Herman David Koppel
1. Okt. 1908 in Kopenhagen
14. Juli 1998 in Kopenhagen
Take refuge from Nazi persecution in Orebro, Sweden, from October 1943 to 1945


With the passing of Herman D. Koppel, Danish music has lost an important link with one of its most illustrious emblems, the composer Carl Nielsen. As a young man fresh from college, Koppel assisted Nielsen in the composition of a late cantata, and performed his piano music, of which he was an authoritative interpreter. At the age of 17, Koppel had been admitted to the Royal Danish Conservatory, where he developed an interest in jazz while studying keyboard and composition. He made his debut as a pianist in 1930, a year after the premiere of his opus 1 and the completion of his conservatory examinations. Thereafter, he travelled in Europe, worked as a repetiteur for the Royal Theatre and for Danish Radio, and as a teacher and performer.

Koppel recalled Nielsen warmly as 'a very kind person, very quiet... . He looked at my compositions and gave me advice - not instruction, for he accepted it as it was.' By a remarkable coincidence of continuity, Koppel's teaching to his own composition students would be based on the instruction received by Nielsen from Niels Gade, born 1817 and a friend of Mendelssohn. Koppel himself began to compose shortly after beginning his piano studies at the age of six. He continued to write copiously throughout his long life, completing seven symphonies, a concerto for orchestra, four piano concertos, a piano sonata, several sets of variations and Memory for strings, a late work, composed in 1995 to commemorate the end of the Second World War. Koppel's opera Macbeth was premiered at the Copenhagen Royal Opera in 1970.


Herman Koppel's earliest musical impressions were received in the synagogue, and it was his Jewish ancestry that forced him and his family to take refuge from Nazi persecution in Orebro, Sweden, from 1943 to 1945 (Opus 37-39). The war being over, he returned to Copenhagen, where in 1949 he composed Tre Davidssalmer op.48 for chorus and orchestra, inspired by the agony of Jewish prisoners under the Nazi regime. In the same year he was appointed to the piano staff of the Copenhagen Conservatory, where he became a professor in 1955.

For listeners outside Denmark, the oratorio Moses op.76, completed in 1964 and recently recorded on the BIS label, offers the most impressive introduction to his grand, often hieratic style. Bartok and Stravinsky had formed the parameters of his music in the 1930s, which though rooted in Nordic lyricism, also contained a strong and positive response to the influence of jazz. His interest in vocal music was strengthened after 1945 as a consequence of his wish to compose to a specific purpose, relating to the life around him. At the same time he sought out new compositional modes, retaining tonality yet employing serial methods within a freely triadic framework wherein he was always master of his materials.

Herman David Koppel: born Copenhagen, 1 October 1908; died Copenhagen, 14 July 1998.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Winter 1998
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

Song expresses the innermost being of man – an authentic core of elements like hope, joy, sorrow, sympathy and caring. The individual may stonily bow his head in silence; but discovers that we share the same terrible knowledge of the human abyss, and that we can bear it in song. It is this realization, and the sound of the cantor’s voice in the synagogue of his youth, that have been the sources of Herman D. Koppel’s vocal works.

Herman D. Koppel was born in 1908, the eldest son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. He began playing piano at the age of 5, and quickly demonstrated great musical talent for playing, improvising and later composing. He went to the Royal Academy of Music while Carl Nielsen was director, and the young man was of course profoundly influenced by the great master’s music and personality. After graduating from the Academy, Koppel began travelling – Berlin, Paris, London – and gained sudden, strong impressions of the modern composers of the period, of Balinese and African music, and of jazz. Back home, he made a name for himself in the Danish musical milieu and laid the foundation of a lifelong career as a pianist, composer and teacher, and later as a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. His works from the early thirties clearly show his influences – Carl Nielsen, Stravinsky, Bartók – but the personal tone is unmistakable: an authentic melodic line coupled with an unspoiled rhythmic vitality. This was modern music which often provoked the Danish Parnassus, and Koppel found a standpoint in the young avant-garde of the day, which was opening windows to other countries and discovering both the new, revolutionary artistic idioms and the threat from the growing Fascism in the south.

In 1940 Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany, and in October 1943 Koppel and his family had to flee across the Sound to Sweden like other Danish Jews. He was thus to share the fate of millions of other emigrants during the wars that have ravaged our century. Information, during and especially after the war, on what was actually happening in the concentration camps was for Koppel – as for a whole European generation – a shock. All at once a stake was driven through their faith in humanist progress and human justice. How was one to cope with this? The composer had found a mission: to try to give voice to the incomprehensible in music, and to the unspeakable in words.

