Remembering Mani Matter, by Franz Hohler

When I was having an MRI scan some time ago, I was allowed to choose what music I wanted in my headphones, supposedly to help the time pass faster. I opted for a CD by the American composer Steve Reich. When the operator pulled me out of the scanner afterwards, he remarked that nobody had ever picked that music before. I asked him what people generally liked listening to, to which he replied: „Mozart or Mani Matter.“

One Sunday evening, I happened to catch the end of a Swiss episode of the police drama Tatort („Züri brännt“ to be precise), and after her apparently successful investigations the inspector was singing Mani Matter’s „I han es Zündhölzli azündt“ (I lit a match), for her own (and the audience’s) entertainment.

The culture section of Sunday newspaper NZZ am Sonntag recently announced the Zurich jazz festival unerhört! with the headline:

« ‹Kunscht isch gäng es Risiko›
sang schon Mani Matter.»

[Art is always a risk], as Mani Matter once sang.“

After leaving high school, he initially did a semester of German studies at the University of Bern but was „a bit put off by lectures about Goethe“ and decided to study law instead. His father was a lawyer specialising in trademark and patent law, but Mani’s main interest lay in constitutional law. He became a PhD student under constitutional law professor Richard Bäumlin in 1963, and in 1965 he completed his doctorate with a dissertation entitled Die Legitimation der Gemeinde zur staatsrechtlichen Beschwerde (The legitimation of the commune in constitutional law appeals). It identified the options available to Swiss communes to appeal against cantonal decisions before the Federal Supreme Court and criticised the Court’s attitude at that time for being insufficiently liberal. Ultimately, it had to do with the rights of the underdog, a theme taken up in his song „Dr Hansjakobli und ds Babettli“. The dissertation was published by Stämpfli Verlag in Bern and, at 79 pages, must be one of the shortest ever written.

In 1967, Mani went to Cambridge for a year to work on his post-doctoral thesis. Entitled Die pluralistische Staatstheorie (The pluralist theory of the state), it presented the state as a structure not primarily forged by consensus but rather requiring the clash of different opinions in order to survive and thrive. By the time he returned to Switzerland, the only thing missing was the footnotes, which he never got around to writing. Despite this, Mani, by now an Oberassistent (reader), secured a lectureship on constitutional and administrative law at the University of Bern in 1970. A professorship would have been well within his grasp.

However, in January 1969 he had taken on a temporary job with Bern City Council, who wanted someone to bring order to its mishmash of rules and regulations. After completing this assignment, he was appointed permanent legal counsel for the city.

In a letter to his singer-songwriter friend Fritz Widmer, whom he’d met in Cambridge, he admitted that the prospect of a conventional life as a city official came as something of a relief. He had married Joy Doebeli in 1963, they had three children, and although his wife had never given up her job as an English teacher, he felt a sense of responsibility for the family.

When I asked him in a 1971 interview whether he would like to sing full-time, he replied:

„No. I wouldn’t want to feel that I had to go into my study at eight o’clock each morning and keep writing more songs
in order to feed my family.I like to think that the songs I write, and which I somehow have to make the time to write, are really the only ones that meet a need within myself.“

Meanwhile, alongside all this work, he continued to devote himself to the other activity for which he is best known today, the writing of chansons.

Klaus Schädelin recorded some of them, and would insist on playing them to his visitors. One of these was Guido Schmezer, then Head of Entertainment at Radio Bern, who subsequently invited Mani to make some studio recordings. Mani Matter’s voice was heard on the radio for the first time on 28 February 1960.

Songs from that era include „Dr Ferdinand isch gstorbe“, „I han en Uhr erfunde“, „D’Psyche vo der Frou“, „Dr Herr Zehnder“, „Dr Kolumbus“, „Ds rote Hemmli“, „Ds Eisi“, „Dr Heini“ and „Ds Lotti schilet“. And so the match was lit (to use one of his most famous images), and the flame would spread fast.

His songs initially featured on programmes of the teachers’ cabaret Schifertafele (Blackboard), but it was not until 1967 that Mani performed regularly himself, alongside Ruedi Krebs, Jacob Stickelberger, Bernhard Stirnemann, Markus Traber and Fritz Widmer. In an enthusiastic piece in the newspaper Der Bund, Heinrich von Grünigen came up with the collective name „Berner Troubadours“ (Bern Troubadours).

Use of the spoken language was proving a breath of fresh air to writers too. Kurt Marti, who wrote an article about Mani in the magazine Die Weltwoche, had already discovered dialect as a means of expression, and he was followed by others like Ernst Eggimann and later Ernst Burren. Walter Vogt coined the term „modern mundart“ (modern vernacular) to describe it.

