Sigurd von Koch (1879−1919)


Richert Sigurd Valdemar von Koch, born on 28 June 1879 in Stockholm and died there on 16 March 1919, was a composer and music critic. He studied piano at Richard Andersson’s music school during 1895−1896 and counterpoint under Johan Lindegren in 1900, as well as in Berlin and Dresden in 1905. He took his examinations in music teaching and precentorship at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm in 1910. From 1911 to 1915 he was a music reviewer for Afton-Tidningen as well as for Stockholms-Tidningen from 1916 to 1919. He was the father of composer Erland von Koch.

Beginnings in the name of the Swedish visa

At the end of the 1890s it seems that Sigurd von Koch was hesitant about which path he would choose. He had attended Sjökrigsskolan (the School of Naval Warfare) for two years, he loved the sea and the archipelago, had a great talent for drawing and painting, and also had gifts within literature and music. He had cultivated music through several years of study with Richard Andersson in the 1890s. Andersson was an important pianist, an exceptional teacher and a talented composer, and studying with him seems to have meant at lot to Koch. He became increasingly inclined to choose the path of a musician and supplemented his piano playing with counterpoint studies under Johan Lindegren, cantor in the Great Church in Stockholm.

A piece from 1897, ‘Vaggvisa’, was composed by Koch to words by Johan Ludvig Runeberg. The piano part is overflowing with grandiose strokes drawn from Norwegian composer Christian Sinding; however, the song lacks a wholeness and continuity. Koch quickly realised that he was not yet mature enough for the larger, bolder approaches. He eventually found his special talent in Swedish ballads (visor). During the period between 1900 and 1904, he composed a number of ballads, usually simple, transparent, sometimes with a clever accompaniment. Several were printed, for example the collections 6 sånger Gräshoppan och andra visor  (eight ballads), Lyckans visor (to seven texts by Karl-Erik Forsslund) and Smultronskär (five songs), the latter not published until 1914. He himself took part as a pianist at some official performances of the ballads.

In some of these songs one notices more powerful and ‘stormy’ romantic tendencies, for example in ‘Sjöröfvarsång’ from Smultronskär where the words ‘livets härliga sjörövarfest’ (life’s wonderful pirate party) are sung in an effervescent timbre. Here he foreshadows some of Ture Rangström’s tense enjoyment-of-life style. He continues along this line with a number of songs during 1905−1907, particularly with several to texts by Sven Lidman, of which four were presented in the collection Primavera, although it was never published. But he continuously cultivates the Swedish ballad genre.

Further studies and work as a critic

In the autumn of 1904 Sigurd von Koch built a year-round house on the island of Ornö in Stockholm’s archipelago, looking out over the sea. Here, on the farm named Östergården, he lived with his wife until 1911, as much of the year as possible. While there he painted numerous seascapes in a style that somewhat reminds one of Edvard Munch. He also socialised with painters − such as J.A.G. Acke and Axel Törneman – more than he did with with musicians, and he did not compose particularly much. Instead he wrote his archipelago stories that have some commonalities with those of Albert Engström from the same milieu. Twelve of the stories were published, eleven under the title Kungen på Marskä.

At the same time he also studied at the Kungliga Musikkonservatoriet (the Royal Conservatory of Music) and in 1910, he took his examinations in music teaching and precentorship. He never took advantage of this education in his daily work life, however it gave him professional training that was of benefit to him as a pianist, composer and critic. He had already begun touring in 1902 with, among others, the singer Valborg Svärdström (1902), singer Anna Norrie (1908), violinist Carl Nordberger (1910) and the singer Ingeborg Sandvik (in Norway in 1915).

However, Koch needed a permanent job that would also give him a certain amount of freedom. He found it in an offer to be the music critic for the newspaper Afton-Tidningen. He had published some columns and poems there in the summer of 1911 and in October he began as a critic. He remained there until the spring of 1915 and after six months he returned to the same sort of ‘bread and butter writing’ for the paper Stockholms-Tidningen. His reviews are clear and articulate but relatively carefully formulated. Any sort of particular aesthetic is hard to find, except possibly for a bland mirroring of Peterson-Berger’s style: down with the superficial brilliance, away with the empty and showy, up with the deep commitment and the multifaceted entirety, up towards simplicity and a common foundation. Still, Koch did not write with Peterson-Berger’s fervour and literary allusions and kept to the normal style of the critics.

