In the up-market city of Basel, Switzerland lies a building that has become a place of pilgrimage for music scholars of a contemporary bent. Housing a huge library of original materials by composers ranging from Stravinsky to Steve Reich, the Paul Sacher Foundation specialises in collecting the work of composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, from manuscripts and scores down to letters and other ephemera. It’s well thought of by musicologists due to the quality of its facilities which include – according to some reports – a bomb-proof vault.

The Paul Sacher Foundation library © Ute Schendel, Basel
The Paul Sacher Foundation library
© Ute Schendel, Basel

“I don’t know if it really is – I don’t really want to know,” says the Foundation’s current director, Dr Felix Meyer, dashing my hopes about the purportedly explosives-proof bunker – a measure supposedly in keeping with Swiss laws regarding cultural artifacts from the early 1980s, when the archive began in earnest. Bomb-proof vault or no, the Foundation’s titular founder certainly had the wealth required to make this contemporary music archive among the most comprehensive in the world: according to the BBC, billionaire Sacher was at one point in the 1990s the third richest man on earth. “Of course he was creating his own monument in a sense,” says Meyer of Sacher’s intentions for the Foundation. But, he says, it was more than just a vanity project.

Indeed, Sacher’s musical passions went much deeper. He studied to be a conductor and in 1926 founded the Basler Kammerorchester, an ensemble that specialised in playing both very old and very new music. In fact, playing the very freshest works became a passion for Sacher, and he commissioned a host of new pieces from composers whom he knew personally, including the likes of Boulez, Strauss, Stravinsky and Bartók. These relationships meant that over the years he accumulated much in the way of primary source materials – manuscripts, scores, letters and more – which by the 1970s he had collected into an embryonic version of the Foundation. Starting off as a private, personal collection, the Foundation began to take its current shape in 1983 with the acquisition of Stravinsky’s archive – gained after a bidding war with New York’s Public Library. Believing that there were few other institutions that took good care of primary source materials belonging to modern composers, Sacher had the idea to create a facility run by a staff of scholars and open to visiting musicologists. “In that sense it was certainly an idea that served the musical community,” says Meyer. Though in its early days, the contents of the Foundation were greatly informed by Sacher’s own tastes and those of his composer friends, Meyer asserts that through the years its remit was broadened to include composers with whom he was not personally interested. “He didn’t continue to act like a conductor. When he created this institution he knew this was a new role – he had to assume a larger perspective, or a different perspective.”

Conrad Beck, Igor Stravinsky and Paul Sacher in Basel, 1930 © Paul Sacher Stiftung | Wikimedia Commons
Conrad Beck, Igor Stravinsky and Paul Sacher in Basel, 1930
© Paul Sacher Stiftung | Wikimedia Commons

So, by the 1990s the Foundation was acquiring works by composers such as Conlon Nancarrow, whose work Sacher was not personally au fait with. But archival expansion brought with it criticism: the Nancarrow acquisition, for example, roused the ire of some Mexican critics who believed that the composer’s materials belonged in Mexico, where he’d spent much of his life. It’s a view that today’s director has little sympathy for. “You may think about it whatever you like: we live in a free world, a capitalist world,” says Meyer. “Why shouldn’t archives move from one place to another? I don’t really believe in this nationalist idea that German composers’ archives should be preserved in Germany. I think they should be in a place that takes care of the materials very well and that makes the material accessible.” Meanwhile, the source of Sacher’s vast wealth has been a potential sore point. He was married to the heiress of Hoffmann-La Roche – the pharmaceutical corporation that patented Valium – which was connected to both an environmental disaster in Seveso, Italy and a price-fixing scandal in the 1970s. Sacher, who died in 1999, later told his biographer, “I don’t have blood on my hands, but I have money on them.” So did Sacher’s stake in Hoffmann-La Roche harm his reputation and thus that of his musical philanthropy? “I don’t think it has really,” says Meyer. “He was not involved in the operative level of the firm at all. He was one of the major shareholders, but he separated his business life and his musical life completely.” Regarding the Seveso scandal, Meyer says: “That was certainly a big thing and did some damage to the firm’s reputation for a while, but he had literally nothing to do with that.”