In 1966, the newly founded publishing house Zytglogge Verlag brought out Mani’s first record (also the publisher’s first), entitled Berner Chansons von und mit Mani Matter (Bernese chansons by and with Mani Matter, later changed to I han en Uhr erfunde (I invented a watch)). This was followed by his second record in 1967, Alls wo mir i d Finger chunnt (Anything I touch). In 1969, Egon Ammann (Kandelaber Verlag) published the first volume of chansons, Us emene lääre Gygechaschte (From an empty violin case), for which Mani received the Book Prize of the City of Bern that same year. His third record came out in 1970 (Hemmige, meaning „Inhibitions“).

By this time, Mani Matter had long since become a household name. Performances by the Berner Troubadours were a hit all over Switzerland, and Mani was soon questioning why the six of them were travelling around the country for 10–15 minute gigs, when each of them had a much more extensive repertoire.

What he helped trigger, namely a winning-back of dialect for poetry, thinking and singing helped his Swiss German-speaking contemporaries to understand their identity, to feel a sense of belonging without having to sing a national anthem.

His verses are an invitation to simplicity; they come across as light and natural, catch us in familiar everyday moments – on a train („Ir Ysebahn“), on the way to the office („Är isch vom Amt ufbotte gsy“), looking for coins for a parking meter („Dr Parkingmeter“) – but then also plunge us into philosophical labyrinths. „Ir Ysebahn“, for example, isn’t just a funny song; it is also a song about the limits of our insight, something that Kant thought a lot about, and about the potential for conflict that this entails. „Dene wos guet geit“ is sociology in disguise, and in a nutshell.

Mani was not averse to using foreign words, either. He dedicated an entire song to the „Sändwitsch“, for example, the final verse of which culminates in the word „Dialäktik“. At the hairdresser’s, he experienced „es metaphysischs Grusle“ (a metaphysical shudder) when he saw himself multiplied into a male-voice choir in the mirrors. It is this unconditional openness to language, this closeness to life, that has prevented his songs from ageing to this day.

«Im’ne Sportflugzüg
sy zwee mal en
Alpeflug ga mache»

Mani Matter, Dr Alpeflug


In the late 1980s, Züri West began to include a rock version of a Mani song on each of their records. „Dynamit“ sounded as if it had been written for them. Many of Mani’s songs adapt effortlessly to the rock beat, or else the rock beat adapts to them, letting their anarchic side shine through – or even their poetic side, as in „Heiwäg“ or Stephan Eicher’s version of „Hemmige“.

At Eicher’s concerts in France, the audience always sang along to the chorus of „Hemmige“. When I witnessed this at the Olympia in Paris, I imagined Mani smiling, with his uncle’s Maurice Chevalier record under his arm.

When the CD Matter-Rock was compiled, „Warum syt dir so truurig?“ was performed by Polo Hofer, as there is no recording of the song by Mani himself. He told me afterwards they had spent ages debating whether he should stress the word „warum“ (why) on the first syllable (as Mani had indicated in his manuscript, as a song in 3/4 time) or on the second, as a prelude to a 4/4 rhythm. In the end he opted for the latter as it suited him better. It is typical of Mani’s melodies that both are possible. What mattered to him was that it sounded natural.

Lack of space means that I can’t go into Mani Matter’s literary works, which were quite distinct from his chansons. His short stories, aphorisms, one-act plays, poems, philosophical reflections and diaries were written in standard German and not published until after his death, although he did choose the titles of the books himself – Sudelhefte (literally „Rough notebooks“), published by Benziger in 1974, and Rumpelbuch (Junk book), brought out by the same publisher in 1976. Two more were published subsequently: Das Cambridge Notizheft (The Cambridge notebook, Zytglogge, 2011) and Was kann einer allein gegen Zen Buddhisten (What can one person alone do against Zen Buddhists?, Zytglogge, 2016). They are treasure troves, full of surprises that testify to Mani’s intellectual brilliance, but also to his curiosity about other forms.

„I got run over because I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t paying attention because I was thinking about something else. I was thinking: it’s a pity I’m not a musician.“


He wrote the text for his friend, the composer Jürg Wyttenbach, who had already penned much of the music by the time Mani himself died in an accident. After that, Wyttenbach no longer felt able to continue with the composition. It took him over 40 years to resume work on it. The piece finally received its premiere at the Lucerne Festival in 2015.

The work’s upbeat tone and playful musical and lyrical humour make the tragedy of Mani Matter’s death all the more poignant. He too was probably thinking about something else on the motorway that day.

Text: Franz Hohler, photos: Matter & Co. Verlag

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