Polishing the Musical Legacy Of a Modern-Day Medici
By David Blum
The New Yorker; Published: October 18, 1992
The New Yorker; Published: October 18, 1992
BASEL, Switzerland— The home of Paul Sacher, the 86-year-old Swiss conductor, is aptly named Schonenberg (Beautiful Mountain). It is set in tranquil hills near his native Basel; the walls are hung with Picassos, Braques, Klees and Chagalls.For nearly six decades, Schonenberg has been a symbol of hope for composers, and it has often served as a retreat for their creative work. Mr. Sacher has commissioned or given the premieres of more than 200 compositions, including works by no fewer than 20 composers of world renown, from Bartok, Stravinsky and Hindemith to Tippett, Carter and Takemitsu. Patronage on this scale is reminiscent of Lorenzo de' Medici.
Next weekend, Gerard Schwarz will conduct the New York Chamber Symphony of the 92d Street Y in a program offering tribute to Mr. Sacher. The Swiss conductor made a rare American appearance with the orchestra two seasons ago, and was originally to have conducted this program, but he recently fell ill and is unable to do so.
To put Mr. Sacher's achievement in perspective, one should remember that in the early 1900's "modern" music was seldom performed and frequently derided. Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" precipitated a riot in Paris; Berg's Altenberg Lieder caused an uproar in Vienna.
"I felt it was imperative that the voice of our time be heard," Mr. Sacher said. "I also pledged myself to perform music written in the centuries before Mozart -- most of which was then unknown."
At the age of 20, while studying conducting with Felix Weingartner at the Basel Conservatory, Mr. Sacher formed the Basel Chamber Orchestra and embarked on his lifelong task. "I was audacious enough to approach not only local composers," he said, "but those of international stature and ask them to write pieces for us."
When Mr. Sacher was 24, he invited Igor Stravinsky to perform his works in Basel. "Stravinsky was not only highly intellectual," he said, "but close to everything in life, a bon vivant and deeply religious in a profoundly Russian way. Just before going on stage to play the piano solo in his Capriccio, he grabbed me impetuously by the shoulder and asked, 'Do you believe in God?' "
In 1933, Mr. Sacher founded the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, a center of learning that led the way in the revival of interest in pre-Baroque music. "Our aim," he said, "was to bring together performers, musicologists and students -- to unearth the vast treasure of early music, study its interpretation and perform it with original instruments."
A year later, he married Maja Stehlin, heiress to the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche. Maja, who was a sculptor, dedicated herself to helping contemporary painters and encouraging her husband in his work. As the firm grew, Mr. Sacher was able to broaden his musical activities and give financial support to composers in need. "Maja and I worked together," he said. "I accompanied her to ateliers, and she came to my concerts. The orchestra gradually developed an audience that is both faithful and perceptive."
Since 1941, Mr. Sacher has also been music director of the Collegium Musicum Zurich, a chamber orchestra with which he has given premieres and toured internationally.
In his early years as a conductor, Mr. Sacher was already commissioning works from Bela Bartok. "Bartok was an extraordinarily sensitive man," he said. "He looked like a savant, a man of science; he was shy, spoke little and tended to be melancholic -- but he was full of passionate force." When World War II broke out, Mr. Sacher provided the means for the Hungarian composer and his wife to emigrate to the United States. "Bartok repaid me as soon as he arrived there," Mr. Sacher said. "It was difficult, almost impossible, to help him. He was too proud to take money, except in payment for a composition."
Mr. Sacher was also close to the Czechoslovak composer Bohuslav Martinu. "I've never seen anyone so obsessed with a desire to learn, to enrich himself spiritually," he said. "He was almost always poverty-stricken, but it never bothered him." Mr. Sacher commissioned seven works from Martinu. The composer spent his last year at Schonenberg and was buried there at his own request, though his remains were later returned to his homeland.
Mr. Sacher felt more at home esthetically with the Neo-Classicism of Stravinsky than with the post-Romanticism of Richard Strauss. Yet when he learned that Strauss was in financial straits, toward the end of the war, he commissioned "Metamorphosen," a masterpiece of the composer's late period.
