(b Paris, 27 Nov 1867; d Le Canadel, Var, 31 Dec 1950). French composer, teacher and musicologist. He came from a rich industrial family; his grandfather, Jean Dollfus, well known for his philanthropic and social activities, had founded the cotton textile firm of Dollfus-Mieg & Cie in Mulhouse. From his ancestors Koechlin inherited what he called his Alsatian temperament: an energy, naivety, and an absolute and simple sincerity that lie at the heart of his music and character. His father, a textile designer, moved to Paris before Koechlin was born and intended his son to become an artillery officer; but Koechlin contracted tuberculosis while at the Ecole Polytechnique and this rendered him ineligible for a military career. During his extended convalescence in Algeria in 1889 he began to study music more seriously, and he entered the Paris Conservatoire in October 1890. Here he studied harmony with Taudou and composition with Massenet. His lifelong interest in the music of J.S. Bach was stimulated by the counterpoint classes of Gedalge, and he retained an interest in modal music and folksong from the history classes of Bourgault-Ducoudray. When Dubois replaced Thomas as director in 1896, Massenet resigned, and Koechlin entered the composition class of the man who was to influence him most, Fauré. Throughout his life Koechlin strove to recapture the classic simplicity and nobility of Fauré’s style with its balance of liberty and discipline.
Koechlin’s life was hard but uneventful. He lived a comfortable, rather dilettante existence until after his marriage to Suzanne Pierrard in 1903, but increasing financial problems, not assisted by the war, led to Koechlin’s beginning his long career as a writer on theory in 1915, although he had started regular critical work with the Chronique des arts in 1909 and had increased his teaching activities at the same time.
Until the late 1920s, Koechlin was in the forefront of Parisian musical life. With fellow Conservatoire pupils Ravel and Schmitt and with the backing of Fauré, he founded the Société Musicale Indépendante in 1909 to promote new music in opposition to the Société Nationale controlled by d’Indy and the Schola Cantorum. At Debussy’s request he orchestrated all but the Prelude of Khamma in 1912–13, and in 1918 Satie invited Koechlin to join a group called Les Nouveaux Jeunes together with Roussel, Milhaud and several others, although the project never materialized as originally intended and was superseded by Les Six in 1920. Between 1921 and 1924 a series of articles on Koechlin’s music appeared in leading musical journals, and more of it began to be published and performed.
However, by 1932 Koechlin was already more famous as a theorist than as a composer, and organizing a festival of his major orchestral works in that year did little to change the situation, nor was his renown much increased by his winning the Prix Cressent with the Symphonie d’hymnes in 1936, or the Prix Halphan with the First Symphony in 1937. It was not until the 1940s when the director of Belgian radio, Paul Collaer, organized performances of his works (conducted by Franz André) in Brussels that Koechlin’s music began to regain public attention. Further recognition came with Antal Dorati’s centenary recording of Les bandar-log in 1967, and after that his powerful and original music gradually gained international recognition through publications, performances and CD recordings. Crucial contributions to this process were made by his children, Yves and Madeleine, and by devotees such as Otfrid Nies and Michel Fleury.
Koechlin made lecturing visits to America in 1918, 1928 and 1937, and became president of the Fédération Musicale Populaire on the death of Roussel. His growing communist sympathies in the 1930s are reflected in his ‘music for the people’ and his work for the musical committee of the Association France–URSS, although he was never an official party member. Always abreast of the latest developments in music, he became president of the French section of the ISCM, and actively supported the music of the young at all times, provided that it did not, in his view, exploit novelty for its own sake.
Musically a late developer, Koechlin began his long composing career with a period of songwriting (1890–1909). In about 1911 Koechlin sensed himself ‘capable of entering the perilous domain of chamber music’, and there began a new period which ended with the Trio op.92 of 1924. During this phase Koechlin wrote a series of instrumental sonatas, developing from the basis of the harmonic advances of the songs of 1905–9 (opp.28, 31 and 35) to the luminous polytonal style which characterizes his mature music. In orchestral composition, Koechlin went through an apprenticeship between 1897 and 1904. En mer, la nuit op.27, based on Heine’s poem La mer du nord, was the first symphonic work in which he found his ‘inspiration was sustained by an appropriate formal development’. A period of early maturity ended with the First Symphony op.57bis of 1911–15, and a second phase, which saw the composition of most of his major orchestral pieces, began with La course de printemps op.95, completed in 1925 and orchestrated in 1926–7.
