Obituary: Paul Sacher

Robert Ponsonby
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:19

WHEN PAUL Sacher conducted the London Mozart Players in December 1993, in London, he was returning to a city in which he had made his debut in 1938 (at a concert of the International Society for Contemporary Music) and he ended his programme with a work he had commissioned in 1940 - Martinu's Double Concerto for strings, piano and percussion.

Born in Basel in 1906, he had formed the Basel Chamber Orchestra at the age of 20 and commissioned his first work - Conrad Beck's Fifth Symphony - 12 years later. Shortly afterwards he founded the Zurich Collegium Musicum and conducted it for over half a century.

His wife, Maja, a sculptress and the widow of one of the founders of the pharmaceuticals company Hoffman-La Roche, was a woman of great wealth, but Sacher himself had no trace of the dilettante in him. He had studied conducting with Felix Weingartner and had been trained as a musicologist by Karl Nef at the University of Basel. He was to appear at Glyndebourne between 1954 and 1963, when he conducted Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, Die Zauberflote and The Rake's Progress, and it was there that I first made his acquaintance. But it was not until 1974 that I became aware of the scale of his musical philanthropy.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra had given a concert in Basel under Pierre Boulez and a group of us had been invited to supper at the Sachers' home, Schonenberg (from which Adrian Boult had once chosen to walk the 12km into Basel late at night). The occasion was informal and at one point Sacher said to me, "Come upstairs. I would like to show you one or two things." One of the things was the manuscript of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, with Pierre Monteux's markings - he was its first conductor; another, two facing pages of the house visitors' book with on one side a watercolour sketch and the signature of Braque, on the other a line of music, an inscription and the signature of Bartok.

Sacher had written to Bartok in June 1936 asking him for a work to celebrate the 10th birthday of the Basel Chamber Orchestra. Bartok had replied immediately and a correspondence developed which demonstrates Sacher's professionalism. He had originally proposed a work for strings, of which he had 30. He was reluctant to engage wind players - for reasons of cost - but he would augment the strings, if necessary, and he would accommodate percussion and keyboards, which Bartok wanted to include. So emerged the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. It had its world premiere, along with new works by Conrad Beck and Willy Burkhard - both Swiss - on the orchestra's 10th birthday, 21 January 1937.

It was perhaps the most important of all Sacher's commissions but others came thick and fast. A catalogue issued on his 70th birthday lists 88 works, of which the most notable are the Bartok Divertimento (1939), Martinu's Double Concerto (1940), Frank Martin's Petite Symphonie Concertante (1944), Strauss's Metamorphosen (1945), of which the penurious Strauss sent a copy, so that Sacher had to buy the original as well - Stravinsky's Concerto in D (1946), Hindemith's symphony Die Harmonie der Welt (1951), Tippett's Sellinger's Round (1954), Britten's Cantata Academica (1960) and Stravinsky's A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer (1962).

He was very loyal to Swiss composers - Beck, Burkhard and Martin in particular. But he was by no means parochial: Hans Werner Henze received five commissions between 1957 and 1972. Later, Elliott Carter, Witold Lutoslawski and Luciano Berio were commissioned. And he moved with the times, eliciting Endless Parade from Harrison Birtwistle in 1986.

A majority of all these works were performed by the Basel Chamber Orchestra, but Sacher's interests were not confined to contemporary music. In 1933 he had been co-founder of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, an institute for research in and performance of early music. (In 1957, when conducting Die Zauberflote at Glyndebourne, he encouraged the singers to improvise the appropriate grace-notes, a practice unheard of during Fritz Busch's regime.) Early in the Second World War he was appointed conductor of the newly founded Collegium Musicum of Zurich.

In 1973 he set up the Paul Sacher Foundation and later established it in a fine house in the Munsterplatz of Basel. Here are preserved important collections of the manuscripts, scores and books of, among others, Berio, Birtwistle, Boulez, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Maderna, Martinu, Stravinsky and Webern.

Sacher was a man of extraordinary generosity and I was twice the lucky recipient of it. In the late 1970s I asked him if he would consider supporting the work of the Council for Music in Hospitals, with which I was then associated. He sent a handsome donation. More eye-catching was a party he gave in a Basel hotel after a concert he had conducted, in January 1984. The principal soloist was Mstislav Rostropovich, who appeared to have in tow those dazzling young violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter and Viktoria Mullova. He was in terrific form and insisted upon demonstrating to the assembled company that it was quite possible to get the cork off a bottle of champagne with a sabre (which he happened to have on him). Sacher sat watching, the expression on his face alternating between benign indulgence and horrified concern for Rostropovich's hands.

Maja Sacher, for several of her last years, suffered from a condition which had deprived her of her faculties and during this period Sacher established a relationship with a younger woman. By a tragic irony she died before Maja, but she left Sacher a son in whom he took intense pride and pleasure.

A modest, thoughtful man, Paul Sacher was surely the most bountiful and discriminating patron of music in the 20th century. Honoured in 1988 by a Doctorate from Oxford University, he deserves to be remembered as an accomplished conductor - and not only of contemporary music.

Robert Ponsonby

Paul Sacher, conductor and music patron: born Basel, Switzerland 28 April 1906; married 1934 Maja Hoffman-Stehlin; (one son); died Basel 26 May 1999.

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