Felix Meyer Interview

Felix Meyer

We’re here to talk about the Paul Sacher Stiftung, but it would be nice to know a little about Paul Sacher the man to begin. Tell us a little about him: his background and how he came to be in a position to found the institution.

Well, he was was a musician born in 1906 who came from very humble origins. He studied musicology at university, at the same time learning to conduct. This was the time after the First World War when there was a reaction to everything that was considered to be romantic. That included an indifference to the traditional symphonic repertoire. So in 1926, when he was twenty, he founded the Basel Chamber Orchestra, playing old music and new music, excluding, basically, all of the nineteenth century. He conducted this group for sixty years.

He always told a story that when he studied musicology his professor said to him that you had to do a dissertation, it being, more or less, the thing that you needed at the end of your studies. His professor gave him a subject. It was a Beethoven topic and that made him decide not to finish those studies but really to do something, not against Beethoven but against what that represented. For him it was always, from the beginning, old and new. That meant pre-nineteenth century and post-nineteenth century. 

So the entrepreneurial drive was there before the financial means were at his disposal?

Absolutely. We have to bear that in mind because there have always been people saying that he could do what he did because he was wealthy. He was not wealthy in 1926. He married Maja Stehlin in the 1930s and she had been married to the heir of Hoffmann-La Roche who had died in an accident. So it was only in the early thirties that he had access to money. Of course, once he was wealthy he could proceed on another scale, that’s quite clear. He could then commission famous composers to write pieces for him. That is what he became best known for – his championship of contemporary music, but he also did continue to conduct classical and especially pre-classical music for many decades. 

When did you meet him? 

I met him in 1985 when I applied for a job at the Paul Sacher Foundation, which was then not well known. I was very lucky because they were looking for someone to help with the opening exhibition in 1986. I liked it and they didn’t have any objection to what I did so I stayed! I knew Sacher for thirteen years. He was a strong presence here. He didn’t just found this and then let it go. 

A strong-willed man?

Very strong-willed; he knew exactly what he wanted this to be. At the same time he was always open to the new. When he saw a new possibility, not just in terms of acquiring something but also projects or exhibitions he had a very good sense of what the opportunities were. I think his greatest strength was to interest people, to make them enthusiastic about something. That was his greatest quality as a leader. 

Let’s talk about the founding of the collection. It has been said that the purchase of the Stravinsky estate was a critical moment. How did that come about and how was it built upon?

It was, indeed, a critical moment. It was a turning point you could almost say in the history of the Paul Sacher Foundation. The Foundation originated in 1973 but its goals were not very specific at that time. The background of this change was really that Paul Sacher in the late ’70s started looking for manuscripts. He hadn’t been much of a collector – that’s strange to say, maybe – but he was friendly with many composers, many of whom gave him their manuscripts. Obviously he appreciated those documents very much, but he hadn’t collected systematically. He didn’t have, for example, the Bartók manuscripts of the works he had commissioned. But in the late ’70s he was beginning to think about what would happen after his death, about his legacy. It was then that he began to acquire a few manuscripts that were missing in his collection like the Stravinsky A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer. He got in touch with the Stravinsky heirs, asking if they had the sketches and if he could acquire them. He did that with several pieces: he bought The Rite of Spring and the Piano Concerto and several other very important manuscripts. And then the heirs made him this offer, approached him asking if he might want to buy the whole collection. 

That was a very dramatic story because the collection was on deposit at the New York Public Library. There were also several other libraries in America that were interested in the collection and as soon as it became known that Sacher wanted to acquire it there was a certain reaction in musical circles. There were famous musicians – one of them Zubin Mehta, who was Music Director of the New York Philharmonic – who said ‘No, no, no, we mustn’t let it go, it should stay in America.’ Stravinsky had, after all, become an American citizen. 

But he wasn’t always and, after all, The Rite of Spring was written in Switzerland.

That’s right, but Sacher never said anything like that! He didn’t anyway think in terms of nationalities. Finally it was a very simple matter – those other libraries just couldn’t come up with the money that was needed to acquire the collection, though they tried to push up the price as much as they could. But Sacher was very clear: Stravinsky was his favourite composer and he was convinced that he was also the most important composer of the twentieth century. If he wanted to make a real statement, to lay the foundation for an institution then this collection would be perfect. He finally succeeded in acquiring it in 1983. That’s when the whole idea of this institution developed, because he knew couldn’t just acquire it and then put it in a bank safe. He had to create an infrastructure and an institution that could take care of this, including staff and a lot of space. He also knew he had to take care of it and to make it available. 