The seven works (opp.18, 95, 159, 175 and 176) based on Kipling’s Jungle Book stories form the core of Koechlin’s orchestral output, and the composition and revision of this cycle, which lasts less than 75 minutes in performance, occupied him for over 40 years from 1899 onwards. The scores show Koechlin at his best in each period, and the music ranges from a state of demonic energy to a diaphonous luminosity which arises from chords using superposed perfect 4ths or 5ths. His complex ideas found their most natural expression in large-scale orchestral works, and Koechlin defended the viability of the symphonic poem and the vast post-Romantic orchestra long after their vogues had faded. He was stimulated by a wide range of extra-musical subjects both natural and literary. A particular attraction to the forest in his early works achieved a more universal, pantheistic significance in the jungle of his later creations. Other subjects which recurringly ‘imposed themselves’ upon him included classical mythology, dreams and fantasy (which reflected his desire to escape from everyday reality into an ‘ivory tower’ within which he could compose freely), and the night sky, the serenity and mystery of the universe. Koechlin however was an avid self-borrower, and music ‘inspired’ by one subject could easily recur in a different context.
Koechlin’s unusually wide range of musical sympathies is reflected in the eclecticism of his own works, the various styles used in each work being suggested by their subjects. His firm belief in his own imaginative powers resulted in an almost complete lack of self-criticism, and he rarely revised works with a view to making them more concise. Like Berlioz, he began his compositions with a complete melodic draft. He then proceeded by a series of progressively detailed elaborations towards his final version. This, as he saw it, enabled him to preserve the freshness of his original inspiration, and gave each work continuity and logic. It also allowed him to work on several pieces simultaneously. If the spirit of freedom which pervades both his life and works can make some of his larger pieces appear unduly sectional, and if the juxtaposition of passages of great rhythmic complexity with others almost devoid of rhythmic interest has led some critics to brand his symphonic poems as uneven, then all this pales into insiginificance beside the powerful, humanitarian vision of a work like Le buisson ardent, or the irresistible humour and vitality of the ‘Charlie Chaplin’ finale of The Seven Stars’ Symphony. The main problem is rather that Koechlin’s music needs several hearings to be fully appreciated, despite its brilliant orchestration, and this has only become possible through modern CD recordings.
Happily, Koechlin was equally successful as a miniaturist, particularly in the pieces he wrote while captivated by the ‘insolent beauty’ of the female stars of the early sound film in the mid-1930s. Lilian Harvey inspired over 100 beautiful cameos (opp.139, 140, 149 and 151) in which Koechlin’s harmonic gift (undoubtedly his greatest) is shown to the full, although their virtues are qualified by their smaller aims. The same qualities, together with a childlike spontaneity, are revealed in his very individual piano pieces, notably the Sonatines op.59, which entirely lack Satie’s more adult and ironic contortions of tonality.
Koechlin described his life as a ‘series of happy chances under a cloud of general misfortune’. One aspect of the silver lining was the necessity to teach, which led him to a profound study of Bach’s music that considerably strengthened his own, and an increasing interest in counterpoint, as well as in modality, is evident in the compositions of the 1930s. Koechlin’s polytonal music is never cerebral in its conception, for all its skilled craftmanship; it shows balanced concern for vertical and horizontal effect that is often lacking in Milhaud. In the 1940s Koechlin’s aim was a self-sufficient ‘art monodique’ and this led to an increasing simplicity of expression and a Classical refinement parallel to that of Debussy’s final years. His unworldly and uncompromising nature undoubtedly contributed to his neglect as a composer during his lifetime, and he attached great importance to the high opinions of his music expressed by Milhaud, Roussel, Falla, Fauré and other composers whom he, in turn, admired. In retrospect these opinions have been vindicated, and Koechlin’s originality, visionary breadth and profundity place him well above the rank of petit maître. Rather, as Wilfrid Mellers concluded as early as 1942, he ‘is among the very select number of contemporary composers who really matter’.