Berlin as a turning point

For several years, composing had been laid to the side. Conservatory studies, painting and writing had taken most of his time. Then in 1912, it appears that Sigurd von Koch made a serious decision to develop composing into his main profession. He travelled to Berlin in 1912 and there he studied the most modern of all music scenes at its source, listening to Arnold Schoenberg and Ferruccio Busoni and taking composition lessons from Karl Kämpf. But quite soon, in January 1913, he returned to Stockholm to again take up his reviewing.

Now he began composing new kinds or works. A violin sonata in E minor came in 1913 − a lively work with many tempo changes, floating between the devout and the brilliant, perhaps most closely in the spirit of Emil Sjögren yet more troubled and murky. These tempo and mood changes all within one and the same movement become a characteristic feature for Koch in his songs as well. That same year he composed a cello sonata in F-sharp minor and in 1914 a number of preludes for piano. Additionally in 1914, he produced Romance and serenade for violin and orchestra, and in 1916 a piano quintet in F major and five pieces he called Havsstämningar for piano (later arranged for orchestra). In February 1917 he had completed I Pans marker, a ‘lyrical fantasy’ for orchestra in which, according to the notice in the programme of the Konsertföreningen (the Stockholm Concert Society), ‘he recreated the moods of the wilderness, which he experienced during his stay and his hikes in the far north’. The title alludes to the famous novel by Knut Hamsun, and the experiences that Koch had several years earlier in 1912 when he travelled in Lappland and climbed Sweden’s highest mountain, Kebnekajse.

Sigurd von Koch thus began to work seriously with instrumental music. With I Pans marker he competes to some extent with Hugo Alfvén’s Midsommarvaka (Mid-summer vigil) in his blending of impressionistic elements and fragments of folk music. Koch particularly cultivated impressionism in Havsstämningar with the static moods of the pieces. The ten pieces that make of Miniatyrer för piano from 1918 are completely different and more in the spirit of Schumann; simple yet refined pieces in which the harmony is occasionally coloured. His largest instrumental effort was in Ballad for piano and orchestra in 1918. The work is in fact a several-movement piano concerto, in which the ‘ballad-like’ elements are heard for example, in the work’s first theme and seems to have been borrowed from an old folk song. In other places there is also a kind of storytelling tone, but it is increasingly mixed together with virtuosic elements, sudden interruptions and short solo episodes in the orchestra. The work − that actually was never performed − has the same tension between the melancholy and the light lyricism of nature that one also finds in the works of Adolf Wiklund and Wilhelm Stenhammar.

From exotic to old-fashioned Swedish

From 1915 until 1919 Koch also composed a group of characteristic songs, which without doubt can be said to display something unique in Swedish song literature. It began with Exotiska sånger to texts by Sigurd Agrell and Die geheimnisvolle Flöte to Hans Bethge’s famous interpretations of Chinese poems. In these collections (both with five songs each) Koch expresses a new side of his art that one could call exotic impressionism, a style that wants to present an atmospheric image of something different, something exotic, something far from everything else. The means are similar to Debussy’s − stationary tones, pentatonic scales, formal motion – however, Koch’s music is markedly calmer, less nervous.

Bethge continues to be the author of the poems in the four pieces of Morgenländische Liebeslieder from 1917, in which the Chinese elements in the music are heard clearly in the scales and the pattering declamation. The impressionistic timbres shift here with long held-out chords accompanying the parlando in the vocal part. A continuation along these lines is the three songs in De vilda svanarna from 1918 in an imbued personal style. These songs give the strongest impression of Koch’s personal rendition of impressionism, which by no means excludes the dark, gloomy and wild moods, as heard in the title song.

