhorn or sung in order to call cows scattered over the mountainside. The melody is characterised by the reiteration of short phrases and usually contains an element of improvisation, each district having its own version.

The Swiss-French ranz des vaches is composed of ranz, regional variant of French rang, meaning rank, and des vaches, meaning of the cows. It is a rendering of the Swiss-German Kuhreihen, literally cow dance, from Kuh, cow, and Reihen, dance (the second element was apparently misapprehended as Reihe, row).

The term is first recorded in Dictionnaire de musique (1768), by the French philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). He defined it as

Air célèbre parmi les Suisses, & que leurs jeunes Bouviers jouent sur la Cornemuse en gardant le bétail dans les montagnes.
Air famous among the Swiss, and that the young herdsmen play on the bagpipes while looking after the cattle in the mountains.

Rousseau also wrote:

Cet Air [était] si chéri des Suisses qu’il fut défendu sous peine de mort de le jouer dans leurs Troupes, parce qu’il faisoit fondre en larmes, déserter ou mourir ceux qui l’entendoient, tant il excitoit en eux l’ardent desir de revoir leur pays. On chercheroit en vain dans cet Air les accens énergiques capables de produire de si étonnans effets. Ces effets, qui n’ont aucun lieu sur les étrangers, ne viennent que de l’habitude, des souvenirs, de mille circonstances qui, retracées par cet Air à ceux qui l’entendent, & leur rappellant leur pays, leurs anciens plaisirs, leur jeunesse, & toutes leurs façons de vivre, excitent en eux une douleur amère d’avoir perdu tout cela. La Musique alors n’agit point précisément comme Musique, mais comme signe mémorarif. Cet Air, quoique toujours le même, ne produit plus aujourd’hui les mêmes effets qu’il produisoit ci-devant sur les Suisses ; parce qu’ayant perdu le goût de leur première simplicité, ils ne la regrettent plus quand on la leur rappelle. Tant il est vrai que ce n’est pas dans leur action physique qu’il faut chercher les plus grands effets des Sons sur le cœur humain.

In A Complete Dictionary of Music (2nd edition – 1779), the translation of Rousseau’s dictionary by William Waring, this passage is as follows:

[This Air] was so generally beloved among the Swiss, that it was forbidden to be play’d in their troops under pain of death, because it made them burst into tears, desert, or die, whoever heard it; so great a desire did it excite in them of returning to their country. We shall seek in vain to find in this air any energic accents capable of producing such astonishing effects. These effects, which are void in regard to strangers, come alone from custom, reflections, and a thousand circumstances, which, retrac’d by those who hear them, and recalling the idea of their country, their former pleasures, their youth, and all their joys of life, excite in them a bitter sorrow for the loss of them. The music does not in this case act precisely as music, but as a memorative sign. This air, tho’ it continues the same, does not produce, at present, the same effects which it produc’d before amongst the Swiss; because, having lost the taste for their ancient simplicity, they no longer regret it, but when reminded. So true it is, that it is not in their physical action, we should seek for the greatest effects of sounds on the human heart.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.