Robert Suter was born in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 1919. From 1937, at the Music Academy, Basel, he studied piano with Paul Baumgartner and music theory with Walter Müller von Kulm and Ernst Mohr. In 1943 he obtained a diploma as a music theory teacher. During his studies he attended a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire in Basel, which was a defining experience for him and would influence his compositional output.
At first, Suter worked as a theory teacher at the Conservatory Bern. In 1950 he returned to Basel, first as a teacher at the Music Academy, then, from 1955, at the Music School, and ultimately, until his retirement in 1984, he taught composition, counterpoint, harmony, analysis, and interpretation at the Conservatory.
As a composer, Suter was initially mostly self-taught. After his studies he took a few lessons with Walther Geiser (a student of Busoni), and only in the 1950s did he receive instruction in Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method from Vladimir Vogel. At the Darmstadt Summer Courses Suter was further influenced by Wolfgang Fortner and Ernst Křenek.
Stylistically Suter cannot be identified with any particular school. Tradition and innovation are not mutually exclusive for him. His style is largely characterized by its lyrical quality. At the forefront of his musical ideas is sonority. His first focus in his output was on chamber music. In the 1960s he composed larger scale works, such as orchestral music, that continued, however, to be influenced by his proclivity toward chamber music.
His engagement with the twelve-tone method lead to a new awareness of interval combinations: the horizontal and vertical structures of a composition were now determined by an intervallic core, although “controlled aleatorics” would also play a structural role. This structural approach would determine all of his subsequent output.
For his œuvre, Suter received several awards, including the composition prize of the Schweizerischer Tonkünsterverein in 1977. From 1954–1964 he was president of the Ortsgruppe Basel of the International Society for Contemporary Music (IGNM). For several years he was a freelance contributor as a music editor for the “Montagsstudio” program at Radio Basel. He also performed as an amateur jazz musician. Suter died in 2008 in Basel.