'They will crush our delicate flower': when emigrés crashed Britain's classical music scene

Karl and Peter Ebert in the Glyndebourne organ room, c.1945
Karl and Peter Ebert in the Glyndebourne organ room, c.1945 - Hulton Archive

The story of how British culture after the Second World War was enriched by emigrés fleeing from Nazi-occupied Europe is one we think we know well. We’ve heard about the wonderful artists like Kurt Schwitters, film-makers like Karel Reisz, philosophers like Isaiah Berlin, the publisher and Zionist George Weidenfeld, and perhaps most famous of all Sigmund Freud.

One area in which the narrative is less well-known is music. Thanks to a research project at the Royal College of Music which this week reaches its culmination in a concert of music by emigré composers, we can trace it in fascinating and moving detail in the lives of dozens of emigré musicians. It’s a story of heart-warming welcome by the British, but it’s also a story of internment, protectionism and a fear of “alien” cultural imports.

When you cast your eye over the project website — which is publicly available — so many extraordinary names leap out. There was the composer Berthold Goldschmidt, an Austrian Jewish composer who emigrated to Britain in 1935, did sterling work at the BBC’s German Service, and became chorus master at Glyndebourne. His music was rediscovered by the young Simon Rattle back in the 1980s. There was Karl Ebert, the opera director who worked with Kurt Weill in Berlin in the 1930s. Together with the emigré conductor Fritz Busch and George Christie he co-founded the Glyndebourne Festival in the late 1940s. There was the violinist Norbert Brainin, who together with two other emigrés and the native British cellist Martin Lovett founded perhaps the most eminent string quartet in the world, the Amadeus Quartet. Not all of them were fleeing Nazism: the wonderful Catalan composer Roberto Gerhard fled from civil war in Spain and became a lynchpin of Britain’s nascent modernist movement. And lest you think they were all terribly serious, there was Gerard Hoffnung, the humourist and musician whose anarchic spirit and sense of fun raised the spirits of post-war Britain.

Clifford Curzon, Sir Arthur Bliss and Hans Keller at the Leeds International Piano Contest in 1963
Clifford Curzon, Sir Arthur Bliss and Hans Keller at the Leeds International Piano Contest in 1963 - Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive

Thanks to the RCM’s project entitled Music, Migration and Mobility, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the stories of these gifted and doughty individuals has now been uncovered. As the singer and Principal Investigator on the project Norbert Meyn points out, the project actually began with music-making. “This project grew out of an earlier one to explore the wonderful music of the emigré composers,” he says. “Much of it was not published, and much of it had not been heard since the 1930s and 1940s.”

The style of these composers varied from the stridently expressionistic to the pertly satirical to the unashamedly romantic. Among the latter group was the German Jewish composer Robert Kahn. “He was a revelation to me,” says Meyn. “Kahn was a really important figure in Germany,  he was admired by Brahms and Clara Schumann and was a friend of the young Albert Einstein. He composed a set of more than 1100 piano pieces called Tagebuch (Diary), most of them while living in exile in Biddenden in Kent, and also some wonderful songs, some of which we recorded.”

The research project turned out to be a huge job, as the numbers were large: around 400 eminent musicians came to this country. Their stories were complex because like many professional musicians they were constantly on the move, forming networks with each other and with British musicians. Tracing their movements on fascinating ‘mobility maps’ became an exercise in the emerging discipline of Mobility studies, which is why Peter Adey, Professor of Cultural and Historical Geography at Royal Holloway became involved. Did he encounter any surprises in the case studies he looked at? “I was shocked at the scale and ultimate senselessness of the way so many of these musicians were interned as enemy aliens. They had fled persecution only to be arbitrarily locked up again, shuttled from one camp to another, some even deported to Australia only to be returned to Britain later. One of the interned musicians, the composer Hans Gál actually wrote a revue satirising his internment on the Isle of Man, which was performed at the Royal College.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams conducting the Boyd Neil Orchestra, during rehearsals for the Kings Lynn Music Festival in 1953
Ralph Vaughan Williams conducting the Boyd Neil Orchestra, during rehearsals for the Kings Lynn Music Festival in 1953 - Ron Burton/Getty

Once freed these musicians, most of whom had had glittering careers in Europe, faced new hurdles. As refugees they could not work, and later they faced other forms of discrimination. Many, though not all, were Jewish, but historian Alison Garnham, who focused on the huge importance of emigrés at the Dartington Summer School, doesn’t feel anti-semitism was an issue. “I’ve never seen any evidence of it,” she says, “but there was some resistance within institutions to emigrés in general. Sir George Dyson who was in charge here at the RCM, and was also head of the Incorporated Society of Musicians was worried that these immigrants would “take bread out of the mouths of British musicians”. And there’s a letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams in which he worries that the “delicate flower” of British music will be crushed by the much stronger Austro-German musical tradition, which these musicians were trained in.”

As time passed those musicians became firmly entwined in British musical life, in every sphere: orchestras, film music, conservatoires, music publishing, university music departments, and broadcasting. One of the most high-profile and controversial of these emigrés was Hans Keller, who narrowly avoided liquidation in Nazi-occupied Vienna, and arrived in the UK only to be interned on the Isle of Man. In the 1950s he became well-known as a startling original thinker on music, who won the admiration of Benjamin Britten and others. “He had a huge influence on British music-making, because he brought this vast knowledge of Central European music and imparted it to us,” says Garnham. “By the 1970s he was best-known broadcaster on classical music on the BBC.”

This was perhaps the best legacy of these emigrés: they rescued the British music scene from its insularity, a point Dame Janet Baker makes in one of the many interviews stored in the oral history files, which are an important part of the project. For Norbert Meyn these emigrés hold an important lesson for the UK, at a time when its musical links to Europe have been weakened by Brexit. As Norbert Meyn says, “I think that to acknowledge and celebrate our connections with European music is so important. Standing alone as little England just won’t do for classical music, it’s just impossible.”

The concert to celebrate the culmination of the Music, Migration and Mobility project takes place at the Royal College of Music on 29 September for more information on the research project visit

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