Hanny Christen at work collecting folk songs.
Hanny Christen at work collecting folk songs. Staatsarchiv BL, PA 6297, 06.01

The woman who saved folk music

Armed with a steely resolve and tape recorder, Hanny Christen from Basel-Landschaft preserved folk music during the 1950s, just as it was in danger of dying out.

Rachel Huber

Rachel Huber

Rachel Huber is a historian and associate researcher at the University of Bern.

Clad in traditional costume and carrying one of the first portable sound recorders (UHER tape recorder) on her back, Hanny Christen spent decades walking throughout rural Switzerland, often covering many kilometres, from farm to family estate, to watch dances being danced and hear old songs being performed in order to collect traditional Swiss music: “Schwizerart bewahre, der Heimat treu blybe”, (preserve Swissness, stay true to your roots) was her credo, driven by her passion for Swiss folk music. Although she built up one of the most valuable folk music collections in Europe – the most extensive in the Alpine region – Hanny Christen, the woman from Basel (1899-1976), and her work remained unknown for many years.
Hanny Christen’s tape recorder from the 1950s.
Hanny Christens Aufnahmegerät aus den 1950er-Jahren. hanny-christen.ch
There were some folk-song collectors in the first half of the 20th century, including German Kurt Huber, born in Chur, who was executed by the Nazis in 1943 due to his connection with the “White Rose” resistance movement, and his occasional companion, Kiem Pauli from Bavaria. Christen has been seen as Switzerland’s foremost folk music collector since the discovery of her recordings in the 1990s, which comprise almost 12,000 instrumental Swiss folk melodies dating from 1800 to 1940. Her collection is one of the more extensive in Europe.
Hanny Christen (right) covered a lot of ground for “her” folk music.
Hanny Christen (right) covered a lot of ground for “her” folk music. Staatsarchiv BL, PA 6297, 06.01
Johanna Christen was born on 3 August 1899 in Liestal to Sophie, née Spinnler, and Oscar Christen. She had three siblings and attended the Töchterschule for the education of girls in Basel with her twin sister. Johanna learned the cello and piano as part of her education in classical music. Her love of local songs from the Basel countryside came from her grandfather Jakob Christen, a former Cantonal Councillor of Basel-Landschaft (1858-1863). Most music collectors, including Christen, were city dwellers from families of a certain social standing. They collected rural folk music as it stilled their longing for a perfect world with “pure” music. However, Christen’s motivation went further than that: venturing out to the far reaches of the Swiss cantons was an emancipating act for her. Her family wanted their unmarried daughter to look after the household. Her father, who took over the family business “J. J. Christen & Söhne” in 1915, paid Hanny an allowance in return for her promising not to take a job, as work was considered unsuitable for a lady of her social class. Following her father’s death in 1927 (her mother died when she was just 11 years old) Hanny’s brother Walter took over the cement plant and continued paying his sister her allowance, expecting in return that she would conduct herself as befitting her station. By conducting her music research project, Christen escaped from the role imposed on her by her family and society. She was also unmoved by the hostility and criticism levelled at her for doing so.
The Christen cement plant in Muttenz, 1920s.
The Christen cement plant in Muttenz, 1920s. ETH Library Zurich
However, before she actively began recording old Swiss music, which was close to disappearing at the time, she took part in various traditional costume and singing events from 1928. Moreover, Christen’s activities were not restricted to her interest in Switzerland’s cultural heritage. At the 1928 edition of the SAFFA (Swiss exhibition of women’s work) she was responsible for those dressed in traditional costumes and thus played her part in lobbying for recognition of work done by women, in keeping with the aim of the SAFFA organising committee: to achieve equality and the right to paid work for women over the longer term. Christen was never a great believer in societal and traditional norms. Although she grew up and lived in the city of Basel, she identified strongly with the surrounding countryside (known as Baselbiet). This was also reflected in the way she spoke with a pronounced rural accent. Hanny was also fond of wearing Baselbiet folk dress, leading to her exclusion from the Basel traditional costume dance group: they were unimpressed at Christen’s insistence on wearing her traditional costume from the Basel-Landschaft area at the folk dress celebration on the Rigi (Rigi-Trachtenfest). This lady of social standing remained a non-conformist throughout her life and began collecting music in 1938.
A costume from Basel-Landschaft, photo taken in the early 20th century.
A costume from Basel-Landschaft, photo taken in the early 20th century. Swiss National Museum
Hanny started by collecting dances from rural Basel and northwestern Switzerland. She wrote the melodies down in her notebook and recorded the step sequences as well. The music and dancing were normally performed for her by old people. She subsequently broadened the scope of her research to include the whole of Switzerland and used the latest technology from 1958 to preserve the music. The application of modern technology contrasted with her vision of preserving old music in its original and unaltered form. Christen was no respecter of modern enhancements or interpretations, she dismissed the folk music that gained in popularity during the 1930s (known as Ländlermusik), as “newfangled”.
Hanny Christen was awarded the Berner Radiopreis in 1951 in recognition of her work.
Hanny Christen was awarded the Berner Radiopreis in 1951 in recognition of her work. Staatsarchiv BL, PA 6297, 06.01
The ethnomusicologist made her recordings between 1958 and 1965. She published volumes of songs and verses, wrote plays, gave dance performances with her folk dance group and received the Berner Radiopreis together with Eugen Huber in 1951. In the mid-1960s, Christen became ill and donated her collection to the University of Basel, which rejected it as being unsystematic. Until its discovery by Fabian Müller in 1992, the collection was stored unindexed in Basel University Library. Christen died on 29 June 1976.

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