29th May 1906
Born in Selzach, Canton Solothurn
Grew up in Solothurn
Trained as a primary school teacher
Learned the piano and organ
1926 – 1973
Taught at the comprehensive school in Zullwil, later the Zullwil secondary school, in Canton Solothurn.
Taught at the adult training school in Nunningen, Canton Solothurn.
Gave piano lessons.
Conductor of various choirs.
Attended the Basel Conservatory (today the Basel Music Academy) for further tuition in piano, studying with Ella Leisinger-Schmidlin. He also took lessons in theory and composition with Ernst Müller, and attended musicology lectures at the University of Basel given by Prof. Dr W. Merian and Prof. Dr Jacques Handschin.
For the first time, Meier submits a composition to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig and to Schott’s Söhne in Mainz; he also sends it to the composer Conrad Beck in Basel. It is rejected.
Sporadic composition lessons from the composer Albert Moeschinger.
28 September 1939
Called up as a soldier in the Swiss Army; stationed at the border.
1943 (?) –1960
Lessons in composition and twelve-note technique with Wladimir Vogel, his most important teacher.
(Vogel’s origins were in the Russian tradition – Scriabin – and he was a student of Ferruccio Busoni in Berlin in the 1920s. Vogel lived in Canton Ticino before, during and after the Second World War, where he instructed students from all over Europe in the twelve-note technique).
1944 – 1947
Organ lessons with F. Brodtbeck at the Johanneskirche (Church of St John) in Basel.
World première of Meier’s Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon, at a house concert of Hermann Gattiker in Bern (his first work to be performed before an audience).
(Hermann Gattiker was a Bernese journalist who supported contemporary music. He set up the “Gattiker Home Soirées” that had a decisive influence on the Swiss music scene from 1940 to 1967).
In Orselina (Canton Ticino), Meier helps with the preparations for the 1st International Twelve-Tone Congress organised by Wladimir Vogel, and subsequently held in Milan in 1949.
Meier submits various works for performance, to the Basel Radio Studio (Conrad Beck) and the Zurich Radio Studio (Rolf Liebermann), to the conductor Paul Sacher, and to Hermann Scherchen, the conductor of the Zurich Radio Orchestra. Scherchen shows an interest in performing a work, but then does not programme it.
Meier makes contact with the Zurich branch of the Swiss Musicians’ Association, and submits the score of his Allegro deciso e risoluto for strings and wind in the hope of having it played through at rehearsal. It’s accepted!
1st read-through rehearsal in the Zurich Tonhalle (conducted by Volkmar Andreae).
Resumes contact with Albert Moeschinger (with whom he then corresponds for many years).
Further training in the twelve-note technique, this time with the composer René Leibowitz in Paris
(René Leibowitz made an intensive study of the work of Arnold Schoenberg and his students, and helped to spread twelve-note music across all of Europe).
Meier resumes contact with the Swiss Musicians’ Association. He submits the score of his Allegro deciso e risoluto for strings and wind. Rejected without any reason given. He also submits the score to Heinrich Strobel, the Head of the Südwestfunk (South-West Radio) in Germany. Rejected.
1954 and 1956
More submissions to the Swiss Musicians’ Association for a read-through rehearsal (for Piece for Orchestra No. 5). Rejected without any reason given.
2nd read-through orchestra rehearsal, with the Zurich Radio Orchestra conducted by Erich Schmid.
1955 or 1957
Visits Hermann Heiss in Darmstadt (in his private electronics studio).
Submits his Piece for large orchestra and piano to South-West Radio in Baden-Baden in Germany in hopes of performance; rejected.
After retiring, he moves to Canton Vaud (Yvonand, then Yverdon)
Hans Peter Haller introduces Meier to electronics in the Experimental Studio of the Heinrich Strobel Foundation at South-West Radio in Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany.
Meier realises his first electronic work, Klangschichten (“Sound layers”), for twelve-channel tape.
Awarded the “Work Prize” of Canton Solothurn; the world première of Klangschichten takes place.
Returns from Yverdon to Zullwil in Canton Solothurn, where he had lived before. He resides there until his death.
19 August 2002
Death of Hermann Meier
Compiled by Veronika Oesch-Meier, 24 September 2012
Marie and Hermann Meier-Gasser 1933
A personal portrait by Veronika Oesch-Meier
(Taken from the jubilee publication Hermann Meier – Konzert zum 100. Geburtstag in Laufen BL am 23.9.2006)
In the year 1926, Hermann Meier, a freshly qualified teacher, was “exiled” (as he put it) to the little village of Zullwil in Canton Solothurn. Back then, the borough of Thierstein to which Zullwil belonged was regarded as rather isolated, and was not at all attractive to young people (it also lies much closer to Basel than to its own cantonal capital, Solothurn city). Back then, that young teacher could not have imagined that he was going to spend the greater part of his life in this remote place. But over time, he came to love the beautiful landscapes of the Jura Mountains, and he felt at home there. He also soon discovered the advantages of having Basel nearby, as that city’s cultural and intellectual life offered him innumerable opportunities.
