‘If it weren’t for my wife…’

Arnold Spescha seems to have packed more into every day than most people would manage in a week. And at the age of 72 his enthusiasms are undiminished: for teaching, for music and literature, for his native Romansh language.

This content was published on June 30, 2013 - 11:00
Julia Slater in Chur,

The stories soon start pouring out; a born communicator, he has plenty of tales to tell, about his childhood in the village of Pigniu – population about 85 at the time – his long teaching career, his involvement in music, the books he has written.

“But I have to tell you, I couldn’t have done it without my wife. She did everything else. She looked after the children. She stayed at home and kept the shop going. That’s what gave me the time and the freedom to do what I’ve done,” he insists.


He won’t – or perhaps can’t – say which of his passions is the most important to him.

Is it music? He comes from a musical family; his father played the organ in the village church for more than 60 years. While at university in Zurich he also attended the music academy. He has conducted numerous choirs and bands, including the Chur city band. And he has sat on competition juries, and written books and articles about music.

Beethoven has a special place in his heart. As a student he wrote a dissertation on the approach taken by four different conductors to Beethoven’s Fifth symphony – and found the subject so fascinating that he hasn’t stopped collecting recordings of that particular symphony ever since. He now has over 200.

But he is a prolific writer as well – asked how many books and articles he has published, he cannot produce a figure offhand. Some are about music. Some are about language. He was asked by the cantonal authorities to produce a reference grammar of the Sursilvan idiom of Romansh, which was published in 1989. It took him nearly four years. “I didn’t know in advance what it would be like. If I had, perhaps I wouldn’t have agreed,” he laughed.

All those interested in Sursilvan must be glad he didn’t know: it is a masterpiece of clarity and information.

His proudest literary work is his poetry collection Ei dat ils muments da pass lev – Zeiten leichtfüssigen Schritts (Times of light-footed steps), published in 2007. Each poem starts with a musical theme, and applies it to the human experience. The poems are in Romansh with German translations.

Below, listen to him reading one his poems:

Then there are his diaries, not for publication, which he has kept daily since the late 1960s. He is now at volume 92. Events, reflections, photos, mementos…


Spescha started his working life as a teacher in village schools. Teaching is another one of his passions. “I would do it again, even today. Children today are a little bit different but no worse than we were.”

After two years of primary school teaching, he went to university where he ended up with a doctorate in Romance linguistics – French, Italian, and his native Romansh. From 1969 until he retired in 2004 he taught in the cantonal school in Chur – for the last eight years combining this with the post of vice-principal.

For 12 of those years he also taught Romansh language and literature at the universities of Fribourg and Zurich.

“I think it’s a matter of behaving decently towards the students, and being fair, preparing your lessons and being a hard worker. And above all you have to like young people.” 


Village life

Teaching is in his blood. His father was the village schoolmaster in Pigniu, his mother taught domestic science to the girls. All nine classes were taught in the same room.

Life was different then. School ran from mid-October to mid-April; the rest of the year was spent on farm work. Everyone had their own task. Some took the animals up to the mountain pastures; Spescha looked after the ones that stayed relatively close to the village.

Pigniu is situated at a height of about 600 metres above the Rhine valley, six kilometres from the nearest station. There was no tarred road: when at the age of 13 Spescha moved to secondary school in Ilanz down below, he had to walk up when he came home at the weekend.

“That’s just how it was,” he smiles.

Looking forward

In Spescha’s study in Chur – where the bookshelves on every wall reach up to the ceiling – he points to the boxes of papers on the history of Pigniu collected by his father, which he is sorting through.

His current major project is a book about the Russian general Alexander Suvorov, who in gruelling circumstances led his troops through the Swiss Alps during the Napoleonic wars. The army came over the Panix pass and Suvorov spent the night in the village – sleeping in the very house where Spescha grew up.

Spescha and his wife spend the summer in Pigniu. They have lived in Chur for 40 years, “but we when we talk about going to the village, we still call it going home”.

As the conversation comes to an end, he suddenly says: “I hope I haven’t sounded boastful.” Then he repeats: “Don’t forget to say, if it weren’t for my wife, I couldn’t have done half of what I’ve done.”

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