Jacques Wildberger was born in 1922 in Basel, Switzerland. Already as a teenager he became acquainted with works by contemporary composers such as Hindemith, Honegger, Stravinsky, Krenek, and Schoenberg. Upon graduating from high school in 1940 he studied piano with Eduard Henneberger and theory with Gustav Güldenstein at the Basel Conservatory, until 1944. He soon turned his attention to composition.
Impacted by the political circumstances in the 1940s, in 1944–45 Wildberger wrote revolutionary songs on texts of Erich Mühsam, a writer who had been murdered by the Nazis. A decisive experience for Wildberger was a performance of Vladimir Vogel’s oratorio “Thyl Claes,” which impressed him deeply and changed his view of composition. From 1948 to 1952, therefore, he studied with Vladimir Vogel in the Swiss Canton of Ticino, focusing on the twelve-tone technique of Schoenberg, and he participated for the first time at the Darmstadt Summer Courses.
The young composer became internationally known in 1953 with his orchestral work “Tre mutazioni,” which had been commissioned by Heinrich Strobel. Although he found recognition abroad, and though his works were performed, in his home country his stature as contemporary composer hardly improved; he was viewed as a communist and as a composer of unpopular twelve-tone music. Politically Wildberger distanced himself from communism after the veil was lifted on Stalin’s crimes. He no longer saw the importance of the musical avant-garde by writing politically motivated music, but by writing twelve-tone music.
From 1959 to 1966 Wildberger taught composition, analysis, and orchestration at the Baden School of Music in Karlsruhe, Germany. Starting in 1966, until his retirement in 1987, he taught harmony, analysis, orchestration, and composition at the Music Academy in Basel. A grant by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) allowed him to take a one-year leave in 1967, during which time he stayed in West Berlin.
The student movement of 1968 again roused his artistic interest in politics. This was manifested in his impactful essay from 1968 entitled, “On the difficulty still to compose nowadays.” In it Wildberger claimed that art and society mutually influence each other. For him, as he writes, music leads to “the discovery of identity, the development of an inner order by means of a reasoned musical language, which should allow me to face the opaque and absurd condition humaine, to survive it. Music should enable me to define my position as an artist within human society and my responsibility towards it, and to present it as a protest against any and all socio-political force and injustice.”
The numerous awards granted to this leading Swiss composer include the prize of the Lions-Club Basel (1960), the Stereo-Prize of the German broadcast association (1965), the Composer Award of the Swiss Association of Musicians (1981), and the Culture Prize of Riehen, Wildberger’s town of residence (1987).
Wildberger died in 2006 in Riehen/Basel.