Originally born Walter Ingolf Marcus in Hamburg, Germany to a German father and a Swedish mother, Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970), one of USC's most distinguished faculty members, enjoyed a long and successful career in music. Dahl began his formal music education at the Hochschule fur Musik Koln (Cologne Conservatory), where he studied with Philipp Jarnach from 1930 to 1932. Then, fearing the oppression of the rising Nazi party, he left Germany for Switzerland where he studied with Volkmar Andreae and Walter Frey at the University of Zurich, where he chose Art History as his major and continued his studies in musicology. His first professional assignment out of school was as opera coach with the Zurich Stadttheater, eventually rising to the position of conductor. During this period, Dahl was also composing and performing as a concert pianist in Zurich, Berne and Cologne. It was also during this period that Dahl met his future wife, Etta Gordon Linnick.
In 1939, after Switzerland became hostile to Jewish refugees, Dahl immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Los Angeles. He changed his name to Ingolf Dahl, using his middle name and his mother's maiden name (he would legally change it in 1943, the same year in which he became a naturalized American citizen). Joining the expatriate community of musicians in Los Angeles (including Igor Stravinsky), he found work as a composer and conductor for radio and film, and he also lectured and performed. In 1945, he joined the faculty of USC where he taught until his death. He conducted the USC symphony orchestra for thirteen years, founded the Collegium Musicum, and taught music history classes on, among other topics, the music of Igor Stravinsky. Dahl's own compositions were heavily influenced by the work of Stravinsky. In addition to their personal collaborations, Dahl arranged and wrote articles on Stravinsky's music.
In his early years in the United States, Dahl also worked in the entertainment industry. He toured as a pianist for Edgar Bergen in 1941 and for Gracie Fields in 1942 and 1956, produced musical arrangements for Tommy Dorsey, and served as arranger/conductor for Victor Borge. He gave lessons in classical music to Benny Goodman, and played keyboards in soundtrack orchestras at most of the major Hollywood studios and for the television show The Twilight Zone.
Along with his work at USC, Dahl served on the faculty of the Middlebury Composer's Conference in Middlebury, Vermont (1949) and taught at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood (1952-1955), where he was appointed the first head of the Tanglewood Study Group. Among his students at Tanglewood were the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and composer David Cope. The American State Department sent him to Germany to give goodwill concerts in 1961 and 1962 and he acted as musical director and conductor of the Ojai Music Festival from 1964 to 1966. In his last years, Dahl conducted the Los Angeles Guild Opera (1965-1968) and once again the USC symphony orchestra in its 1968-1969 season.
Among Dahl's many awards were two Guggenheim Fellowships (1952, 1960), two Huntington Hartford Fellowships (1954 and 1958), a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1954), the Excellence in Teaching Award from USC (1967) and the ASCAP Stravinsky Award.
Ingolf Dahl died in Switzerland in 1970, just a few weeks after his wife, Etta.