The bells of the Basel Minster greeted me each morning when I arrived at the doors of the Paul Sacher Foundation. A short ringing inside the building signaled the lunch break for everyone. The Minster’s bell at 1 p.m. told me to come back. Eventually, the little chime at 4:45 p.m. would mark the end of the day in the archive. And from time to time, through the open window in the reading room, I would hear another bell ringing down at the river, meaning that someone was just calling the ferry. This is how my days were structured as I followed the traces of Antoinette Vischer (1909-1973), harpsichordist and patron of music at the crossroads of old and new.
After seemingly endless months facing travel restrictions, closed archives, and home office, I finally was back on the road. A nine hours train ride took me to Basel, Switzerland. This charming town on the Rhine is a highly interesting place when it comes to music history. Once the home of personalities such as Ina Lohr and Paul Sacher, old and new music encounter each other here in extraordinary ways, be this at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis or at the Paul Sacher Foundation, one of the most important collections for twentieth century music and my “research base” for four weeks.
It is always a special feeling when my archival work actually takes me to the places where the people I am researching lived and worked. Music manuscripts, letters, etc. take on even deeper meaning this way (at least that’s my feeling). Even though many years lie between Antoinette Vischer and me walking the same streets there still was a lot to discover and experience. On a free Saturday with nice weather, I would just go and see what I might find at three addresses I researched: Vischer’s birthplace, her own appartment, and her final resting place.
My tour started in St. Alban, a tranquil Basel district (only 10 minutes walking from the central Minster Square). In Ule Troxler’s volume on Vischer (s. below) one can find a photo of Vischer’s parental home, the representative mansion of a wealthy Swiss family with a huge garden, where Vischer’s parents raised their only child. It was in such an environment where Vischer decided for a musical path at the piano and where she made her debut at a house concert, age 20, conducted by Paul Sacher, a central figure within the Basel music scene. He would become a lifetime reference person for her, to whom she would often attribute to have inspired her decision for the harpsichord (which she would study with Ina Lohr in Basel and Wanda Landowska in Paris).
And so I came by the address where Vischer spent her first and final days – just to find a new appartment building, one of many in this street. No mansions, no gardens. How would Vischer have felt seeing this place changed like that? Would she have embraced the modern and the new as she did in so many areas of her life?
After her divorce in 1953, she herself moved into a new appartment just around the corner of her birthplace. Where today can be found the Basel Department of Health (in an even newer building), Vischer had made herself her own modern and independent home, she was always proud of – a symbol of her new life.
Another symbol was a sonic one: She started to intensively engage with new music. Paul Sacher and also the befriended composer Rolf Liebermann brought her in contact with the musical avantgarde in Basel and beyond. A central agenda of hers became the idea to link her “old” instrument, the harpsichord, with new music. And as there hardly was repertoire which she could perform, she started her own initiative to build one up: she commissioned composers to write for her and for her instrument (a grand Neupert Bach-model with two manuals and six pedals, btw).
From the early 1950s until close to her death in 1973, she reached out to almost every composer one could think of. In the end, there would be close to 50 compositions baring a dedication to her, spanning from variations on Mozart themes to timbre-expanding clusters, from jazz inspired pieces to sounds generated by computers, from scores which have to be twisted while playing to graphic notation. Among the composers, there are names such as Carla Bley, Luciano Berio, Earle Brown, Gottfried von Einem, Duke Ellington, Hans Werner Henze, György Ligeti, Bohuslav Martinů, and Mauricio Kagel. To most of them she held an amicable relationship and they would regularly visit her in her Basel appartment or in her house in the green, the so called “Hasenhaus” in Alsace.
It takes a longer walk now to get to the end of my little tour, eastbound across the railway to another part of the town, where I have located Vischer’s burial place at a small cemetery. It is a hot day and I arrive around noon. It is a quiet there. I seem to be the only visitor. At the entrance of the cemetery there is an information sign, listing the names of prominent persons buried here and a map with their graves. Vischer’s is not among them. Nevertheless, I find the tombstone with the names of her parents and herself.
I stop and wonder if anyone passing by ever relates this name to such an impressing musical legacy, in which she invested so much money, time, and passion. The remaining source documents, preserved at the Sacher Foundation, led me through negotiations with composers, discussions on copyright and ownership, as well as aesthetic approaches to an old instrument in a world of new technologies and media. Antoinette Vischer is a great case study for my research on musical sponsorship and patronage through performers as her actions reveal an empowered woman with a multilayered artistic persona and a strong agenda.
For more about Vischer, with a large selection of photos from her life, I recommend the volume by Ule Troxler: Dokumente zu einem Leben für das Cembalo (Basel: Birkäuser, 1976)
(My stay in Basel was supported by a research grant by the Paul Sacher Foundation.)