His Sinfonietta, performed at the 1934 ISCM Festival, brought him international recognition and contributed to his growing reputation in the 1930s. He worked for Swedish radio as a conductor, composer and producer (1937–43); from 1945 to 1947 he was supervisor of the non-professional symphony orchestras, and he remained conductor of the radio chamber orchestra until 1953. He was also professor of composition at the Stockholm Conservatory (1947–59) and later director of music at Uppsala University (1961–6). In 1971 he retired to Helsingborg.
As a composer Larsson continually oscillated between Nordic Romanticism, neo-classicism and more unconventional styles (serialism and polytonality). His first works are Sibelian, but his year abroad (1929–30) brought a change: the Ten Two-Part Piano Pieces (1932) include the first examples of 12-note technique in Swedish music, and a string quartet fragment of the same period is in a harsh tonal style reminiscent of Hindemith. Of much greater importance, however, is the Sinfonietta for strings (also 1932), a quite un-Romantic, contrapuntal piece with neo-Baroque motivic work in the outer movements; for a composer of Larsson’s gentle lyrical disposition it is a work of biting aggressiveness. It was followed by a series of successful and entertaining pieces in an increasingly warm, elegant neo-classical style, the Concert Overture no.2 (1934), the Saxophone Concerto (1934), the Little Serenade for strings (1934), the Divertimento no.2 (1935) and the much performed Piano Sonatina no.1 (1936). Works on a larger scale met with less success: both the Second Symphony (1936–7) and the monumental opera Princessen av Cypern (‘The Princess from Cyprus’, 1930–37) were criticized for their mixture of styles, lack of originality and weak ideas, and they were withdrawn, though the symphony was performed again after revision in the 1970s.
Larsson’s appointment to the radio service brought another change, and until the mid-40s he concentrated exclusively on music for broadcasting, the theatre and films. Together with the poet Hjalmar Gullberg he developed a new type of radio programme, the ‘lyrical suite’, consisting of poetry readings interspersed with music. His works in this form included Dagens stunder (1938), from which the Pastoralsvit was compiled for concert performance, Senhöstblad (1938), which produced the Intima miniatyrer for string quartet, and Förklädd gud (‘The Disguised God’, 1940), a more cantata-like piece. In all of these, and particularly in the slower sections, there is a warm Scandinavian Romanticism, though the lively movements still show the airy, witty elegance of Larsson’s neo-classicism. During the war years he also wrote works of contemporary relevance, most notably the Obligationsmarschen (1940), which, in a Norwegian version, played a part in encouraging the resistance movement in Norway.
A return to substantial independent composition came with the First String Quartet (1944) and the Third Symphony (1944–5). In the Cello Concerto (1947) there was another change of direction, best demonstrated in the Musik för orkester (1948–9), one of Larsson’s weightiest works. It represents an unconscious approach to Hindemith: there are polytonal tendencies, thematic metamorphosis is used without schematicism on an extended scale and the ideas have a new depth and tension. This direction was continued in the Violin Concerto (1952) and in the 12 concertinos for solo instrument and strings (1953–7), a group designed for skilled amateurs and comparable with Larsson’s neo-classical works.
In the late 1950s, Larsson again reviewed his style. There had been 12-note suggestions in the Kyrie of his Missa brevis (1954), and he now developed his own 12-note technique, based not on series but on ‘interval piles’ (four of three notes separated by a major 3rd, or three of four notes separated by a minor 3rd). The few works written in this manner, including the Adagio for strings (1960), the Three Orchestral Pieces (1960) and the Orchestral Variations (1962–3), display an introspective, austere character. Larsson then moved in the opposite direction with the colourful cantata Soluret och urnan (‘The Sundial and the Urn’, 1966) and the Lyrisk fantasi for orchestra (1966). He returned again to neo-classicism in a series of lesser chamber pieces, and in the orchestral Due auguri (1971) and Råå-rokoko (1973) he brought together learning and humour in subtle musical witticism. His last major work, Musica permutatio (1980), is a cool, enigmatic return to his counterpoint of the early 1960s, but without using 12-note technique.
B. Wallner, H. Blomstedt and F. Lindberg: Lars-Erik Larsson och hans concertinor (Stockholm, 1957)
H. Connor: Samtal med tonsättare [Conversations with composers] (Stockholm, 1971)
G. Bergendal: 33 svenska komponister (Stockholm, 1972)
J. Carlstedt: ‘Lars-Erik Larsson’, Tonsättare om tonsättare, ed. S. Hanson and T. Jennefelt (Stockholm, 1993), 63–71
G. Bergendal: ‘Lars-Erik Larsson’, Musiken in Sverige, iv: Konstmusik, folkmusik, populärmusik 1920–1990, ed. L. Jonsson (Stockholm, 1994), 385–93