Kammerorchester Zürich 1922. Alexander Schaichet vierter von links sitzend. Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Musikabteilung, Mus NL 38.

Chamber Orchestras 1920-2020

Switzerland has no Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin. Yet in the 1920s the country brought about a (forgotten) musical revolution.

It was the beginning of what would later be called the “Roaring Twenties” — an era of, by and for the avant-garde in art. In classical music at the time, the great romantic orchestras still set the tone.

The Swiss composer and conductor Alexander Schaichet (1887-1964) founded the Zurich chamber orchestra (Kammerorchester Zürich)  in 1920, the first in the world, followed in 1926 by the Basel chamber orchestra conducted by Paul Sacher (1906-1999). Sacher also founded the Collegium Musicum Zurich in 1941.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Swiss chamber orchestras were also a symbol of resistance to the European dictatorships.

These dictatorships (ab) used music for their ideology. The works of Richard Wagner are the best known (and most infamous) example.

The chamber orchestras, on the other hand, played modern, Baroque or Renaissance music, which did not focus on a single country or national identity.

Moreover, the (small) chamber orchestras often played with changing conductors. These reminded more of the concertmasters of Mozart’s time than of the often long dominance of conductors of the great symphony orchestras.

The chamber orchestras ventured into musical experiments and the input of orchestra members. Musically they were and are rather basic democracies.

In this respect, it is no coincidence that Switzerland is and was the cradle of chamber orchestras and has been a musical world player ever since.