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On the Trail of New Polish Music
A Homage to Józef Koffler (1896–1944)

As a composer, musicologist, and music journalist, Józef Koffler was one of the most original figures in new Polish music during the first half of the twentieth century. He was born on 28 November 1896 in Stryj, Galicia, as the illegitimate child of the – at first – assistant and later self-employed businessman Hersz Koffler and Rebeka Schoenfeld, the daughter of the owner of a wholesale business for grain products. He spent his early childhood in Stryj, whose Jewish community numbered ca. 5,000 persons at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century. From 1910 to 1914 he attended classical secondary school and simultaneously took music lessons. He graduated high school in 1914 and began – at the insistence of his family – law studies at the University of Vienna. However, the young musician’s true calling was not long in coming. Initially, he concurrently studied composition with Herman Grädener. After a year he abandoned law in favor of musicology under Guido Adler, Robert Lach, and Egon Wellesz at the University of Vienna. During this period, the turbulent events of the twentieth century intruded for the first time into the life of the young composer. He was compelled to interrupt his studies in order to serve from 1916 to 1918 in the Austrian and, after the restoration of Polish independence, in the Polish army. From 1920 to 1924 he continued both his private music studies with Josef Bohuslav Förster und Ludwig Kaiser as well as his musicological studies, which he completed in 1923 under the supervision of Guido Adler with a dissertation On the Orchestral Colors in the Symphonic Works of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. During his studies, he was already active at Vienna’s Burgtheater as répétiteur and choir conductor. At this time, he became acquainted with the Vienna School and established contact to Alban Berg. He never met Arnold Schoenberg in person, but corresponded with him starting in 1929.

In 1924 Koffler went to Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine), where he taught composition and music theory at the Conservatory of the Polish Music Society (Konserwatorium Polskiego Towarzystwa Muzycznego). This renowned institute, led at that time by composer and conductor Mieczyslaw Soltys and later – from 1929 until the outbreak of the Second World War – by his son Adam, was without a doubt one of the best in Poland. Already in 1928, Koffler was appointed professor for harmony and atonal composition (it was the only professorship of its kind in Polish higher education). In Lwów, a city that was open for artistic innovation, he untiringly propagated the ideas of the Second Viennese School. His works were played at the festivals of the ISCM and received recognition from international music critics. Alongside Karol Szymanowski, he was considered the representative of the Polish avant-garde. Performed in 1931 was his String Trio op. 10 (Oxford), in 1933 his 15 Variations on a Twelve-Tone Row op. 9 (Amsterdam), and in 1938 his Third Symphony op. 21 (London). However in Poland, except in Lwów, his works came up against a wall of incomprehension. The critics in Warsaw (Piotr Rytel and Stefan Kisielewski), who were particularly ill-disposed toward him, denounced the "first Polish dodecaphonist" at every opportunity. Beside his compositional, pedagogical, and organizational work, Koffler was active in Lwów as a critic, reviewer, and music journalist. In the years 1926–39 he was chief editor of the journal Orkiestra, and in 1936–37 also of Echo. He worked for the editorial departments of Muzyk Wojskowy, Kwartalnik Muzyczny, and Muzyka Wspólczesna. In these periodicals, he published about the fundamentals of music theory and music history, and introduced the works of contemporary composers.

