Herman D. Koppel (1908-1998)

The composer and pianist Herman D. Koppel was one of the greatest Danish musical personalities of the twentieth century. He was the son of a Polish-Jewish couple who moved to Copenhagen at the beginning of the twentieth century. At seventeen Herman D. Koppel was admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. He made his debut as a pianist in 1930, but already before that his first works had been performed. As a composer Koppel was on the whole self-taught, inspired by among others Carl Nielsen, Bartók and Stravinsky; but jazz and ethnic music also influenced him as a young man.

Koppel had to escape with his family in 1943 from the German persecutions of the Jews. When he returned after the end of World War II he established himself as one of the most important figures in Danish musical life. He composed industriously and wrote a succession of clear, striking works. He was also appointed professor of piano in Copenhagen and was much in demand as a concert soloist. In time his four musical children also became leading figures in musical life, and the Koppel family is today Denmark’s best known musical dynasty.

Herman D. Koppel was active as a composer for 65 years – a unique career! He composed in all forms and genres. His major works include seven symphonies and several solo concertos, sonatas, chamber music, piano works and many vocal works. He also wrote film music, educational pieces and cabaret songs – almost 300 works in all, characterized by vital rhythms and strong melody lines. Herman D. Koppel’s music makes an immediate impression, while at the same time arousing reflection.

Koppel was awarded several awards, scholarships and grants; amongst others, the Ancker Grant in 1945, Wilhelm Hansen's Honorary Gift in 1957, the Carl Nielsen Award in 1958, the Carl and Anne Marie Carl Nielsen Honorary Award in 1979 and the Wilhelm Hansen Composer Award in 1995. 

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Long Biography

The composer and pianist Herman D. Koppel was one of the greatest Danish musical personalities of the twentieth century. He was the son of a Polish-Jewish couple who moved to Copenhagen at the beginning of the twentieth century. His father was a poor tailor, but the family acquired a piano even before Herman was born, so that their first-born could become a pianist.

At 17 Herman D. Koppel was admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. He became a pupil of Rudolph Simonsen and Anders Rachlew, and made his debut as a pianist in 1930. By then the first of his own works had been performed.

As a composer Koppel was on the whole self-taught. He had advice from the national composer Carl Nielsen, who throughout Koppel’s life remained one of his artistic ideals, and who gave Koppel recommendations to take with him. Koppel’s other models included Bartók and Stravinsky, and he also took a strong interest in jazz and ethnic music.

In the 1930s Koppel was one of Denmark’s most experimental composers. He wrote music in all genres from symphonies to cabaret songs. At the same time he worked as a pianist, for example as an accompanist to the famous tenor Aksel Schiøtz.

His career was drastically interrupted in 1943 when he had to flee with his family from the German persecutions of the Jews.

He returned in 1945 and soon established himself as one of the most important figures in Danish musical life. He composed industriously and wrote a succession of clear, striking works. He was also appointed professor of piano in Copenhagen and was much in demand as a concert soloist.

The war had left deep marks on Koppel’s life and music. His works from the 1940s and 1950s are serious and ethical, and under the influence of the massacres of the Jews he wrote a long series of vocal works to texts from the Old Testament. At the same time he kept up his joy in music-making, which makes many of his works lively and witty.

Herman D. Koppel was active as a composer for 65 years – a unique career typified by constant development. He wrote music in all forms and genres. His major works include seven symphonies and several solo concertos, sonatas, quartets, piano music and a number of important vocal works. Koppel drew the line at serial music and never himself wrote music with the 12-tone technique. But his pen was always sharp, and in the 1970s he composed some of his edgiest, most modernist works. His last work, a string piece from 1994, has the apt title Memory.

Besides his music he left us four children, all of whom became important musicians, and a large flock of grandchildren who carry on the Koppel family in the third generation as Denmark’s leading musical dynasty.

Few Danish composers have lived such an eventful and fruitful life, and on the centenary of his birth Herman D. Koppel’s personality and significance remain undiminished. The many new CD releases of his music have underscored his central position in the Danish music of the twentieth century.

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