During January and February of 1919, Koch composed the thirteen ‘gammelsvenska visorna’ (old Swedish ballads) to texts by Lars Wivallius and Lasse Lucidor. They are mostly short and trenchant and Koch returns, in a way, to the first genre he cultivated, namely the ballad. But here the simple form has been filled with a new strength, consciousness and weight in every detail, a result of his intermediate training in compositional concentration. At the same time one also finds some of the exotic colouring that he strove for in his impressionistic songs, although the impressionism has been simplified and is not as noticeable. The composer wanted to elicit the archaically Swedish, the heavy, harsh and pithy − not the overly ripe, moon-struck chinoiserie. Koch preserved a part of the harshness in the spelling itself, that is, the writing style which maintains 17th century spoken Swedish. The last song is titled ‘Som een siöman uthi stoor fhaar’ and has, once again, one of Koch’s beloved sea motifs. The text ends with the words: ‘Segeli och skeep i stycken gåå,/ wenner och slechtingh swijka,/the böllior blåå/öfwer migh slåå;/dödhen kan iagh eij wijka.’ (Sails and ship in pieces go, friends and relatives betray,/the blue waves,/beat over me;/death I cannot avoid.’) This was Sigurd von Koch’s last composition. In the spring of 1919 he succumbed to the Spanish flu.

Martin Tegen © 2015
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson

This article is a revised version of an earlier article by the author in Svenskt biografiskt lexikon.

Publications by the composer

Kungen på Marskär: 12 berättelser, Stockholm: Bonnier, 1911.
Minlotsen, script to the film (M. Stiller), 1915.
'En axplockning från det moderna Tysklands kompositionsfält', Svensk Musiktidning, 1913.


Franzén, A.: ‘Koch, Sigurd von’, Sohlmans musiklexikon, vol. 4, Stockholm: Sohlman, 1977.
Koch, Kaju von: ‘Som een siöman uthi stoor fhaar’, in: Musikmänniskor. Minnen av svenska tonsättare, Folke H. Törnblom (ed.), Uppsala, 1943, pp. 289−298.
Nordberger, Carl: ‘Minnen av Sigurd von Koch’, in: Musikmänniskor. Minnen av svenska tonsättare, Folke H. Törnblom (ed.), Uppsala, 1943.
Tegen, Martin: ‘Sigurd von Koch’, in: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 21, Stockholm: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, 1972.
Tegen, Martin
: ‘Sigurd von Koch − levnadslopp, kronologi, register över sångerna’, stencil, musicology, Stockholms University, 1972.
Törnblom, Folke H.: ‘Sigurd von Koch’, Ord och bild, 1936.
Seymer, WilliamFyra nyromantiker [Bror Beckman, Sigurd von Koch, Harald Fryklöf and Knut Håkanson], Stockholm: Svenska samfundet för musikforskning, 1941.


Musik- och teaterbiblioteket.

Summary list of works

Orchestral works (I Pans marker, Romance and serenade for violin and orchestra, Ballad for piano and orchestra), chamber music (violin sonata, cello sonata, piano quintet), works for piano, songs (ca 250 songs).

Collected works

After Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, vol. 21, Stockholm: Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, 1972.

Orchestral works
Prelude to Till Damaskus (A. Strindberg) for string orchestra or organ 1908. Score sketch in autograph.
I Pans marker, orchestral fantasy, 1917
Romance and serenade for violin and orchestra, 1914. [Only solo part preserved in autograph.]
Ballad for piano and orchestra, 1918. Piano reduction in autograph.

Chamber music
Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, 1913). Printed, n.d.
Sonata in F-sharp minor for violoncello and piano, 1913.
Piano quintet in F major, 1916.

Preludes, 1914.
Havsstämningar, 1916. Printed in 1917. [Also orchestrated in 1918.]
Preludier i skymning, 1917.
Lyriska miniatyrer, 1917–18. [Snödroppen from this collection printed in Stockholms Dagblad 2 June 1918.]
Miniatyrer, 1918. Printed in 1918.

