Migrant Musicians in Twentieth Century Britain; Especially European Refugees during World War Two


Dr Florian Scheding, Senior Lecturer in Music, Bristol University


In this outstanding talk, Dr Florian Scheding spoke about the impact which exiled musicians from Europe had on British musical life during and after the Second World War. He stressed that British culture, including music, was profoundly influenced by immigrant artists, cutting across all genres and cultural / artistic divides.


A good example, at the apex of British artistic high culture, was the Glyndebourne Opera House in Sussex, owned by John Christie, and financed by private capital. This was opened by Christie in 1934, in a country house setting, and quickly came to specialise in John Christie’s repertoire favourites, the works of Mozart and Richard Strauss. Christie invited three men of outstanding talent to run it. They were the conductor Fritz Busch, the artistic director Carl Ebert and the producer Rudolf Bing. All three were exiles from Nazi Germany.


Another key example was the Amadeus String Quartet, three of whom were Viennese Jewish exiles. This became perhaps the world’s leading chamber music ensemble of its kind, for many years. The Quartet’s Leader and driving force was Norbert Brainin (violin), with Sigmund Nissel (second violin) and Peter Schidlof (viola). Only the cellist, Martin Lovett, was British born. When Schidlof died suddenly while running over the fells in the Lake District in the 1980s, Brainin realised instantly that the Amadeus Quartet’s days were over, and disbanded the group.


These and other musicians added immeasurably to the musical landscape of mid-20th century Britain, directly affecting distributors and commissioning bodies. The BBC was at the absolute centre of all this, aware of its powerful position, and transcending boundaries of class, genre and race. The BBC was, indeed, described as ‘ the creator of the nation’s soul’. It provided access and opportunity to the refugees who were arriving from Europe, escaping the persecutions and probable death in the concentration camps had they stayed in Germany or (after the 1938 Anschluss) Austria.


The BBC did indeed provide more opportunities for immigrant musicians than anyone else, though Florian described its approach as ‘ paradoxical, almost schizophrenic’. A partial list of immigrant musicians and composers will appear later, but among the early figures were the Hungarian composer Matyas Seiber (1905-1960), the German composer Franz Reizenstein (1911-1968) and the Viennese violinist and musicologist Hans Keller (1919-1985). Seiber in particular introduced Schoenberg and the ‘Second Viennese School’ to the British music-loving public in radio talks.


In 1938, London hosted the Festival for the International Society for Contemporary Music  (ISCM) - a very prestigious event. It was a two-day conference, the main topic of which was ‘The Problems of Contemporary Music.’ Amazingly (in retrospect, and even noted at the time as bizarre) all the non-British speakers were placed in the same session. There was much criticism at the time of the BBC’s lack of programming of contemporary British music. An Open Letter to the BBC, attacking it for not broadcasting enough British music of the day, was sent by signatories headed by the leading British conductor, Adrian Boult. Forty per cent of all music broadcast was ‘ light music’, (no surprise there) but the serious comment was made that ‘out of every 22 hours of broadcast music, 18 are devoted to music by foreigners.’ This was a narrow and chauvinistic point of view. 


The BBC made a decision - which may seem very odd, but reflected part of the mood of the time, that all broadcast vocal works were to be sung in English.  There was a list of banned composers - mainly Austro-German. Ironically, many of these names also featured on the Nazi list of banned composers!  They included some truly distinguished names - Kurt Weill, Ernst Toch, Erich W Korngold, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Paul Hindemith. Of these, only Hindemith was a non-Jew. The list instantly revealed the explicit anti-Semitism in British artistic circles. Certain figures, for example the Austrian composer Egon Wellesz, also Jewish, actually lived and taught in Britain (in Wellesz’ case, the Music Department of Oxford University) while others were ‘out’ because of their modernism (such as the non-Jew Alban Berg, who had died in 1935, aged only 50) and Mahler, because of his Jewishness.


