Frederick Koch, Composer, 1923–2005

2007 cleveland arts prize for Music

Fred KochAlmost from the start, it was songs that captivated Frederick C. Koch. As a student at Rocky River High School—this was the Swing Era—he led a 10-piece band, the Tunesmiths; but he had barely begun his advanced studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music when he found himself in a very different role, as an infantryman with the 172nd Field Artillery Battalion in Nazi-occupied Europe. And it wasn’t long before Koch found himself composing Under Fire. Literally. He and a couple of pals wrote a musical comedy by that name with which they planned to entertain the troops on Christmas Day, 1944.

“Ironically,” The Plain Dealers Alana Baranick would write many years later in the composer’s obituary, the production had to be postponed because of “intensified bombardment by German forces.” It was finally performed on February 2, 1945, in Namur, Belgium. (A second show to which the 20-year-old Koch contributed, Five Yanks Abroad, was part of the victory celebrations in Eschwege, Germany, that June.)

After completing his undergraduate studies at CIM in 1949 and a master’s degree in music at Western Reserve University the following year, Fred Koch set about making a career, winning a prize from New York’s Composers Press and grants from the American Music Center and National Endowment for the Arts.  Having studied piano with Leonard Shure, Arthur Loesser and Beryl Rubenstein, and composition with Arthur Shepherd and Herbert Elwell, Koch would eventually earn a doctorate in composition from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, where Koch, as a student of Bernard Rogers and Henry Cowell, won the Benjamin Award (first prize) for an orchestral work honoring the late John F. Kennedy.

Meanwhile, back home in Rocky River, Ohio, Fred Koch’s name had become synonymous with music education. The Koch School of Music, which he co-founded in 1955 with his wife Joyce Rowbotham, a gifted teacher of vocal music, was relocated to Lakewood in the late 1980s, becoming the Riverside Academy of Music, and was eventually incorporated into the new Beck Center for the Arts. Koch also served on the music faculties of Baldwin Wallace Conservatory and Cuyahoga Community College’s Western Campus, and was one of the founders of the West Shore Concert Series, a showcase for young talent.

But when the Cleveland Arts Prize committee honored him in 1977, it was, they said, for his work as a composer, which included a good deal of music composed in the early ’70s for productions of the Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater Festival. Koch also composed lots of instrumental music, including many chamber works, pieces for orchestra and for concert band. He appeared as soloist in his own Concertino for Piano and Orchestra with the National Gallery Orchestra in Washington, D.C.; while his lovely Nocturne for Dilling harp was premiered in 1997 by Jocelyn Chang, who subsequently took the work on her European tour; and in 1993 Koch’s Two Impressions for two pianos was added to the list of contemporary works required of contestants in the Ellis National Two Piano Competition in North Carolina.

But it was, finally, the human voice and words set to music that obsessed Fred Koch. “Every time you start writing,” his mentor Herbert Elwell had once told him, presumably with a smile, “it ends up in a song.” And so, Carl Sandburg’s poem “Wind Song” creeps into Koch’s second string quartet, and his Symphonic Suite for orchestra suddenly breaks into George Favre’s stirring poem “Astronaut.” The older composer had his student pegged.

In 1995, baritone Andrew White performed 28 of Koch’s songs in a concert in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, with the composer at the piano. Among the poets whose words triggered the lyrical impulse in Fred Koch were Emily Dickinson, who inspired a cycle for soprano, clarinet and bassoon called I Could Bring You Jewels; New York’s Ilsa Gilbert, “the poet of Bleecker Street”; and Cleveland-born poets Langston Hughes (a setting of nine poems titled Blue Monday) and Barbara Tanner Angell (1930–1990), with whom Koch and two other Cleveland composers collaborated on a 1972 concert, Words in Collision. It Is All Music, a memorial CD devoted to settings of Angell’s vivid, transcendent, often whimsical poetry, includes five by Koch. His sensitive setting of Janice Power’s poignant poem about 9-11, “Ground Zero”, was premiered at a concert of the Rocky River Chamber Music Society in March 2003.

Reviewing a 1994 CD featuring eight of Koch’s works for various instruments and baritone voice, The Plain Dealer's Don Rosenberg found music of considerable “appeal” and “rich, passionate gestures. “Koch has avoided the murky sonic waters into which many late-20th-century composers have plunged. His music is centered in traditional tonality, with just enough colorful departures of thematic shape and harmony to bring flavor to the activity. . . . Koch’s setting of text is especially sensitive,” said Rosenberg, yielding passages of “poetic ardor” and “lovely, arching moments.” Elsewhere Rosenberg has suggested that Fred Koch’s Christmas opera, The Shepherds, “might be performed more often if Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors didn’t hold such a monopoly on the holiday market.” (The sheet music, and rights, are available form Carl Fischer, Inc.)

When Fred Koch died in September 2005 at the age of 82, he had more than 300 works in his catalogue.

—Dennis Dooley

Fredrick Koch’s reminiscences of and conversations with Herbert Elwell, Arthur Shepherd, Bernard Rogers and Henry Cowell are preserved in his book, Reflections on Composing:  Four American Composers (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983; second printing, 1993).

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