During the Second World War (1939–44), the composer was swept up a second time into the vortex of the dramatic historical events. In compliance with an order of 17 April 1939 from the district administration of Stryj, he verified his renunciation of Judaism with a written declaration dated already on 17 November 1937, as can be read in the records of the Jewish community in Stryj. His creative élan waned already during the second half of the 1930s due to the growing anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe. After the annexation of Lwów on 17 September 1939 by the Red Army, Koffler assumed the professorship for composition and the position of prorector of the State Conservatory "Mykola Lysenko." That same year he became secretary of the Composers’ Union of Soviet Ukraine and organized a number of concerts in Lwów and Kiew featuring works by composers from Lwów. Initially, he attempted to remain true to his musical aesthetics of the pre-war era, but then, in 1940, at a plenum of the organization committee of the Union of Soviet Composers, the functionaries officially criticized Koffler’s works, denouncing them as "formalistic." Vissarion Shebalin wrote in the Sowjetskaja Musyka, the official organ of the Union: "The general ideational direction of his [Koffler’s] works seems questionable to us." Koffler exercised self-criticism and renounced the concept of Viennese Modernism, which until then had been so important to him. He was probably aware of the hollow tone of his self-criticism when he wrote: "I was enabled to work and live as a free and happy human being; I was enabled to realize my plans, something I had previously not dared to dream." However, the self-criticism did not achieve very much. Not even the fact that Koffler gave up dodecaphony and wrote the Joyful Overture (1941), a piece in honor of Poland’s invasion by the Red Army, did not deter the Soviet critics from further harsh attacks. Akwiljew wrote: "The brilliant technique of his orchestral pieces and the exquisite orchestration merely give witness of a formal mastery that resonates the strings of the human soul only to a small extent.... It [the overture] radiates coldness and erudition."

After the occupation of Lwów by the Germans in 1941, the composer and his family were resettled in the ghetto in Wieliczka. He then hid with his wife Rosa and his son Alan, who was only a few years old, in Kroscienko Nizne near Krosno. His sister-in-law, Gizela Hercholorfer, recalled: “In 1942 I met my brother-in-law by chance at the train station in Krosno, and from that time we saw each other frequently in this town. In 1943 he still lived with the hope ‘that this will not last much longer.’ He lived in Kroscienko Nizne, where his pupil lived, an organist whom I met after the war.” In early winter 1943 (after the liquidation of the ghetto), the Kofflers had moved to Kroscienko, living in a house that belonged to the above-mentioned organist of the local parish, who before the war had been a student at the Conservatory of the Pomeranian Music Society (PTM). After the winter, they moved into another house on the outskirts of Kroscienko, in which they occupied a room. On a spring morning in 1944, two civilians and two persons in uniform (Gestapo and military police) drove up to the house in an auto. They took the Kofflers to an unknown location – to their deaths. A resident of Kroscienko Wyzne, who was an eyewitness to their arrest, recalled the tragic event years later: “I remember how the Gestapo came to pick them up, led by the eldest, his name was Bekier [Becker?]. They surrounded the house, captured them, and led them away like criminals; and they went along, weeping, for they certainly knew what awaited them. I do not know what happened to them after that."


Koffler’s oeuvre, in any case not every extensive, was heavily decimated by damage sustained during the war. He composed between 1917 and 1941, in other words, over a period of only twenty-four years, and cultivated various musical genres and styles. Among his vocal works are the cycles Two Songs on poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and Richard Dehmel, op. 1 (1917) and Quatre Poèmes on texts by Alfred de Musset, Paul Verlaine, and Antoine-Vincent Arnault, op. 22 (1935). His best known work is the cantata Miosc (Love) on texts from the First Epistle to the Corinthians, op. 14 (1931). In May 2009 the Warsaw Chamber Opera performed Koffler’s only scenic work; the ballet-oratorio Alles durch M. O. W. (Everything through the Institute of Daily Correspondence) from 1932. Symphonic works made up the most extensive part of Koffler’s oeuvre. The composer himself destroyed his early works: the overture Hanifa op. 2, the Oriental Suite op. 3 (both before 1925), and Idyll [Sielanka] Capriccio pastorale for chamber orchestra op. 4 (1925). The earliest surviving works for chamber orchestra are the 15 Variations on a Twelve-Tone Row (15 variations d'après une suite de douze tons) op. 9 (1931), followed by the Piano Concerto op. 13 (1932) and four symphonies: the First Symphony for chamber orchestra op. 11 (1930); the Second Symphony for large orchestra op. 17 (1933); the Third Symphony for wind instruments op. 21 (ca. 1935); and the Fourth Symphony, again for large orchestra, op. 26 (1940). The loss of works from this genre are the most bitter, for among those lost in the chaos of war were the Polish Suite (Suita polska) for chamber orchestra op. 24 (1936), the Joyful Overture for orchestra op. 25 (ca. 1940), and Händeliana, 30 Variations on a Passacaglia by Händel (before 1940).

