Alain Claude Sulzer, © Lucia Hunziker
Alain Claude Sulzer, © Lucia Hunziker

“I also like to stray from the path sometimes”

Alain Claude Sulzer is one of Switzerland’s most famous writers. For the evening of 2 August at Atelier Bolt (7 p.m.), which he is organising together with pianist Oliver Schnyder, he takes a look at tourism in Switzerland in the 19th century. And with the music that was composed on these journeys. Georg Rudiger asked him a few questions about this.

Georg Rudiger, 24/01/2022



Georg Rudiger: In the 19th century, Switzerland was gradually opened up in terms of transport. The railways made travelling more comfortable. Why did the country become a place of longing for many poets, painters and composers?

Alain Claude Sulzer: Switzerland, as an ideal or idealised place, is of course older than the railways. For the German-speaking world, Friedrich Schiller, who was in fact never here, was not the least contributor to this.  Nevertheless, he had a strong influence on the image of Switzerland. Since his Wilhelm Tell, Switzerland has been regarded as a haven of freedom, but also as a refuge for assassins and anarchists, of whom the contemporary rulers were quite afraid. Elisabeth of Austria, who was murdered in Geneva, even wrote an almost prophetic poem about it.

Why did you and the pianist Oliver Schnyder choose Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Franz Liszt for your musical-literary evening?

As far as Liszt is concerned, not least because some of his compositions explicitly refer to Swiss motifs without being programme music in the narrower sense, they have a rather more intimate, diary-like character, which is why in a certain way they exhibit characteristics of an almost impressionistic musical language. Like Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, they are first and foremost mood pieces. In pieces like “Au lac de Wallenstadt” from the first volume of the “Années de pèlerinage: Suisse”, Liszt was concerned with rendering the water itself musically. In my opinion, this goes far beyond tone-painting. Rather, he put the essence of water into tones, he transformed matter into music.

Felix Mendelssohn kept a diary and wrote letters on his four journeys through Switzerland between 1822 and 1847. But above all, he drew the landscapes. Which texts bring you closer to this composer?

Let yourself be surprised as I let myself be surprised. Not all the texts for this evening have been written yet. I do research in all directions, which means I read and sometimes like to stray from the path, and at some points I get stuck on a detail that leads me to further steps.

The friendship between you and Oliver Schnyder came about after your  novel “Aus den Fugen”, published in 2012, in which an aborted piano recital sets many things in motion. What characterises your friendship?

The utmost respect for each other’s achievements, although my respect for Oliver’s ability – from my point of view – is much greater. He can still become a writer one day – he has no lack of talent – but I will never, ever be able to play even two bars of Mozart. Of course our friendship is not only characterised by admiration, but also, for example, by sincerity and the same sense of humour.

What does travelling do to you?

I am not one of the passionate travellers, I have not seen most of what you can see and what others have seen. But what I saw, especially in the United States – whether it was the landscapes along the Pacific or cities like New York – fortunately remains very present. The images I remember remain strong, they accompany me, just as the views from Piz Corvatsch or Pilatus accompany me. They are so strong that even when I’m not there I keep feeding on them. But of course our modern travel is very different from travel in the 18th or 19th century. Even though travelling in Switzerland or Italy – once the most important “destinations” for tourists – could be described as cumbersome and adventurous today, people were mainly looking for the comforts, not the challenge. Ideally, one even travelled with one’s own bed, like Queen Victoria.