Home > Polish 20th century and contemporary music > Józef Koffler’s Piano Concerto

Józef Koffler’s Piano Concerto


So who wrote the first ever 12-tone piano concerto? Well, I wouldn’t stake my life on it, but I’m almost certain it was Jozef Koffler, who composed his in 1932 (Schoenberg’s came exactly 10 years later).

Koffler was the only Polish dodecaphonist of significance (and one of probably only two representatives of that school in Poland, the other being Tadeusz Majerski). Though not born in Lviv, in his mature years he became a Lvovian. He studied law, composition, musicology and conducting in Vienna (1914-15). He was conscripted during World War I and served in the Austrian army (1916-18). Then, when the Polish army was created in 1918 (upon the revival of the Polish state), he volunteered to join it and served until 1920. He continued studying in Vienna (1920-23, ended with a doctorate in musicology). At some point in the mid 1920s (my sources can’t agree on the date) he moved to Lviv. There, he taught subjects connected with composition at the Conservatory (Roman Haubenstock-Ramati was among his pupils). He was a prolific and astute music critic (it appears he valued highly those very composers who later became “classics”), and a great promoter of avant-garde music. He corresponded with members of the Second Viennese School (he had met many of them in person) but, while he was the first Polish composer to apply Schoenberg’s technique, he was not a mere “imitator” – his application of 12-tone principles was rather loose and very original (Koffler combined dodecaphony with folk elements and neo-classical forms).

His position did not change dramatically in 1939, when the Russians attacked Poland and occupied Lviv. However, Koffler was a Jew, and when the Germans took over the city in 1941 he was arrested and sent with his family to the Wieliczka ghetto. What exactly happened in later years and how Koffler met his end is not known in detail. It is believed that he may have been shot in 1943 or 1944 in or near the town of Krosno, where he was hiding after fleeing form the Wieliczka ghetto.

During his lifetime Koffler did not gain much recognition in Poland. Instead, his compositions were brought out and performed abroad (SIMC festivals). At home he was largely ignored. During the communist era dodecaphony was more or less outlawed, so he did not gain much recognition then either. He left a not very large but rather substantial catalogue, containing, among other works, 4 symphonies, 2 string quartets (one destroyed by the composer, one lost), numerous piano works (a complete set takes up 2 CDs) and a fascinating orchestration of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (recorded a couple of years ago by the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra under Agnieszka Duczmal).

As can be gleaned from a fascinating article about Koffler by Maciej Gołąb (the man to a large extent responsible for the revival and reappraisal of Koffler’s music), the first movement of the Piano Concerto op. 13 is based on the formal outline of Schumann’s Toccata op. 7, the second movement on a Fieldean nocturne, and the third on Chopin’s Rondo a la Krakowiak. And go here for an interesting note about Maciej Gołąb’s book on Koffler.

  1. Jezetha
    7 November 2008 at 13:57

    Hi Maciek! Thanks to your good self I already have listened to Koffler’s Symphony No. 2,which I liked a lot. So I’ll have a shot at the Piano Concerto, too!

  2. maciek
    7 November 2008 at 14:22

    Hi, Johan. According to the Golab article his “best” symphony (whatever that means) is the 3rd. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard it. For the benefit of those interested, here’s a link to the 2nd Symphony that you mentioned (thanks for reminding me that I already had it uploaded). Same password as previously.

  3. Sydney Grew
    9 June 2009 at 7:38

    Most interesting these two, Mr. Maciek – many thanks. You may like to have a look at the following thread from time to time:


    It is a series of rare old broadcasts. It began only a couple of days ago but at the rate of one new item per day it will be quite a large collection in a year’s time! Later to-day Haubenstock-Ramati’s Sequences is going to be added.

    • maciek
      15 June 2009 at 8:43

      Thanks, I’ll be sure to take a look.

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