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 Dalecarlica (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 Dalecarlica, 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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