Koppel was urged to write vocal works by the great Danish singer Aksel Schiøtz, whom he accompanied for many years. His rediscovery of the Old Testament scriptures, and the idea of using these texts as building-blocks in the description of the fundamental human condition, opened the floodgates of Koppel’s production. After the song cycles Five Biblical Songs (1949) and Four Love Songs from the Canticles of Solomon (1949), came the major work Three Psalms of David for solo tenor, choir, boys’ choir and orchestra (1949). The piece was directly inspired by the sufferings of the Jewish people during the war: a song unto death, a song in praise of life or, in Koppel’s own words: "Here the music sprang up as the most immediate expression of the relationship between life and death and the transition between them". The work is movingly simple, pure in feeling and borne up by melodic sympathy with the tortured people. Stylistically it is at some points indebted to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, but with its aching fullness of emotion is a worthy counterpart to Stravinsky’s Latin rigour, and perhaps has more affinities with the quiet empathy of Brahms’ German Requiem.

The post-war period was on the whole extremely productive for Koppel. A number of his major works were created in an uninterrupted flow: the Third Piano Concerto (1948), the great Piano Sonata of 1950, the Cello Concerto (1952), the Fifth Symphony (1955), and later the Seventh Symphony (1961) and a wealth of frequently-performed chamber music. It was a happy and busy period for the pianist and composer Koppel.

(The quotations from Herman D. Koppel are translated from Flemming Behrendt’s book Fra et hjem med klaver, Hans Reitzels Forlag, 1988)


Herman D. Koppel (1908-98) was one of the greatest Danish musical personalities of the twentieth century. Hard-working as a composer, pianist and teacher, he was the patriarch of a musical dynasty that has become a Danish counterpart of the Bach family in Germany.

In Denmark the name of Koppel has become synonymous with musicianship of highest standards ranging over three generations and innumerable genres. The Koppel family put down its roots in Denmark in 1907 when Herman D. Koppel’s parents, a Jewish couple, moved from the Polish village of Blaszki to Copenhagen. This was an age of emigrations when one in ten Danes emigrated, but when Denmark also received new blood from abroad, including thousands of poor Eastern European Jews.

Herman David Koppel was the eldest son, and the family bought a piano even before he was born, so that Herman could become a pianist. He began playing at the age of five. In 1925, at 17, he was admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, after an admission test with the Danish national composer Carl Nielsen on the adjudicating committee.

From 1929 on Koppel became closer to Carl Nielsen, for example playing all Nielsen’s piano works for the composer. In return Nielsen looked through a number of Koppel’s early compositions, and Koppel came to regard Carl Nielsen as an artistic and human ideal. Koppel became the last major Danish composer to take his point of departure in his direct contact with Carl Nielsen. Koppel’s teachers were Emilius Bangert in theory and Rudolph Simonsen in piano, and later he studied the piano privately with Anders Rachlew. Koppel made his debut as a pianist in 1930, and the same year had one of his works played in public for the first time.

Apart from instrumentation theory, he was a self-taught composer. After the death of Carl Nielsen in 1931 Koppel became increasingly preoccupied with modernism from abroad – especially Stravinsky and Bartók – and not least with jazz. He became part of the ‘cultural- adical’ environment of the inter-war years in Denmark that included composers like Finn Høffding (1899-1998), Jørgen Bentzon (1897-1951) and Knudaage Riisager (1897-1974). In the 1930s Koppel worked with genres as different as educational Brauchsmusik, jazz, theatre, film and revue music, and in many ways he distanced himself from older ideals, including his family’s Jewish tradition. In those years Koppel made his living as among other things an accompanist, for example for the famous Danish tenor Aksel Schiøtz, with whom he also made many recordings. Koppel’s career was amatically interrupted in 1943 when he had to escape with his wife and two small children to neutral Sweden because the German army of occupation had launched persecutions of the Jews in Denmark as elsewhere. The family lived in Sweden until the end of the war, but the exile was to leave deep marks on Koppel’s life and music. After the war Koppel grappled with new genres. He had hitherto mostly written instrumental music, but he now composed quite a few vocal works – those to Old Testament texts are particularly telling. His position in Danish musical life was strengthened in the post-war years, both as a piano teacher at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen (he was a professor there from 1955 until 1978), and as a leading instrumentalist and a representative of the contemporary Danish music of the period, a moderate, neoclassical modernism. In the 1960s Koppel composed three of his largest works. Of these, the oratorio Moses (1964) and his Requiem (1966) both have roots in his wartime experiences. The opera Macbeth (1968) was given a poor performance at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen and was not a success. It was to be the last new Danish opera the Theatre was to stage for over thirty years. In the 1960s, too, the Koppel family made a strong impact with Herman’s two sons, Thomas and Anders, who enjoyed sensational success in the experimental rock group Savage Rose, his daughter Therese, who became a pianist, and his daughter Lone, who became the new star soprano of the Royal Danish Opera. Herman D. Koppel continued to compose and perform busily in the 1970s and 1980s, and was an active concert pianist who continued at an advanced age to extend his repertoire, for example with Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto. His last compositions are from the mid-1990s, and as a pianist he played his last concert about a year before he died.