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Alfred Schweizer

“You know the song somehow but it presents itself in a completely different guise”

“You know the song somehow but it presents itself in a completely different guise”
Alfred Schweizer in conversation about his composition “Beethoven und ein Schweizer Lied ” in March 2020.
Photo: Manu Leuenberger
Text by guest author Markus Ganz; video by Mike Korner
Alfred Schweizer reports on working on his composition for the project “Swiss Beethoven reflections”. He analysed characteristic elements within Beethoven’s variations and within the Grenchnerlied itself, strung them together and then expanded on them further.

“I immediately had an idea”, explains Alfred Schweizer regarding the question how he arrived at his approach for his composition once he had been asked to participate in the “Beethoven reflections”. “Among Beethoven’s first works were trio pieces for piano, clarinet and cello.” When Kaspar Zehnder, the initiator of the project and a flautist, asked whether he wanted to add a flute, he said: “Yes, very much so!”

For the composer from Twann it soon was clear enough that he wanted to tie his piece to the Beethoven variations. He listened to this work and recognised a classical form of the melody which he was now going to use in C major and not in F major. “It is a small three-part song form which is very typical for Beethoven but also Mozart, for that particular period.” He then consulted the folk song collection “In the rose garden” (“Im Röseligarte”) by Otto von Greyerz where the original piece was called “The old Grenchner song” (“Das alte Grenchnerlied”). “That one sounds slightly different, not only in terms of its rhythm: It is possible that this is the original melody because it does not have the clear, calibrated classical form but rather a continuing, narrating form.”

In line with this, Alfred Schweizer also let himself be inspired by the song lyrics where Dursli asks for the hand of Babeli in marriage, but is rejected by her parents. “What I liked at the end is that Dursli wants to write to his Babeli from his military service in Flanders: ‘And if the sky was made of paper and each star was a writer and each writer had seven, seven hands, they would write no end to my love.’(‘U wenn der Himmel papierig wär, u jede Stern e Schriber wär, u jeder Schriber hätt siebe, siebe Händ, sie schribe doch miner Liebi kes End’).” In view of this beautiful ending, he decided to relate his composition first to Beethoven’s variations and then the original song version: “at the beginning rather fast-paced, afterwards rather lyrical and finally let it wind down with an atmospheric ending, in the sense of ‘No end to my love’ (‘Der Liebe kein End’)”.

According to his own statement, Alfred Schweizer could not help it but to include Beethoven in a more general sense in his composition, even if only in very small parts. “For me, Beethoven is simply embodied in the c minor chord! But also in a brilliant E-flat major.” What is crucial is how to integrate such references. “You should realise it (when listening) but only ever when it is already over.” This is also true for the other references. “I am looking for the characteristic elements within Beethoven’s variations and within the Grenchnerlied. I then string them together and continue to spin them out. I also check whether I can use these melodic elements in a harmonic manner.”

Alfred Schweizer has, up to that point in time, mainly worked on the melodic level. So much so, that he suddenly realised that he had slid back into contrapuntal creation. He laughs and adds that it already sounded just like in a Fugue. “I very often use the piano in a melodic manner so that these melodies interlink. And if I wish to set a harmonic emphasis or place an accent, I use a chord.” In the case of the piano, the risk was, however, high that an Oom-pah-pah background was created.

At the time of the conversation, early March 2020, Alfred Schweizer had composed about two thirds of his piece which was set to last about six to seven minutes. He was now at a point where he wanted to let it quietly wind down. “I now have to be careful that it does not begin to drone. But I am aware of such risks. And I work hard that a sound ambience is created where people say, ‘I know the song somehow but it presents itself in a completely different guise’. That is actually my goal.”

During his work as a composer, Alfred Schweizer takes a chronological approach. This did not mean, however, that he had planned an increasing shift towards a legato. “Regarding the form of articulation, I do not comment on it in many of my pieces. Johann Sebastian Bach composed magnificent music but did not annotate that you would have to connect it, play it piano here and forte there!” Alfred Schweizer is convinced that the musicians who will interpret the piece are “clever enough” to know how they were supposed to play something.

When it comes to the execution, the musicians could bring in their own qualities. According to Alfred Schweizer, this does, however, require that the musicians rehearse the work several times and can thus grow into the piece how it is the case for the project “Swiss Beethoven reflections”. Nevertheless, a certain anticipation how it will sound at the premiere remains. This has also got something to do with the fact that, while composing, he lets a synthesizer generate a few instruments in order to evaluate the interplay of the timbres. He was actually working intensively with timbres of the instruments and wanted to achieve that they could present themselves in their optimal sound effect. He was therefore looking forward to listening to the piece being performed by people with real instruments.

Alfred Schweizer was born in Sevelen SG in 1941. He studied musicology and linguistics at the University in Berne and enjoyed an education at the Conservatory in Berne and the Music Academy in Basel. He was active in several improvisation groups and at the Swiss Centre for Computer Music. Between 1970 and 2003, he was a lecturer for music theory and composition at the Conservatory and the University for Music and Theatre in Biel.

Swiss Beethoven reflections: A project by Murten Classics and SUISA on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven


Ludwig van Beethoven had not much to do with Switzerland. He did, however, write “Six variations on a Swiss song” (Sechs Variationen über ein Schweizerlied), namely the folk song “Es hätt e Bur es Töchterli” (A farmer had a daughter once). This is the starting point for the composition assignments which the summer festival Murten Classics and SUISA allocated to eight Swiss composers of different generations, aesthetics and origin.

Oscar Bianchi, Xavier Dayer, Fortunat Frölich, Aglaja Graf, Christian Henking, Alfred Schweizer, Marina Sobyanina and Katharina Weber had a choice of basing their work on the variations, the folk song used by Beethoven or Beethoven in general. The compositions were written for the ensemble Paul Klee which allows for the following maximum instrumentation: Flute (also piccolo, G- or bass flute), clarinet (in B or A), violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano.

The initiator of this project, launched in 2019, was Kaspar Zehnder who had been Artistic Director of Murten Classics for 22 years. Due to the corona crisis and the measures ordered by the authorities, it was not possible to hold the 32nd instalment of the festival in August 2020 or the scheduled replacement festival in the winter months that followed. The “SUISA day” with eight compositions of this project was performed and recorded nevertheless, without an audience, on 28 January 2021 in the KiB Murten. The recordings have been available for listening at radio SRF 2 Kultur in the programme “Neue Musik im Konzert” and are released on the platform Neo.mx3. The project is also documented online via the SUISAblog and the social media channels of SUISA.

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