Erland von Koch 1910-2009

Written by: Martin Anderson

The death of Erland von Koch on January 31st, three months short of his
ninety-ninth birthday, robs Sweden of the last surviving member of the
generation of composers – like Gunnar de Frumerie, Lars-Erik Larsson, Dag
Wirén and Hilding Hallnäs – who began to make an impact in the 1930s.
Indeed, they were known as the ‘Trettiotalisterna’, the Generation of the
1930s, more conservative in their outlook than the more radical ‘Monday
Group’. Koch came from a musical family – his father was the composer Sigurd
von Koch (1879-1919) – and, after an initial interest in jazz, studied at
the Stockholm Conservatory from 1931 to 1935, before taking himself to
Germany, where he studied composition with Paul Höffer, piano with Claudio
Arrau and conducting with Clemens Krauss.

Back in Sweden in 1938, he began a three-pronged career, being active as a
conductor but also teaching at Wohlfahrt¹s Music School in Stockholm
(1939-53) and working for two years (1943-45) as a sound-engineer in Swedish
Radio. In 1953 the Musikhögskola in Stockholm engaged him to teach harmony;
a full professorship followed 15 years later. He was also busy in various
administrative roles, serving as chairman of Fylkingen, an association for
experimental music and other arts (1946-48), and as an executive member of
the Swedish Composers’ Association (1947-63). Membership of the Royal
Academy of Music was conferred on him in 1957; many other decorations
followed later in life.

Erland von Koch’s music passed through several distinct phases, beginning
with a neo-Classical period in the 1930s (his orchestral Dans No. 2 of 1938
achieved popularity for a while). A broader, more Romantic idiom followed in
the 1940s, coinciding with a two-year sojourn (1945-46) in Sjurberg in
Dalecarlia, in central Sweden, during which time he systematically studied
the folk-music of the region. It had a profound effect on his music, as the
title of the second of his six symphonies makes plain: it is the Sinfonia
(1945) and is shot through with the melos and rhythms of
Dalecarlian tunes. Even though a slightly more radical phase supervened in
the 1960s, when Koch brushed fleetingly against dodecaphony, the Dalecarlian
heritage was never too far behind; and it stayed with him: one later work
was a Dalecarlian Rondo for chamber orchestra (1993). Other influences in
his mature music arrived through his examination of Bartók, Grieg and
Sibelius; and Hindemith’s example served to produce crystal-clear orchestral
textures anchored on a firm contrapuntal technique. During his time in
Germany, he had intended to study with Hindemith, whose disfavour with the
Nazis put paid to those plans.

Koch’s output includes five ballets, much choral and chamber music (not
least seven string quartets), 15 concertos (including three for piano and a
number involving the saxophone: the 1976 Saxophonia features four of them).
There’s a series of 18 Monologues for solo instruments (1975-77); and among
his 30 film scores are six for early Bergman releases. A number of his
scores bear witness to his fondness for the northern landscape, and the
Fifth Symphony, Lapponica (1976-77), is a protest against the harsh
treatment of the Sami by their southern neighbours.

Koch was poorly served in the studio, although half a dozen or so of his
works can be found in BIS, Cala, Caprice and Intim Musik compilations.
Partial amends were made in 2000 when Musica Sveciae released a CD (PSCD710)
in its ‘Modern Classics’ series with new recordings of the Sinfonia
, the Viola Concerto (1946, revised 1966), the Nordic Capriccio
(1943) and a suite from the ballet Askungen (‘Cinderella’) of 1942.

  • This article was written for International Record Review and published in the May 2009 issue
  • It is reproduced on The Classical Source with permission
  • International Record Review

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