How quickly did the collection grow after this?

Well, the Stravinsky archive was acquired in 1983 and the Paul Sacher Foundation officially opened its doors in Münsterplatz in 1986. In those few years he added four or five very important collections including Anton Webern and Frank Martin. When we opened in ’86 it was comparatively small. Whilst Stravinsky and Martin made sense because Sacher had associations with them, Webern was a bit of a surprise because he was not known to be particularly attracted to the music of the Second Viennese School. He had conducted a few things, the Berg Violin Concerto and also a few pieces by Webern but he was not as interested in twelve-tone music.

He was prepared to put aside his personal preferences?

Exactly. I think that was the first sign of him assuming another role. He had done that as conductor and director of the Basel Chamber Orchestra to a certain extent; there were pieces by Boulez, Stockhausen, Kagel and many others who he knew were important but he didn’t want to or perhaps was unable to conduct himself. But he felt it as his duty to present this music to his public so he invited those composers to appear as conductors. It was a little bit like that in that he knew that Webern was important – there was no doubt in his mind about that – and he was beginning to think that if he were to create an institution then it had to be more than just a reflection of his personal tastes. It had to be representative to a certain extent. To a limited extent, of course, because what does representative mean these days. 

So give us an idea of the breadth of the collection as it stands today.

We had four or five composers in ’86 and now we have 120. At the beginning no one could foresee that. This had a lot to do, of course, with Sacher’s dynamism – he had a close network of friends, of composers – and he wanted this institution to expand. So he first of all asked many of those composers, including Berio, Lutosławski, Henze for their manuscripts. At the same time he also included those who were not so close to him, even composers whose work he didn’t know; I remember Nancarrow was a new name for him and it took a while to convince him to acquire his collection. I have never counted how many collections on average we added per year, but I would say around four.

And so how is a composer chosen to be included in the archive? 

That’s, of course, the most difficult thing to decide. It’s often a very long process and every collection has a different story. Some composers approach us because, quite obviously, it’s attractive to have your papers under the same roof as Stravinsky or Bartók. Sometimes we make the first step. For example, in the case of Varèse many had complained about the accessibility of the collection for many years, decades in fact, and so there was a moment when I thought that we should make another attempt to acquire those papers. Finally, it worked. It was a very, very long process. Obviously if you want to go for Varèse, that’s not very difficult in the sense that everybody agrees that Varèse is important. That’s not, of course, always the case. I really try to include as many people as possible in this process. There’s the musicological team, the board of trustees and sometimes we’ve also consulted with external experts. We don’t spot talent – that’s not out job – so we really go for the established, well-known composers. Even then, it’s very difficult, because many composers have arrangements with other bodies or have already given their papers to other institutions so sometimes you just don’t come to an agreement. So there’s an element of chance in all of this. 

Given that element of chance, are there any near misses that you regret?

Yes, indeed. I think the most painful is John Cage. I’m saying this because we almost had an agreement with them – it was almost ready, the contract, everything. There are others: there’s Messiaen, there’s Zimmermann. Ultimately though, we are a small institution; we can’t have everything. The main thing is that all of the collections are available to scholars now and – I don’t know about all three of them – but certainly in the case of Zimmermann and of Cage they are in very good places. They are extremely well taken care of. 

Out of the 120 composers I imagine that not every collection is complete. Do you work with other institutions to join your catalogues together?

Well, we do try to close our gaps with copies of one kind or another, that’s one thing. We also exchange materials. For example, with correspondence we may have one side and another library has the other. We do try to network, even though, in a sense, we have our own network within our institution because of the large number of collections. We differ in that respect from one-composer organizations like the Schoenberg Centre or the Hindemith Institute. 

What other day-to-day responsibilities would you have as Director? Tell us a little about your own job.

Well, primarily I see it as coordinating the various activities in the library at the musicological, curatorial level of handling the collections. I also try to be active as a musicologist myself. That’s a little difficult sometimes to balance but, you know, I’m surrounded by many highly qualified people and each of them has and is willing to accept a lot of responsibility. So it’s a flat hierarchy in that sense. I try to be a primus inter pares, not only out of conviction but also because it helps me pursue my own work to a certain extent.