Solo songs with piano
In alphabetical order
Afsked (N. Wohlin), 1906.
Barnlige Sange, 1905.
Biskop Thomas frihetssång (Thomas). Printed in 1914.
Bølgeskvulp (R. Kock), 1900
Chinesisches Trinklied (H. Bethge after Wan-Wi), 1918.
Christkindleins Wiegenlied (after Des Knaben Wunderhorn), 1906.
De älskandes vin (S. Agrell), 1914.
Den trogne sjömannen (S. v. Koch), 1915. Printed in i Strix 1915.
Der Abenteurer (G. Schuler), 1916.
Der farer en Høst (K. Hamsun), 1906.
Det kungliga regementet (O. Thunman), 1915. Printed in 1915.
Det är vår! (E. Vibom), 1904.
Die geheimnisvolle Flöte (H. Bethge after Chinese poets), 1916. Printed in 1916.
Die schwarze Laute (O.J. Birnbaum), 1915.
Die wilden Schwäne (H. Bethge after Chinese poets), 1918. Printed in 1919.
Dryckesvisa (J.A. Wadman), 1917.
En förtappad (E.A. Karlfeldt), 1912.
Exotiska sånger (S. Agrell), 1914. Printed in 1914.
Fiskar (N. Wohlin), 1913.
Flammande låga på hemgårdshärd (J. Tegengren), 1905.
Gammalswenska wijsor (L. Lucidor, L.J. Wivallius), 1919. Printed in 1921, new ed. 1967.
Gangspilsvisa (K. Hamsun), 1906.
Gräshoppan och andra visor (A.M. Roos, A. Strindberg, Z. Topelius), 1904. Printed in 1904.
Herre, Du är vår tillflykt (Davids 90:e psalm), 1913.
Hymn till Sverige (N. Wohlin), 1914. Printed in 1914.
Hälsning (B. Gripenberg), 1915.
Höst i skärgården (E. Kleen), 1901.
Höstkväll (V. Rydberg), 1904.
Ingen Blomst i Verdens Lande (after Byron), 1902, 1905.
Jeg ælsker dig, 1902.
Jeg giver mit Digt til Vaaren (B. Bjørnson), 1907.
Jeg synes at Verden skinner (V. Krag), 1915. Printed in 1916.
Jeg hved ikke hvor det er kommet (K. Randers), 1901, 1906.
Junigryning (A. Österling), 1912.
Kinderlieder (T. Eicksen), 1907.
Landsvägsvisa (N. Wohlin), 1913.
Lillesvens visa (V. Krag), 1908.
Liten Astrid, 1900.
Lyckans visor (K.-E. Forsslund), 1904. Printed in København, n.d.
Lyckomedes döttrar (S. Lidman), 1907.
Låt skuggorna fara (S. Lidman), 1907.
Länge i längtan liljornas blad (S. Lidman), 1907.
Lärkorna (B. Östfelt), 1905.
Majdagsdröm, 1900.
Malaga und Malvasir, 1914. Printed in 1916.
Med røde Roser (K. Hamsun), 1915.
Midsommar, 1902.
Mikael (E.A. Karlfeldt), 1916.
Minnesång (E.A. Karlfeldt), 1916.
Morgenländische Liebeslieder (H. Bethge after Chinese poet), 1917. Printed in 1917.
Nattsång (E. v. Qvanten), 1903. Printed in 1926.
När jag blir stor, 1902.
Och solen löper i Jungfrun (E.A. Karlfeldt), 1912.
Pagen (J.P. Jacobsen), 1906.
Primavera (S. Lidman), 1907.
Ro, ro, Rabbeskjær, 1906−07.
Romantische Lieder (E. Hahn, F. Blume, G. Schröder), 1916.
Sex sånger (A.T. Gellerstedt, O. Hedengren, E. Vibom, K.F. Dahlgren, J. Welhaven, P.A. Jensen), 1903.
Skogsvår och andra visor (S. Selander), 1917.
Smultronskär och andra dikter (N. Wohlin), 1903. Printed in Lund 1914.
Solnedgång (P.A. Jensen), 1902.
Spillemandsvisa, 1905. Stilla visor (J.P. Jacobsen), 1905−06. Printed in 1917.
Svensk lyrik (B. Bergman), 1917.
Sverge (K.G. Ossian-Nilsson), 1915. Printed in Stockholms-Tidningens julläsning 1915 and in Fru Musica, vol. 2, 1916.
Sånger (K. Hamsun, B. Östfelt, K. Randers, H. Drachmann), 1905.
Säf, säf, susa (G. Fröding), 1916.
Två dikter (G. Fröding), 1910.
Vagabondvisa (S. v. Koch).
Vaggvisa (J.L. Runeberg), 1897.
Vaggvisa (E. Vibom), 1902.
Vinterkust (G. Ullman), 1915.
Vuggevers (H. Rode), 1915.
Vågskvalp (R. Kock).

Male quartet
Dans i vårnatten (K. Norström), 1908.

Works by Sigurd von Koch

This is not a complete list of works. The following works are those that have been inventoried so far.

Number of works: 12