Obituary: Herman D. Koppel

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The Independent Culture
HERMAN D. KOPPEL was the last surviving member of the great triumvirate that took over the helm of Danish music after Carl Nielsen. Vagn Holmboe died in 1996, at the aged of 86. Finn Hoffding died last year, aged 97. Now Koppel, too, is dead, a few weeks before his 90th birthday. He was a permanent feature of Danish musical life from the 1920s until only a year or so ago, when his health began to falter - with a brief interruption in 1943 when Koppel, a Jew, took refuge from Hitler's occupying forces in southern Sweden. He died a national monument, garlanded with honours.

Koppel's parents were Polish immigrants who in 1907 came to Denmark in their late teens as refugees from Russian occupation. Herman was born a year later. His parents were not musical - his father was a tailor, who worked with a dedication that brought the family moderate comfort - but as a safeguard against poverty they made sure that their children knew music. And so at the age of five or six Herman was put to the piano and his younger brother Julius to the violin (he, too, became a distinguished musician).

Herman made rapid progress and at the age of 17 was admitted to the Royal Danish Conservatory, having been rejected earlier simply because he was too young; his piano teachers there were Rudolf Simonsen, director of the Conservatory, and Anders Rachlew.

It was through his application for admission to the Conservatory that, in December 1925, Koppel first met Nielsen himself. Nielsen examined the scores Koppel had submitted in support of his request, complimented the young composer on his sense of form and told him what his own teacher, Niels Gade, born in 1817 and a friend of Mendelssohn, had told him. Koppel's own teaching career, five decades long, was later to pass on that sense of continuity.

The contact with Nielsen deepened when Simonsen asked Koppel if he would like to give Nielsen a hand preparing a cantata he had composed for the opening of an exhibition, and so Koppel began to study Nielsen's piano works under the guidance of their composer. He made his debut as a pianist in 1930 (a year after his debut as a composer) playing Nielsen's Theme and Variations, and soon afterwards gave a concert consisting entirely of Nielsen's piano music. He went to Nielsen's home to play him the programme beforehand; Nielsen professed himself very happy with Koppel's playing. Koppel in turn found Nielsen "a very kind person, very quiet" - and, far from acting the great man, "he looked at my compositions and gave me advice - not instruction, for he accepted it as it was".

After the Nazis occupied Denmark in 1940, they initially left the Danish Jews alone, and in 1943 Koppel was still able to act as assistant to the ailing Simonsen. But the outlook was darkening, and when one of Simonsen's pupils, a daughter of the Danish Minister of Defence, brought advice from her father that Koppel and his family should get out, he took it seriously and fled with his family across the Kattegat.

Koppel had been composing assiduously all this time and continued to do so throughout his life, eventually amassing a catalogue of impressive size. The earliest influence on his music was, of course, Nielsen, but Stravinsky and Bartk soon pushed themselves forward; and Koppel also took a keen interest in jazz. Koppel synthesised these styles into a language that may not have been wildly original - he was no radical - but which always showed complete mastery of his materials.

He wrote generously for his own instrument, the piano: there are four concertos, a number of chamber works with piano, a sonata, several sets of variations and some miniatures. More impressively yet, there is a cycle of seven imposing symphonies, the fifth of which won the Tivoli symphony competition in 1956. There are several other orchestral works, including a Concerto for Orchestra that will test the mettle of any group that attempts it, and the haunting Memory for strings, written three years ago to commemorate the end of the Second World War.

In Copenhagen in March 1996 the Welsh conductor Owain Arwel Hughes rescued Koppel's magisterial oratorio Moses from three decades of neglect. Moses, a setting of extracts from the book of Genesis, is available on CD and will give a fair indication of how impressive Koppel's music can be: it's a work of granitic strength and grim, hieratic severity, stylistically reminiscent of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms but with a sense of fearsome power that the Russian never achieved.

Yet even in his native Denmark Koppel's music isn't given the respect - and the performances - it deserves, simply because it isn't known. A good part of the blame can be ascribed to Koppel himself: he was notoriously uninterested in his own music and never pushed it. When I was getting to know him, I wondered if he had written anything since the dictionary entries I had consulted and asked if his tally of symphonies still stood at seven. He was genuinely unsure: "Seven, eight, something like that - I can't remember." He also got wrong the number of piano concertos he had composed. Trying to get him to talk about his music was like pulling teeth.

How would he characterise his symphonic style? "It's very difficult to describe one's own music. I don't know." How had his music evolved over the years? "I cannot describe it." He was, moreover, completely devoid of bitterness about his neglect: "I remember from my own youth thinking that there were a lot of old composers and that it was us, who were young, who should be played. And maybe young people today feel the same way - it's quite natural!"

I asked one Danish record-producer why so little of Koppel's music was recorded. "What can you do?" he asked in obvious frustration. "People offer him grants to get his music recorded and he sends them off to record his children and grandchildren!"

Koppel's family is indeed one of the best-known features of the Danish musical landscape. His sons Anders and Thomas are both composers of "serious" popular music and keyboard players, and his daughters, too, are practising musicians: Therese is a pianist and Lone an opera singer - and his grandchildren are carrying on the family tradition. Koppel's deep involvement with his children's music-making was demonstrated publicly in 1993 when, at the age of 86, he gave the first performance of Anders' piano concerto.

The longevity of his career as a pianist means that - until someone makes a systematic attempt to perform and record his music - it is as a pianist that Koppel will best be remembered, and one whose musicianship remained intact for almost eight decades. In his seventies he celebrated his retirement from teaching by learning Schoenberg's piano music. In 1991 he marked the 60th anniversary of Nielsen's death by performing his piano music in New York. I first met him, in 1995, when he was 86; he had just returned from performing in Gdansk. A volume of Szymanowski's piano music he had picked up there was lying on his piano, and I asked him if he knew one of the works in it. No, let's see, he said, opened the music and gave it a phenomenal performance at sight.

But the true legacy of Herman D. Koppel (he always used the "D.", which stood for David) is the music. Perhaps the fact that he has died without seeing it pass into the repertoire will prick a few Danish consciences into dusting it down and letting the world hear it at last.

Herman David Koppel, composer, pianist and teacher: born Copenhagen 1 October 1908; married 1935 Edel-Vibeke Clausen-Bruhn (two sons, two daughters), 1976 Inge Vibeke Kabel (nee Raunkjr); died Copenhagen 14 July 1998.

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