Composers Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky. Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and comedian Gracie Fields. Bandleader Tommy Dorsey and humorist Victor Borge. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Ingolf Dahl befriended, taught or collaborated with all these notables during his storied life, yet he remains strangely, and it can be argued, little known.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of this fascinating musical figure during the Oct. 29 installment of CSO Sessions, its weekly series of small-ensemble virtual concerts. Featured will be Music for Brass Instruments, which Dahl completed in 1944. The brass quintet had its premiere that year at the Festival of Modern Music, whose director Arthur Leslie Jacobs had commissioned it.
“When Ingolf Dahl wrote his Music for Brass Instruments 30 years ago, he signaled the beginning of the 20th-century brass renaissance — new music for a medium which had slept for over 200 years,” wrote Robert Posten, a co-founder of the Annapolis Brass Quintet, in the mid-1970s. “Dahl had the foresight to treat the brass quintet with the seriousness which it later proved to deserve.”
Dahl, a Hamburg native who became an American citizen in 1943, was part of a group of European composers whose lives and careers were upended or destroyed by the rise of the Nazis. He first emigrated to Switzerland as the Nazis were coming to power; then he worked for more than six years at the Zurich Opera, where he served as vocal coach and chorus master for the world premieres of Berg’s Lulu and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. But as hostility grew toward émigrés of Jewish descent (his father was German Jewish and his mother Swedish), Dahl fled to the United States in 1939.
He settled in Los Angeles, the hometown of his future wife, Etta, whom he met in Zurich in the late 1930s. Dahl joined a vibrant community of expatriate composers who included Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. “It turned out to be a wonderful place for music at the time and for a society of émigré composers of the first rank,” said Anthony Linick, Dahl’s stepson, from his home in London, and whose 645-page biography of the composer was published in 2008.
Dahl’s American career can be divided into three main phases. After his arrival, it took him little time to be absorbed in this country’s classical scene. In February 1944, Dahl wrote in his journal of the euphoria of walking down a street in New York, arm in arm with three fellow composers: Copland, David Diamond and Harold Shapero. But in part because he was such a perfectionist and composing did not come easily to him, Dahl was not as prolific as many of his peers; he wrote just over 30 pieces, many centered on small ensembles. “He never took the easy or fashionable way out in his works,” said Tilson Thomas in a remembrance of the composer published in the Los Angeles Times shortly after Dahl’s death. “He would revise them until, like the works of Bach and Ockeghem, which he much admired, they had a sense of oneness, of tension and balance and hidden craft like a work of architecture.”
Dahl also took a variety of musical side jobs in the 1940s and ‘50s, a period when “he would do almost anything just to put food on the table,” Linick said. He performed in studio orchestras for an array of films, served as a musical arranger for Tommy Dorsey, tutored Benny Goodman in classical repertoire, including Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, and toured with Gracie Fields. Although the composer enjoyed some of these pursuits, especially his time with Fields, Linick said, “he did not really have much of an affinity for popular culture.”
In 1945, Dahl also began teaching conducting, performing and composing at the University of Southern California, a post he held until his death in 1970. His most prominent student was Tilson Thomas, a celebrated conductor who has recorded an album of Dahl’s music (“Defining Dahl: The Music of Ingolf Dahl”) with the Miami-based New World Symphony Orchestra. From his mother, Linick had heard about Tilson Thomas, but he never met the maestro until after Dahl’s death. When Linick was teaching at Michigan State University, he and his wife drove to Detroit to hear Tilson Thomas conduct that city’s orchestra.
“We’ve stayed in touch ever since,” Linick said. “Michael spent a lot of time as the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. And even since he’s gone on to other things, he’s given a concert in London almost every year, and I always go to at least one of them, and I always go backstage and chat with him.” In 1991, the conductor included a performance of the Music for Brass Instruments on a London Symphony program at the Barbican Centre.
Dahl’s best-known work is the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Orchestra, but Music for Brass Instruments ranks high in popularity as well. “It’s a wonderful piece,” Linick said, “and very gratifying. I think performers have always enjoyed working with it.” He reports in his biography that music critic Alfred Frankenstein and composers such as Copland, George Rochberg and Francis Poulenc gave it their stamps of approval.
Writing in Script magazine, music critic Lawrence Morton called the work “the most integrated and unified” of Dahl’s compositions to that point and “the most personal, the most appealing, in its human quality.” In January 1944, some months before the completion of Music for Brass Instruments, Dahl produced a piano version of Copland’s ballet, Rodeo, and Linick writes that composer’s own works during this time were “self-consciously within the American musical idiom.” Indeed, the jazzy rhythms in the brass quintet were later used as the theme music for two radio shows, TWA’s “World Adventure in Music” and Martin Bookspan’s WQXR record review show.
Despite Dahl’s multifaceted life and multiple accomplishments, he never reached the top echelon of composers, and Linick believes much of that had to do with Dahl living at least three different lives, hence the title of his biography: “The Lives of Ingolf Dahl.” “His social life and his compositions,” Linick writes in the book’s conclusion, “never seemed to acquire that ease of communication that sustain many gifted creators, those titans whose ability to tap into the wellsprings of their being allow them to produce a copious and enviable body of artistic endeavor. Ingolf labored under levels of repression that were antithetical to such a process. He did not choose to be who he was, nor did he choose to make his true self available to the wider world. He lived and died without the luxury of candor.”
Only after the composer’s death did Linick learn that his stepfather was actually part Jewish. After he arrived in the United States, he changed his name from Walter Ingolf Marcus to Ingolf Dahl, taking his mother’s Scandinavian maiden name, and promoted the mythology that he was “born in Hamburg of Swedish parents.” In addition, Linick learned that his father was homosexual and had many affairs during his marriage to Etta, liaisons which she knew about and in some sense sanctioned.
“Those were different times for homosexuals in American life,” Linick said. “Maybe this is just pop psychology, I don’t know, but I do certainly feel that, in a sense, he was a martyr to society’s hatred and rejection of homosexuality. There’s a certain guilt mixed up in this as well, because I think one of the reasons he was not forthcoming in the family was to protect me. But once he started on that path, he maintained it to the end.”
Indeed, one of the reasons Linick decided to write the biography was to start over and learn about his stepfather afresh with all the information that had been hidden away. He began the project in the late 1970s, completing the first draft when he was on sabbatical in 1979-’80 and living in London. But he wasn’t satisfied with the book then, so he waited until he had retired from teaching to complete it more than 25 years later.
There has been an upsurge in attention to Dahl in the last few years, particularly in Germany and Switzerland. “In Germany,” Linick said, “there is a desire to resurrect and honor families who were driven from Germany by the Nazis, and that was certainly true of Ingolf’s family.”
He pointed to the Marcus and Dahl Initiative, which pays tribute to Dahl and to his brother, Gert Marcus, a noted painter and sculptor in Sweden. In addition, Berlin clarinetist Melina Paetzold has written a German-language biography of Dahl and is working on a doctoral dissertation on his music.
“Because he knew so many well-known people,” Linick said of his stepfather, “and was part of such an interesting world, there remains a considerable interest in what he did.”
TOP: Ingolf Dahl. | Photo courtesy of Anthony Linick