Many performers who championed the music of their time in their younger years have been unwilling to accept subsequent developments. But Mr. Sacher said, "It's important to remain open-minded." He remains an intrepid pioneer who has relied largely on his intuition in assessing the avant-garde. When he took up the cause of postwar composers like Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez and Hans Werner Henze, Ernest Ansermet, another Swiss conductor and an ardent advocate of Stravinsky, wrote to him, "You have lost your bearings."
Mr. Sacher said: "Ansermet was wrong. It's a pity to lose your curiosity and enthusiasm as you grow older. I believe in the development of music. In art, as in science, there can't be a limit."
Over time, his judgment has proved remarkably sound. Shortly before Benjamin Britten died, he wrote to Mr. Sacher: "How much do all musicians owe to your skill and dedication. . . . You have been a model as patron and performer."
A comparison between Mr. Sacher and his 15th-century counterpart, Lorenzo, reveals striking similarities. Each began in his 20th year to work ceaselessly on behalf of the arts of his time; each considered himself a custodian rather than an owner of wealth, and each endowed wisely. Il Magnifico, despite his title, never put on airs, and Mr. Sacher wears his cultural mantle with unassuming dignity. Possessed of an imposing, surprisingly unwrinkled brow and pale blue eyes, he is modest and soft-spoken and has a refined, sometimes ironic sense of humor. He has been known to be distant and reclusive; at other times he reveals his warmheartedness and magnanimity.
"When I first met Paul Sacher," said Brenton Langbein, who has been concertmaster of the Collegium Musicum Zurich since 1956, "I found him rather unapproachable. Perhaps this was due to a mixture of his innate introversion, a certain Swiss reserve and a wall he sometimes built around himself to fend off the demands that were constantly made upon him.
"When, in 1974, I was able to arrange for him to take the Collegium Musicum on an Australian tour, he was terrifically appreciative -- in part, I believe, because someone had done something for him, rather than his always doing something for someone else. I also discovered that he respects an independent point of view, even if it contradicts his own. He has an inner generosity -- not a quality that money can bring."
AS A CONDUCTOR, MR. Sacher is renowned for his ability to achieve an insightful performance of a difficult new work. Perhaps no other conductor has given so many premieres.
"A first performance," Mr. Sacher said, "is like walking a high wire without a net. The responsibility is enormous. If the performance is bad, the piece may be forgotten. If the performance is good, the door is open for the piece to be successful everywhere. It's excellent to have a challenge. I think that's the main thing in life."
In 1973, the Paul Sacher Foundation was established. "In a way, perhaps, this is my legacy," he said, "a place where one can study the music of our time." The archives, which are housed in a 16th-century building on Basel's cathedral square, contain autograph scores and correspondence of 45 composers. Pillars of the collections are documents relating to Stravinsky (200,000 items) and the manuscripts of Anton Webern.
"When I look back," Mr. Sacher said, "my greatest regret is that I didn't do more for Webern and the composers of the Second Viennese School. At that time, I wasn't able to understand the important role they played in the music of this century. I understand it now."
In recent years, Mr. Sacher has somewhat reduced his performance schedule. "I'm no longer 40," he said. "I'll soon be 90. But of course I still want to go on conducting. Do you know what helps you to stay young as you become old? Hard work. It's been a happy life -- but a hard life."
LEGACY OF A PATRON
Paul Sacher has commissioned or given premieres of more than 200 works from leading 20th-century composers. Here are some of the more important commissions. *
* Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936); Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937); Divertimento (1939).
* Britten: "Cantata Academica" (1959).
* Hindemith: "Die Harmonie der Welt" (1951).
* Honegger: Symphonies Nos. 2 (1942) and 4 (1946).
* Martin: "Petite Symphonie Concertante" (1944); Etudes for String Orchestra (1956).
* Martinu: Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938).
* Stravinsky: Concerto in D (1946); "A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer" (1961).