Koffler’s chamber music consists of just three preserved works: the String Trio op. 10 (1928), the Capriccio for violin and piano op. 18 (ca. 1936), and, the last composition, the Ukrainian Sketches (Ukrainski eskizy) for string quartet op. 27 (1941). The Divertimento (Small Serenade) for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon op. 16 (1931) and the String Quartet op. 20 (1934) were lost during the war. His piano music survived the war (with the exception of the Piano Sonata op. 19 [1925]), that is to say, the youthful, light Chanson Slav (before 1918), the early folkloristic 40 Polish Folksongs(40 Polskich piesni ludowych) op. 6 (1925), then followed by extensive twelve-tone cycles: Musique de ballet op. 7 (1926), Musique. Quasi una sonata op. 8 (1927) dedicated to Karol Szymanowski, 15 Variations d’apres une suite de douze tons op. 9 (1927), the Sonatina op. 12 (1930), which was very well-known during the composer’s lifetime, 20 Variations sur une valse de Johann Strauss op. 23 (1935), which Stefan Kisielewski tore to pieces before the war (in one of the most well-known music polemics during the Second Polish Republic), and the Four Pieces for Children (Czotyry dytjaczi piesy; before 1940). By the end of the 1930s, Koffler quit composing, for all intents and purposes, in view of the slump in the avant-garde movement and the increasing fascist influence in cultural life. During this period, his catalog of works was enhanced by transcriptions: the Small Suite(Mala suita) after J. S. Bach (ca. 1937) and the wonderful arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for small orchestra (ca. 1938) popularized by Agnieszka Duczmal and the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra.

How did it transpire that Koffler’s oeuvre attained such importance during the inter-war period in spite of its limited scope? What are the characteristics of his works that led to his being considered one of the outstanding Polish composers – alongside Karol Szymanowski – of the first half of the twentieth century? From the point of view of the aesthetics of new music, the history of neo-classicism, and the reception of social realism, Koffler is a central figure in Polish musical history of the twentieth century. From the point of view of the European history of modernism, he belongs – alongside Karol Rathaus, Hanns Eisler, Erwin Schulhoff, and Wladimir Vogel, among others – to the group of composers who continued the development of Arnold Schoenberg’s ideas in various directions. The first phase of Koffler’s oeuvre (1917–27) was the formation of his personal style for which the transition from the aesthetics of musical modernism to twelve-tone music was characteristic. In one of his earliest preserved compositions (40 Polish Folksongs), which is held in the style of the popular, national-folkloric currents of the time, several modern stylistic devices can be observed (modality, bitonality, tonal centers within the context of atonal harmony as in the works of Berg). In his first neo-classical works from the years 1926–27 (Musique de ballet, Musique. Quasi una sonata), the composer made use of the twelve-tone technique in a consistent manner, which is why he is counted among the pioneers of dodecaphony in Europe. The second, mature creative phase (1928–40) can be divided into two sections. Until about 1935, Koffler remained faithful to the twelve-tone technique, but in terms of style subsequently took up the then nascent model of the French variety of neo-classicism. The composer based a series of his works on various historical stylistic-formal models (the Capriccio traces back to the virtuoso violin capriccios of the transitional period from the eighteenth to nineteenth century, the Sonatine to the model developed by Clementi, the Second Symphony to the classical symphony, and the Piano Concerto to early Romantic virtuoso concertos). Starting in 1935 Koffler increasingly took up Hindemith’s model of New Objectivity in which the role of the stylistic model became weaker and that of contrapuntal work, large-scale instrumentation, and procedural thematic development gained in importance (Third and Fourth Symphonies). The character of the last transformation of Koffler’s style is related to the fact that the composer had to adopt the aesthetics of social realism (1940–41). Up until the middle of 1940, when he renounced the twelve-tone technique, Koffler still made attempts to further develop the basic principles of his tonal aesthetics of the prewar era, although he furnished them with "ideologically positive" musical programs (Joyful Overture). The quartet Ukrainian Sketches was the first work that fully conformed to the ideology of social realism. In it, Koffler presented a retrospective version of folklorism that was based on traditional functional harmony.

Maciej Golab

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