It is with the evening “alpenglow” that the visual show becomes most striking. An imposing mass of rock overlooks pastures echoing with the sound of cowbells, lighting up in ochres and purples, and then extinguished in the darkening night. A World Heritage Site since 2009, the Pale di San Martino mountain range in the Eastern part of Trentino is the archetypical Dolomite landscape: its dramatic peaks rise vertically with the majesty of a ruined cathedral. But the region offers much more than mute beauty. Trentino has a rich cultural heritage, and music resounds through its valleys.

Pale di San Martino © Matteo Zanvettor
Pale di San Martino
© Matteo Zanvettor

The Sounds of the Dolomites festival is the region's most important annual event. The concerts take place outdoors in natural amphitheatres and are designed for lovers of music and mountains alike. Yet much of the fun happens earlier in the day. A hike along mule tracks is organised before each concert, allowing for full enjoyment of the terrain whose history can be traced in the nearby Geological Museum of Predazzo. Two three-day treks are also organised for more experienced walkers, providing a rare chance to catch up with the musicians who are themselves required to scale the mountains, instruments on backs, to reach remote natural venues.

The playing is of a high quality, especially when it comes to the strings. Isabelle Faust and Mischa Maisky have both made appearances. Those that play at the festival are invited to adopt a tree in the “Bosco che suona” (“the resounding forest”) which lies off the beaten track on the hills of Val di Fiemme. Accompanying plaques indicate their patrons: Gidon Kremer here, Daniel Hope there and Mario Brunello just a little further on. The trees are selected in an intimate ceremony in which a forester presents their particular characteristics. "Each time, artists find themselves in this situation" says Anna, the forest's custodian, "they choose a tree that corresponds to their personality".

The Paneveggio forest extends over 10,000 hectares and is famous for the quality of its spruce. This is where the lute-makers of Cremona, including Antonio Stradivari, sourced their wood for instruments that set the gold standard observed even today. "The violin is a technological marvel ," enthuses Giuliano, who, at 30 years as chief-custodian, knows a thing or two about wood. "Some people have tried to make changes, to change the materials, but the model defined in the 17th-century remains unsurpassed". Even today, instrument makers from around the world flock here to source raw materials.

Il Bosco che Suona - Magnifica Comunità di Fiemme
Il Bosco che Suona - Magnifica Comunità di Fiemme

Only 1% of the wood sourced here meets the criteria necessary to qualify as legno di risonanza (that used for making violins), with the rest bought by woodworkers and builders. It takes 150 years for a tree to reach maturity, and it is only when the trunk is cut off that Giuliano can establish whether the timber will be suitable for instrument-making. Its rings must be regular, closely-spaced and perfectly parallel. And sap must be disgorged for optimal sound production, for which two artisanal techniques are employed. The tree is either felled during a December full moon, when its gravitational pull is at its strongest, with the sap then massaged out from the trunk into the branches, or dangled in the Travignolo torrent so that the water can drain out all impurities. The result is a timber of extraordinarily low density, and one made more flexible and resonant through exposure to the flow of water.

When it comes to the Dolomites, tradition coheres with innovation. In the village of Tesero, Fabio runs a family business that has produced soundboards for various instruments since the 1950s. If this is his main vocation, he has also explored other avenues. "The timbre of an instrument is not determined by the strings. Everything depends on the soundboard" Fabio explains. Thus he had the bright idea of developing the "opera sonore", a patented audio system, through which the signal of recorded music is naturally amplified through a soundboard. "If the same wood is capable of generating the sound of a piano, a violin or a harp, why not use it to produce any type of timbre?", concluded Giuliano, who built his magnum opus after years of research. "The opere sonore are real instruments," he continues with evident pride. "A wave transmitter is attached to the back of the soundboard, which in turn vibrates, as would do the soundboard of a violin or guitar." Doubling up as decorative pieces of furniture, these sound devices are made from the same materials as the instruments whose timbres they reproduce, leading to a truly outstanding quality of sound. They are also collector's items, with only forty copies in existence worldwide.

© Guido Castagnolli
© Guido Castagnolli
The respect for tradition has allowed the region to preserved its strong identity with roots in both Germanic and Italian culture. Part of the Holy Roman Empire until its fall in 1806, and then of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was not until after the First World War that Trentino was ceded to Italy. This double influence is reflected in its architecture. In the high valleys, church towers are topped with bulbs in the Tyrolean fashion. The Italian influence is more easily detectable in the façades that line the Adige valley, which the river directly connects to the Venetian plain. Architecturally, Trento is a remarkable city, in which a single glance allows you to embrace a broad range of architectural style. The central square's impressive Baroque fountain, for example, is flanked by Romanesque and Renaissance buildings. On Friday nights, the city comes alive, when the pervasive Germanic rigour gives way to discernible Italian sensuality.

As with everywhere in Italy , gastronomy is a preoccupation. But unlike those Italian regions bathed in the Mediterranean sun, here dairy products continue to predominate despite changing eating habits. "We all have a mother who is preparing a healthy cuisine, based on olive oil, and a grandmother who concocts butter dishes", I heard on more than one occasion. Dairy products are in a league of their own. The local formaggio Primiero and the Tosèla stagionata are particularly delicious, their fragrant tastes stemming from the flower-populated pastures on which milk-producing cows graze. Further down the Adige valley, vineyards abound. "Trento doc" is the local champagne, fruitier than its ultramontane equivalents.

Ohne Gebirgswald keine Musik, Giuliano reminds us after of a meal enjoyed on the slopes of the Passo Rolle (“there is no music without the mountain forest”). Trentino illustrates this adage perfectly. Music springs from silence, at the speed of a flowering spruce, then resonates with splendour as the Dolomites begin to glow.

Translated from French by Nicolas Schotter and James Imam