Hermann Meier was musically very gifted. He was given piano and organ lessons in Solothurn at an early age, and later took further tuition on both instruments, both at the Basel Conservatory and also privately on occasion. This was besides his lessons in theoretical subjects. He was a gifted pianist and organist, and also knew his way around the violin. For years, he conducted the choirs in his village and its environs, and gave piano lessons too. Basel became “his” city, which he visited whenever he could, even though he found the journey there and back highly onerous. Meier never owned a car at any time in his life.
Even in his youth, Meier’s main interest was in new music, which at the time was being performed in Basel either by Paul Sacher (his exact contemporary), at private concerts, or at events of the recently founded International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). It was at about this time, too, that Meier began to compose. He acquired the necessary knowledge in theory and composition through courses run by the Basel Music Academy and also via self-tuition.
1948 with Wladimir Vogel
In 1937, Meier wrote what was presumably his first-ever piano piece; it is in two movements. Thereafter he wrote symphonies, orchestral works, several pieces for strings and wind, settings of poems, and many piano pieces. In 1946, he composed his Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon – the first work of his that was ever performed in public. It was Hermann Gattiker – a Bernese journalist and supporter of contemporary music – who organised the Trio’s first-ever performance on 10 April 1947 at a soirée in his home in Bern. Two further Meier performances followed there in the years 1951 and 1967.* But in the subsequent years people heard little or nothing of Meier’s music. This was the time when he wrote several works for piano, harpsichord and electric organ, and also developed an interest in electronics. It was not until the 1980s that the concert society “Neue Horizonte Bern” became interested in Meier’s works and performed several of his pieces.
Further research would be necessary to try and determine the reasons why performances of Hermann Meier’s works were initially very rare (and in fact completely absent in Basel, even though he was not unknown there). Was it perhaps because as a composer he was metaphorically a square peg in the round hole of the Swiss music scene? Or was he himself the reason for his lack of success, with his modesty and reserve? We know that Meier tried to get a work performed by the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra in the early 1950s, and that he later made a similar attempt with the Zurich Radio Orchestra. He was also in touch with South-West German Radio in Baden-Baden to the same end. But he experienced only rejections. It was not in his nature to “sell” his music. He was too racked by self-doubts and self-criticism. Working as a teacher did not provide him with the financial means he would have needed to undertake anything himself, because teachers were poorly paid in Switzerland at the time – rather like back in Gotthelf’s day in the 19th century. Meier dreamed of going out to see the big wide world, and would have loved to see Manhattan and Brasilia. But his other commitments held him back – after all, he had seven mouths to feed at home.
Undeterred by all these disappointments, Meier continued to compose “for his desk drawer”, as he once put it, because composing was to him an urge, even a curse, that he could not escape. Thus he wrote an oeuvre of some 100 works. His archives correspondingly include many sketches and “plans”, as he called the geometrically structured graphic works that he produced for the basic layout of each work, and which he then turned into notes. Some of these plans are multi-coloured and several metres long, depending on the length of the work in question. They include several that one might well describe as abstract art. In the 1990s, Meier restricted himself to committing his compositions to tracing paper using ink – these compositions themselves look like graphic works. In total, there are some 200 graphic works in his archives. Throughout his life, Meier used shorthand to commit his jottings, thoughts and visions to paper; but this makes it almost impossible to get any swift insight into his writings.
If we cast a glance over the programmes, reviews and smaller reports that have hitherto been published about Hermann Meier and his works, we can see that he is no longer an unknown quantity today. He has been described as an outsider, a monolith, a maverick, and as an idiosyncratic, brilliant composer. One critic who seemed enthusiastic about his music called him “a glacial erratic boulder on the musical landscape”. Often, people write of Meier’s “radicalism” and his uncompromising persistence in his music.
The young pianist Dominik Blum from Winterthur began to study Meier’s music intensively some 20 years ago. He was very enthusiastic, and often performed works by Meier. In 2002 he finally succeeded in releasing the first-ever CD of Meier’s music, featuring several of his solo piano works. He wrote of Hermann Meier’s music as being “constructivist and yet full of energy; it’s idiosyncratic and unwieldy, and yet possessed of great sensuousness and poetry”.** Blum also described him as a dodecaphonist, a serialist and an avant-gardist who in the early 1960s adopted the technique of sound clusters, deploying them against each other in a collage-like fashion. Blum referred specifically to the Piano piece 1968 as an example of Meier’s cluster technique.