Inside the Foundation © Ute Schendel, Basel
Inside the Foundation
© Ute Schendel, Basel

At any rate, it’s the vast fortune that Sacher left behind which allows the Foundation to run as it does today: a centre where primary materials by the giants of modern music from Webern to Feldman to Kaija Saariaho can be studied. It’s a comprehensive roster, but there are a few omissions which Meyer regrets not having been able to snap up – the archives of Cage, Schoenberg and Messiaen included. Indeed, even having closed a deal is no guarantee that materials will end up at the Foundation. Asked whether he’d discuss which composers are still on his wishlist, Meyer has a slightly superstitious attitude: “I would prefer not to because I’ve seen the strangest things happen... Sometimes they’re held up literally at the border. So I only believe in these projects when the materials are right under our roof.” Yet for an institution that has been criticised for monopolising on research into contemporary music, the director’s attitude to acquiring materials is relatively relaxed: “The main thing is that they’re preserved in good places, that they’re visible and accessible, that people take care of them wherever that is.” Funding issues have meant that they’ll be slowing down on acquisitions for the foreseeable, something Meyer sees as no bad thing – he’d rather be able to engage deeply with the materials with a small group of specialised staff: “We don’t want to be flooded by material… We’re interested in music and not in organising.”

Dr Felix Meyer © Private
Dr Felix Meyer
© Private

Today, the Foundation is run by a team of 17, who work on conservation, archiving, research and more. Current projects include a book on Conlon Nancarrow and an exhibition at the local Tinguely Museum: activities, Meyer says, intended to help the Foundation “really get out of what some people think is an ivory tower.” It also caters to roughly 20 guest scholars a day, and for musicologists travelling from far afield, it offers a select number of scholarships to soften the financial blow of staying in costly Basel. One recent visiting scholar had a particularly fruitful trip. Reading about a forgotten piano composition by the youthful Boulez, the Dutch contemporary-specialising pianist Ralph van Raat contacted the Foundation to see if they could help him find it. A week later, they informed him that they had it at the Foundation, and invited him to come down. “They were incredibly helpful and accommodating,” says Raat. Indeed, the Foundation’s preparation for his visit exceeded his expectations: they had already informed the Boulez estate of his plans for a possible performance and recording of the work, the Prélude, Toccata et Scherzo of 1944. And surprisingly, the notoriously protective Boulez estate were open to the idea. Raat has been granted three performances of the work – including a world première at the Paris Philharmonie and a recital at Carnegie Hall – in addition to a recording for a CD of lesser-known French piano music. Raat has been instructed by the estate to indicate any programme notes that the work is not a part of the official oeuvre ratified by the composer. Moreover, the Foundation have not been allowed by the Boulez heirs to create a digital, newly transcribed version of the score – he’s only allowed to have a copy of the original manuscript. “That was kind of a bummer, honestly,” admits Raat. “It will mean that it’s quite a bit more work for me to decipher everything. But the intention was incredibly good.” That aside, the fact that the work is seeing the light of day at all is no mean feat, and the Sacher Foundation’s involvement seems to contradict complaints of the institution’s caginess regarding their archives. “Nothing is really wrapped up or anything,” contends Raat. “I have only had very good experiences with them. In that sense they were very open, and I think the luxury for me was that I didn’t even have to do a lot of research.”

Ralph van Raat © Simon van Boxtel
Ralph van Raat
© Simon van Boxtel

According to Raat, the Paris audience can expect in the Prélude, Toccata et Scherzo an interesting insight into Boulez’ compositional development, including an apparent indebtedness to Messiaen and a stark stylistic contrast to works such as the Notations, composed only one year later. “A normal person would evolve in this style in five years, I’d say, but with him it’s giant steps in a very short time around that period,” says Raat. “It’s... very much rooted in the tradition of Stravinsky and Bartók, but a more hyper version of that – on steroids I would say.” Meanwhile, the Paul Sacher Foundation is in the process of digitising its swelling archive (“It’s going slowly but it’s happening,” says Meyer). Growth of the library is also an issue, with Meyer telling me that they will be forced to find more space to accommodate it over the next 10 years. Who knows – perhaps there are more forgotten works waiting to be uncovered in Paul Sacher’s vault.