Erland von Koch: Composer inspired by Scandinavian folk music

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The Independent Online

Koch's father was the Romantic composer Sigurd von Koch (1879–1919), and as a child he used to lie under the piano, listening to the playing of visitors like Wilhelm Stenhammar and Ture Rangström. But it wasn't until he was in his mid-teens that he showed an interest in the piano himself. And his first attraction was to jazz: he formed the Electric Band with some friends and fronted two others, the Diddle Kids and Optimistic Stompers – always wearing dark glasses in case any of his teachers chanced to see him.

As his interest in music grew more serious, and success in a couple of composition competitions confirmed his ability, he attended Stockholm Conservatory (1931–35), intending, under the influence of his Francophile teacher Melcher Melchers, to go on to study in France. But none of the people he wrote to there answered his letters and so he turned to Germany, hoping to study composition in Berlin with Paul Hindemith – who, out of favour with the Nazis, had to pass Koch over to his colleague Paul Höffer; while there, Koch also studied piano with Claudio Arrau and conducting with Clemens Krauss.

Back in Sweden in 1938, his career advanced on five fronts: his First Piano Concerto, premiered in 1938, staked out his claim as a composer of substance; he taught at Wohlfahrt's Music School in Stockholm (1939–53); he was active as a conductor and, briefly, as a sound engineer for Swedish Radio (1943–45); and he worked in music administration, 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). He began to teach harmony at the Musikhögskola in Stockholm in 1953; a full professorship followed 15 years later. Membership of the Royal Academy of Music, conferred on him in 1957, was only one of the many prestigious decorations he was awarded in later years.

Erland von Koch's music went through several phases, the first being a neo-classical period that in 1938 produced his orchestral Dans No. 2, a work that for a while enjoyed widespread popularity. From the mid-1940s his work entered a more openly Romantic approach, coloured by his studies of Grieg, Sibelius and Bartók and, especially, his teacher manqué Paul Hindemith, whose example served to produce crystal-clear orchestral textures anchored on a firm contrapuntal technique.

But it was his encounter with Swedish folk music during a two-year sojourn (1945–46) in Sjurberg in Dalecarlia, in central Sweden, that had the most profound effect on his music. Koch systematically studied the Dalecarlian folk-idiom, examining more than 4,000 notated melodies – which also surrounded him as a living tradition, of course – and from now on its melos and rhythms ran through his music almost as its DNA. The second of his six symphonies, the Sinfonia Dalecarlica of 1945, makes the homage explicit, but even in a slightly more radical time in the 1960s, when Koch hesitantly experimented with dodecaphony, the folk heritage was never far behind.

The fascination with folk music not only produced numerous scores based on Swedish folk tunes; it went hand-in-glove with an environmentalist identification with the Nordic landscape, as the titles of many of his works reveal, among them the orchestral Arkipelag (1950), Lapplandmetamorfoser (1957), Midwinter Sacrificial Feast and Summer Solstice (1984–85). His interest broadened to encompass the music of the Sami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, taking its fullest form in his Fifth Symphony, Lapponica (1976–77), a protest against the shabby treatment of the Sami by their southern neighbours. He responded to the sinking of the ferry Estonia with an orchestral Lament over the Estonia Catastrophe (1994–96).

But Koch wrote absolute music, too, of course, with seven string quartets and no fewer than 15 concertos to his credit. Saxophonists in particular have reason to be grateful to him, with a Concerto (1958), Concerto piccolo (1962) for soprano and alto sax and strings and Saxophonia (1976) for four saxophones and winds among his many works for the instrument. He gave generously elsewhere, too, producing five ballets, many songs and choral pieces and, in 1975–77, a series of 18 Monologues for various solo instruments.

Occasionally, the humour that animates so much of his music makes it through to the title, as in his 1973 take on Gershwin, A Swede in New York. And his 30 film scores include six written for the young Ingmar Bergman.

In an interview in his mid-nineties Koch explained: "I still write, but I'm not as active as I was before: my eyesight is not quite as good, and also I have become more critical with age". And he still held an essentially simple and modest view of the composer's task: "The melody is the key element, the very life and soul of music, and I have always endeavoured to cultivate its many expressive qualities".

Martin Anderson

Erland Sigurd Christian Jag Vogt von Koch, composer: born Stockholm 26 April 1910; married Ulla Hyllius (deceased; one daughter); died Stockholm 31 January 2009.

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