The respected Swiss conductor and philanthropist, Paul Sacher, began in 1926 his studies in Basel. With Felix Weingartner he studied conducting at the Basel Conservatory and with Karl Nef and Jacques Handschin musicology at the University of Basel.
In 1926 Paul Sacher founded the Basel Chamber Orchestra (= BKO; Basler Kammerorchester) to play works written before the classical period and modern works. The BKO held its first concert on January 21, 1927, with works by George Frideric Handel, Bach, Mozart, and the première of Rudolf Moser's Suite for Cello and Chamber Orchestra, Op. 35. In June 1928 Sacher founded Basel Chamber Chorus (Basler Kammerchor), which gave its first concert was later that same year. In 1929 Sacher had his first encounter with Béla Bartók. The same year he became a board member and artistic director of the Basel chapter of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). In he was appointed to the board of directors of the Swiss Association of Musicians, and in 1933 he became director of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, a teaching and research institute for early music which he founded in Basel.
In 1934 Paul Sacher married Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin, the widow of Emanuel Hoffmann, whose father Basel industrialist Fritz Hoffmann founded the Hoffmann-La Roche pharmaceutical firm, maker of the drags Valium and Librium. After Worls War II, Sacher took control of the firm. Through his wife’s fortune, Sacher was able to pursue his goal of commissioning works from the leading composers of the 20th century. In 1936 he commissioned his first work from B. Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. On January 1937, the BKO's gave its «10th Anniversary Concert», which included includes three world premières of newly commissioned works: Conrad Beck's Rhapsody, Willy Burkhard's Das ewige Brausen, Op. 46, and the above-mentioned B. Bartók work. On June 11, 1940 three commissioned works were premiered by the BKO under Sacher's baton: B. Bartók's Divertimento for Strings, Ernst Krenek's Symphonic Piece for String Orchestra, Op. 86, and W. Burkhard's Genug ist nicht genug, Op. 53.
In 1941, Paul Sacher became founder and artistic director of the Collegium Musicum Zürich (CMZ). On May 18, 1942 he gave the world première of Arthur Honegger's Second Symphony with the CMZ, and on August 27, he gave the first «serenade concert» with the CMZ at the Lucerne International Music Festival. In 1946 he became president of the Swiss Association of Musicians. On January 21, 1947, the BKO held its 20th Anniversary Concert with world premières of three commissioned works: Bohuslav Martinù's Toccata e due canzoni, Igor Stravinsky's Concerto en ré, and A. Honegger's Fourth Symphony (Deliciae Basilienses).
In 1954 the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis merges with the Conservatory and the School of Music to form the Basel Academy of Music. Sacher headed the new institute until his resignation in 1969. In 1955 Sacher was appointed honorary president of the Swiss Association of Musicians. In 1960 he Sacher established a master-class in composition at the Academy of Music and obtains Pierre Boulez as its teacher. In 1971 Sacher joins the administrative board of IRCAM, founded by Pierre Boulez in Paris.
The Paul Sacher Stiftung (Foundation) was established in 1973. In 1983 Paul Sacher acquired the I. Stravinsky estate for $5,250,000. In 1986 the Foundation officially opens with an exhibition on «Twentieth-Century Music at the Paul Sacher Foundation» at the Basel Kunstmuseum. The Foundation is located in the centre of Basel (in Munsterplatz) and houses one of the worlds most important collections of musical manuscripts. Most of these collections were purchased by Sacher during his lifetime, and they include complete collections by several of the most important composers of the 20th century (Lutoslawski, Ligeti, P. Boulez, Anton Webern, Bruno Maderna, as well as Sacher, et al.).
Paul Sacher also appeared as a guest conductor in many European cities. He had made his London debut in 1938 at a concert of the International Society for Contemporary Music, and in December 1993 conducted there the London Mozart Players, ending his programme with a work he had commissioned in 1940 - Martinu's Double Concerto for strings, piano and percussion. He made his USA debut with The Collegiate Chorale in New York on April 5, 1955.
The BKO and the Basel Chamber Chorus gave their final concert on May 7-8 1987. Both institutions disband after, respectively, 61 and 59 years under Sacher's leadership. The final subscription concert of the CMZ was on June 13, 1992, featuring the world première of Wolfgang Rihm's Gesungene Zeit. .In 1996 the Paul Sacher Foundation mounts a concert series, an international symposium, and an exhibition on «Classicist Modernism» at the Basel Kunstmuseum in honor of Sacher's 90th birthday. P. Boulez's Grawemeyer Award winning work Sur Incises was written for Sacher's 90th Birthday. Also, P. Boulez's entire catalogue (including drafts) was bequeathed to the Paul Sacher Foundation. Henze dedicated his Tenth Symphony as an in memoriam to Sacher, who had commissioned it but died before it was completed. Sacher was named the world's third richest man in the 1990’s. At the time of his death in 1999 he was reputed in various publications to be the richest man in Europe, with a fortune estimated at at least $13 billion.
A modest, thoughtful man, Paul Sacher was surely the most bountiful and discriminating patron of music in the 20th century. In all, he comissioned over 200 works, including, apart from those listed above, scores by such composers as B. Bartók (String Quartet No. 6), Harrison Birtwistle, Benjamin Britten, Elliott Carter, Henri Dutilleux, Hans Werner Henze, Paul Hindemith, A. Honegger (many other works), Witold Lutoslawski (Sacher Variation, Double Concerto, Chain 2, etc.), Frank Martin (six works, including the Petite Symphonie Concertante), Bohuslav Martinů (many works including Doubleconcerto, Concerto da camera etc.), and Richard Strauss. P. Boulez's Messagesquisse was one of a number of pieces written in order to celebrate Sacher's 70th birthday and which includes the Sacher hexachord (Eb=Es A C B=H E D=Re). Many of these works received their premieres under his direction.