Throughout his life, Hermann Meier was on the hunt for something new. On 9 February 1997, he wrote as follows to a journalist who had asked him for information about Wladimir Vogel: “He [Vogel] criticised my all-too mathematical approach, but in 1955 he recommended me to go to Eimert’s electronic studio in Cologne. Regrettably, I didn’t follow his advice back then, and began to waste my time by tinkering around with what was essentially electronic music for orchestra, but without any instinct for it, and the result was neither fish nor fowl …”. It was not until 20 years after Vogel’s recommendation that Meier – now 70 years old – was properly introduced to electronic music by Peter Haller at the experimental studio of the Heinrich Strobel Foundation at South-West German Radio in Freiburg. In 1975 he wrote the piece Klangschichten (“Sound layers”), for which he was awarded the Work Prize of Canton Solothurn in 1976. From then on he occupied himself exclusively with electronics, which he described in the abovementioned letter as a “volcanic activity, the act of giving birth to a new continent”. He was hardly interested any more in what he had composed before.
Since Meier’s beginnings as a composer, Wladimir Vogel had been his great master. He had got to know Vogel in the early 1940s, and remained in frequent, friendly contact with him until Vogel’s death. It was from Vogel that Meier learned the twelve-note method. Meier had great respect for Vogel, and so he felt it was a great honour when Vogel once visited him in Zullwil. Wladimir Vogel had his origins in the Russian tradition (in Scriabin), and later studied with Ferruccio Busoni in Berlin, and he was one of the first composers to adopt the twelve-note method. During the Second World War and in the years thereafter, Vogel lived in Canton Ticino, where in the late 1940s he instructed students from all over Europe in the twelve-note method (including Jacques Wildberger, Robert Suter and Eric Bergmann). In 1948, Vogel organised a conference in Orselina near Locarno, attended by Luigi Dallapiccola, Riccardo Malipiero, Erich Schmid, Hermann Meier and others, in preparation for the 1st International Congress of Twelve-Tone Music in Milan in 1949.***
In 1950, Hermann Meier went to Paris to take further lessons in Schoenberg’s twelve-note technique from the composer René Leibowitz. Leibowitz had undertaken an intensive study of the work of Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils, and he played a major role in the dissemination of twelve-note music among the post-War European avant-garde. In around 1950, Meier was primarily working on orchestral pieces, and his work clearly showed the influence of Vogel and Leibowitz.
Hermann Meier in Yverdon 1979
Hermann Meier in Zullwil 2000
The great role models by whom Hermann Meier was inspired were above all Mondrian, whom he regarded as the most brilliant painter of his time, and the Brazilian architect Oskar Niemeyer, who was co-responsible for building Brasilia. In 1966, Meier dedicated his Piece for strings, wind and piano to Niemeyer, and his papers also include a sketch for Niemeyer II (for 2 Hammond organs, 2 pianos and strings). Meier was also inspired by other great thinkers of his time, such as the physicist and pioneer of quantum mechanics Werner Heisenberg, and in 1968 Meier also dedicated a work to him.
Meier was an intellectual, and he devoted time to studying philosophers such as Hegel, Kant, Jaspers, Nietzsche and others. He was also interested in fields such as mathematics, astronomy and geology. In short, he was extremely well read and possessed immense knowledge.
Nature also played an important role in Hermann Meier’s life. He would walk through the nearby forests for hours on end in order to “clear his head” and gather new strength. He always had pen and paper with him so that he could make notes, and he jotted down his ideas in shorthand. He walked all the way to Canton Valais, which he loved more than anywhere else, and where he climbed several of its mountains over 4000 metres in height. He was over 60 when he embarked on such a trip for the last time, climbing the Bietschhorn together with his eldest son and a mountain guide.
H.M. Repairing his Motorcycle 1932
In 1973, after retirement and after the death of his wife Marie – the mother of his five children – Meier moved to French Switzerland. He first lived in Yvonand, then later moved to Yverdon with his new partner Helena Stebler. He spent a total of 25 years by the banks of Lake Neuchâtel. He liked his French-Swiss compatriots, supposedly because they left him in peace. Three years before his death, Meier returned to his former home in Zullwil. He needed nursing care, and was taken in by his son Alfons and daughter-in-law Beatrice, who looked after him until his death. He died on 19 August 2002 at the age of 96.
* Doris Lanz: “Neue Musik in alten Mauern”, pp. 225, 233 and 271
** Programme text of 7 April 2001
*** Hans Oesch: Wladimir Vogel, pp. 91-92