Obituary: Finn Hoffding

Of the trio of grand old men of Danish music, only Hermann D. Koppel is left: Vagn Holmboe died last September and now Holmboe's teacher, Finn Hoffding, has gone too, 19 days after his 98th birthday. Hoffding's compositions seem - unjustifiably - to have fallen from current favour, although his selfless activity on behalf of music education will ensure that his contribution to music-making in Denmark lives on.

Hoffding was born in Copenhagen in 1899, took lessons on the violin and organ, and studied with the legendary scholar and contrapuntist Knut Jeppesen between 1918 and 1921 before travelling to Vienna to study with Joseph Marx - both men composers and musicologists, a double profile that left its mark on Hoffding's own career.

Hoffding was already composing: the first work in Svend Bruhns' and Dan Fog's 1969 catalogue of his work is a Romance for violin and strings from 1918. The first of his four symphonies, the Sinfonia Impetuosa, was completed five years later, with No 2, Il Canto de Liberato, written the following year, No 3 in 1928, and the Sinfonia Concertante, No 4, in 1934. Thereafter Hoffding abandoned the symphony as a form, preferring to develop his orchestral thoughts in a series of "Symphonic Fantasias", of which there are also four, composed between 1939 and 1953; No 2, Det er ganske vist ("It Is Perfectly True", 1940, after Hans Christian Andersen), is perhaps his best-known work, and is the only one of his 18 orchestral pieces currently available on CD. There are also two "normal" operas: Kajserens nye klder ("The Emperor's Clothes", again after Andersen, 1926), Kilderejsen ("The Healing Spring", after Holberg, 1931), and a third, choral, one, Pasteur (1935), intended for performance in schools.

Hoffding's style owes something to the muscularity of Carl Nielsen, the greatest musical Dane of them all, but his lean counterpoint and thinner textures are tempered by an acquaintance with trends in contemporary neo- classicism and honed by a fine sense of irony. But, although his music is generally traditional in expression, his ears were open: Das Eisenbahngleichnis of 1934, for chorus, piano and three saxophones, flirts with jazz, and as late as 1965, in his Fantasia Concertante, he was experimenting with the sort of sounds to be found in mainstream European modernism - the list of percussion that work requires might as easily come from a score of Boulez.

As Hoffding's concert music emerged, so too did his educational works. An encounter with an amateur cantata of Hindemith's in Frankfurt in 1927 sparked the idea of a systematic approach to the teaching of music in Denmark, and brought about the first of a steady stream of works for amateurs, often for chorus, as well as easy pieces for young players: Hoffding's choral music, which often has a deeply humanist message, is now a staple of Danish school singing.

Hoffding was also a renowned teacher himself. He taught at the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen from 1931 until 1955, for the last years as its director. His pupils read like a roll-call of the great and good in Danish music, from Vagn Holmboe to Per Norgard, who takes Holmboe's place as the most noteworthy living Danish composer.

By the time of his death his advanced age had kept the frail Hoffding from the forefront of musical life in Denmark, and his music has slipped from sight. Thorough exploration of his large output (Bruhns' and Fog's catalogue records 110 works up till 1969) would reveal a powerful, witty, thoughtful - and profoundly human - composer.

Finn Hoffding, composer: born Copenhagen 10 March 1899; married Aslaut Munck (died 1996); died Copenhagen 29 March 1997.

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