conductor, impresario and a patron of music
By Sibylle Ehrismann, The Guardian
Paul Sacher used his vast wealth as a great musical patron, while his own work as a conductor reflected the musical history of the century Paul Sacher, one of the world's richest men, an artist of unusual stature, one of the last great musical patrons of our century and also a long-time director of the pharmaceuticals giant Hoffman-La Roche, has died aged 93.
Strongly rooted in Switzerland, and above all in his home city of Basle, he was also a man of the world and had close contact with composers, performers and musicologists from many countries. Besides conducting his two chamber orchestras, with which he brought to light and performed old and new music, he was also a guest director in Europe's great cultural centres, including London and at the Glyndebourne and Aldeburgh festivals. His unfailing ability to seek out quality music, his tireless pioneering spirit and his strong commitment to contemporary music were without parallel in Switzerland and rare anywhere.
Paul Sacher did not come from a wealthy background. He was the first child of August Sacher, who worked for a haulage company, and Anna Sacher-Dürr, the daughter of a Basle country farmer. It was his mother, Sacher once said with a chuckle, who ruled the roost with a firm hand. This headstrong "farming" background from his mother's side shaped Sacher's life. Despite his later wealth he never lost the instinct for the simple and the genuine. And what made this unpretentious man into a great musical patron of the 20th century was his inspired intuition.
The now famous family home at Schönenberg in Pratteln, near Basle, which the Sachers built in 1936, also reflected the farming background. The plans for this grand villa in a rural setting were drawn up by Sacher's wife, the sculptor Maja Sacher-Stehlin. The young widow of Emanuel Hoffmann, the heir of the chemical concern Hoffmann-La Roche who had died in a road accident at the age of 34, she married Sacher in 1934. Maja Sacher had wanted to be an architect, but this was not a career option for women at the time. She turned to sculpture instead. At Paul Sacher's side, she was not only a friendly and witty hostess to the well-known artists who were regularly invited to Schönenberg, but also a strong-willed patron of the arts in her own right with a particular commitment to the avant-garde.
After marrying Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin, Paul Sacher, trained as a violinist, conductor and musicologist, had to involve himself with the affairs of the Hoffmann-La Roche concern. He joined the board of directors in 1938 to represent his wife's under-age children from her first marriage. This director's post, which he left only in 1996 after his 90th birthday, gave Sacher the freedom to pursue his world-wide artistic activities and patronage.
But the then 32-year-old musician could already look back on an impressive artistic career. In 1926 he had founded the Basle Chamber Orchestra, one of the world's first chamber orchestras, and two years later the Basle Chamber Choir. In 1931 he had become, at 25, the youngest-ever member of the executive committee of the Swiss Musicians' Union. And at 27 he became director of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, founded by him and now with a world-wide reputation, one of the first training centres for music-making with authentic period instruments.
With his own chamber orchestra, Sacher wanted to create a contrast to the established concert scene, which was dominated by the classical and romantic repertory. He was particularly interested in unexplored early music and madrigals, which he performed with his choir, but also in unknown pieces by Mozart and Haydn, which he premiered in Switzerland. The rediscovery of Mozart's cassations, marches and serenades as well as the early Mozart and Haydn symphonies was largely his work. Thus the Basle premiere of Mozart's then virtually unknown opera Idomeneo on May 13, 1931, under Sacher's direction, helped restore this work to its rightful place in the musical canon.
This pioneering enterprise in the field of early music required a tremendous amount of work, since at the time little material was available in edited form: manuscripts had to be located and copied, the voices separated out, and correct, historically-based indications had to be provided. For this painstaking work Sacher relied on a highly talented expert (a "genius", in his words), the music historian and teacher, Ina Lohr.
Sacher's performances of contemporary music also required intensive involvement with the score. In this context it is notable that he was as committed to sponsoring composers from the Swiss musical scene, internationally rather peripheral, as he was interested in commissioning leading foreign composers. Not only did he premiere works he commissioned, he also put them in the repertory, took them on tour, and introduced them to a wider public through radio performances and recordings. And with the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basle, which possesses unpublished material from many composers, he established what is now one of the most important centres for the study of 20th-century music.
In his deeply committed work as a conductor, Sacher reflected the musical history of our century: from the neo-baroque and classicism to 12-tone music and atonality. Among the many great com posers who wrote masterpieces for him were Hindemith, Bartok, Honegger, Martin, Burkhard, Stravinsky, Martinu, Krenek, Lutoslawski, Fortner, Henze, Rihm, Boulez, Berio, Halffter, Kelterborn, Moret, Dutilleux, Carter, Britten and Tippett. Although he sponsored a wide range of composers, Sacher's stylistic preferences were not difficult to detect. He clearly preferred linear composition, tonality and formal discipline, but also rhythmic vitality, musicality and sensuous tone-colouring. Most of the composers commissioned by him wrote for the musical theatre and thus had a good instinct for musical dramaturgy and singability. One of Sacher's primary concerns as a conductor was to make the new works accessible and understandable for his audience. His programming, his ability subtly to juxtapose old and new works, has become legendary.
Sacher's link with British music is based on his early discovery of Henry Purcell. In 1928, shortly after founding the Basle chamber orchestra, he conducted Purcell's music for the tragedy Abdelazer and the opera Dido And Aeneas in a single evening. Dido And Aeneas became one of his favourite works, to which he remained loyal with regular performances for the rest of his life. He was a long-time close friend of Benjamin Britten, some of whose major works he premiered in Switzerland. As guest conductor of the Collegium Musicum Zurich, founded by Sacher in 1941, Britten conducted and performed his song cycle Les Illuminations and the atmospheric Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, together with Peter Pears. Michael Tippett's Sellinger's Round, a divertimento for chamber orchestra, was commissioned by Sacher. This has become a widely loved masterpiece. But Sacher was also committed to the younger generation of British composers. In the 1980s, for instance, he introduced the unusual music of Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle to his Zurich public.
Sacher worked as a guest conductor in Britain on numerous occasions. His first artistic contact with the BBC was in 1938, when he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a performance of excerpts from The Face of Isaiah by the Swiss composer Willy Burkhard. Closer co-operation followed after the second world war and especially in the 1950s. As a guest conductor Sacher introduced the British public to the music of Frank Martin, Arthur Honegger, Bohuslav Martinu and above all Igor Stravinsky. On January 2, 1953 he conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the European premiere of the suite from Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress; this was only shortly after Stravinsky had directed the opera's premiere in Venice. Sacher conducted this work on four occasions at the Glyndebourne Festival after 1954. At Glyndebourne, where he conducted most of his operas, he paid tribute to Mozart, his favourite composer, with performances of The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. Sacher also made his mark at the Aldeburgh Festival, in 1971 conducting the English Chamber Orchestra in the premiere of Richard Rodney Bennett's Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra, with the Swiss oboist Heinz Holliger as soloist.
Sacher received many honours for his tireless and important efforts, above all for contemporary music world-wide. He once said of them in his typical half-serious, half-joking way: "Above all, they make you realise you're getting older."
His wife died in 1989, and he is survived by their step-children.