Obviously there is the great responsibility of taking care of these scores. What sort of practical measures does the archive take? I hear, for example, about the ‘bunker’ downstairs.

Yes, we certainly try to protect our materials as much as we can. Actually there is a law in Switzerland that is called Kulturgüterschutzgesetz. Not a very elegant word. This law says that if you have cultural goods of international importance then you need to take certain precautions. You need, for example, a bombproof vault to keep them in. But, of course, no one can really enforce this. The law was made in the 1980s, just at the time when Sacher created this institution. He could afford to do it and the Foundation does, in fact, comply with those standards. So it’s bombproof, but we don’t like to think of it as that because I don’t believe it is threatened in this way at all. What does it mean? But yes, we do try to keep the materials as safe as possible.

But in some ways also in terms of keeping the originals in storage, only making microfilm available?

That’s right, that’s another thing that we do. We put everything on microfilm and, of course, we even store microfilms not just in the Foundation but in another place as well. So, should everything be destroyed, at least the microfilm in that other place would survive.  

Obviously this is a Mecca for musicologists. Do composers often visit?

Yes, though not that much because, in a sense, one reason composers give away their collection is that they don’t want to deal with musicologists, to be giving them advice and help. But yes, for one thing many composers actually bring their own materials to us in person. They come with a suitcase of manuscripts – that happens quite regularly! Some take really a rather active role in classifying the materials. We’ve had that a composer really goes through everything with us and really wants to keep control. Others don’t care so much. There are all kinds of reasons for composers to come here. We have friendly relationships with many of them but, for example, I remember Boulez coming to the archive just to look at one of his own manuscripts because he used it for some kind of transformation and development in another piece. So even that can happen, even though he could have given us a ring and we would have sent him a copy! He preferred to see the real thing.

Do you also think that that aspect of seeing the real thing can also be incredibly inspiring? It is quite different from looking at a printed score. To understand that these composers – dare I say it – aren’t gods; you can see the doubt, the indecision on the page. But you can also see the incredible, almost superhuman, effort to get the music shaped in exactly the way that they want.

I couldn’t agree with you more. It is an inspiring thing and it fills you with admiration. Also, to a certain extent, because you can really see how serious these musicians are when it comes to their art. This is really hard work. Also, as a musicologist, I find this aspect that you mentioned particularly important – the fact that you can see from the manuscript that it all could have developed differently. So you don’t see the finished works in the same light any more. I wouldn’t say they’re the result of some kind of accident, but you see them more like one possible realisation of something that could have led to a different result. That puts them in an entirely new perspective.

How do you see the future of the archive, especially given the rapid changes in technology over the last thirty years?

In the last thirty years there has been a lot of continuity but its clear, for one thing, that we can’t expand at the same rate unless we were to get a huge amount of money that would put the endowment on an entirely different level. One thing that will happen – I’m even trying to do this now – is that we will have to slow down collecting. Otherwise it will be impossible with the number of staff that we have really to do justice to all of the materials and to continue high quality work on all levels.

Another challenge which is very real is digitisation. So far we have operated in a rather old-fashioned way using microfilms, which is not a bad medium as it turns out. In fact, some people believe it is a very good medium and there can be problems with digital data. But there’s no way around it. There have been several things that have so far prevented us from doing this systematically. First of all, the sheer amount of material that we have; if you count every single document we have several million. So that would be extremely expensive and a time consuming thing to do. We also try to process new collections very quickly, even, in fact, making it available before everything is in perfect order. There’s a potential risk there but our researchers here are all people who are basically trustworthy people who are interested in the same thing that we are interested in, so it’s better to collaborate with them. Sometimes we even include them in the processing and cataloguing of a collection. So… 

Much to do?

Much to do, that is true, but I think we will have to store everything digitally one day. We have already many collections where we do get digital data as a by-product of microfilming and we use it for reproduction and other things sometimes, but we don’t yet make them available in digital form. It will come, though.

And of course some collections are increasingly arriving in digital form. 

That’s another real challenge – a very important one. Steve Reich would be a prime example among the collections that we have right now. We are trying to develop methods there – how to make that accessible, make it readable in the first place and then how we can handle that. Fortunately we have some staff members who are very well versed in this field. 

For more information about the Paul Sacher Foundation, please visit: http://www.paul-sacher-stiftung.ch

Originally posted at Composition:Today ©Red Balloon Technology