As soon as Hitler became German Chancellor on 30 January 1933, Arnold Schoenberg, who as a leading Jewish composer could see all too clearly the way the land lay, took immediate steps to leave Europe, and ended up in California, like so many other German and Austria intellectual exiles , including the non-Jew Thomas Mann. Mahler, like Berg 24 years later, had also died aged only 50, back in 1911, and his posthumous reputation as a composer in the interwar years had to be carried forward by a handful of devotee conductors such as Willem Mengelberg, and Bruno Walter.  In today’s world, this seems scarcely credible. All this prejudice existed in a world in which scientists had pleaded urgently for Jews to be accepted as exiles in the UK.


In March 1941, ‘enemy’ composers were allowed on air, as long as they could prove that there were no alternatives. The BBC always transmitted migrant works on the European Service this was well before the establishment in 1946 of the BBC’s Third Programme. Composers had to submit their work to a Reading Panel. A negligible number of foreign composers were broadcast through this mode between 1933 and 1936. There was no agreement on ‘right of asylum’, but it was agreed on consideration to take account of what these composers might contribute. Some figures, such as Bertold Goldschmidt and Leopold Czinner, were badly treated in this respect. Many musicians were regarded by the authorities as ‘unsuitable for entry’.


In 1939, between 63,000 and 80,000 European refugees came to the UK. Far from welcoming them, there was public fear in Britain that they would stay permanently. The Government even explored ways of removing them from public life, and expelling them from the country. In 1939, also, 17,000 individuals considered returning to Germany, though only 600 actually did so. Many were forced to move to Australia or Canada. Karl Rankl, the German conductor, was interned as an alien in the Isle of Man. But, by contrast, the Viennese music critic Peter Stadlen settled in Liverpool before later moving to London. As a Viennese Jew in exile, who would have met a dark fate had he stayed in Austria, Stadlen was always grateful to Britain. Yet the composer Hans Gal, who settled in Edinburgh, lived in fear and uncertainty, with poor food and poor health. (Despite this, Gal lived to a very great age) Generally the environment of immigrant musicians was toxic, affecting their health, their sense of themselves as worthwhile people with much to offer, and their view of Britain as a whole.


In 1940, Matyas Seiber’s Second String Quartet was a success at the ISCM Festival. Although he had come to Britain in 1935, Seiber was not a naturalised British citizen in 1940.The BBC rejected the work for broadcast, without explanation, and the score was returned to Seiber after the war. Matyas Seiber wrote a bitter, angry letter to Herbert Murrill of the BBC, to no effect. Yet this Second Quartet of his was played by the Roth Quartet (USA), the Gertke Quartet in Brussels, the Tatrai in Brussels and the Lenzevsky Quartet in Germany.  Seiber submitted increasingly lighter music in an effort to be performed. Non-broadcast publicity proved unattainable. In December 1945, after the war was over, Seiber was given the first exclusive concert of his works at the Wigmore Hall in London. But again, in 1949, the BBC Symphony Orchestra was told not to take part in Seiber’s cantata Ulysses.

(At this point, Florian played a sombre extract of this work - which made one wish to hear much more).


On the brighter side were the National Gallery concerts, the educative work of Morley College in London, and the launch of the Third Programme by the BBC in 1946. The paintings in the National Gallery were, as is well known, moved to slate quarries in North Wales for safety. Myra Hess was the leading figure in delivering concerts and recitals to enthusiastic audiences in the now ‘empty’ National Gallery. They were attended by thousands of London music-lovers. Morley College (largely destroyed by bombs, sadly) was a key centre of music education in London, and is permanently associated with the names of Gustav Holst (1874-1934) and Michael Tippett (1905-1998). Indeed, Seiber, a gifted communicator, taught there from 1942. The arrival of the Third Programme in 1946 amounted to a sort of broadcasting revolution. Here was a channel aimed at intellectuals, with programmes commissioned and made by intellectuals, built around serious music, serious talks and serious drama. Nothing like it had been seen in broadcasting before, anywhere in the world.

As a result of the BBC’s very strange and ambiguous attitude (immigrants ran the BBC’s World Service, yet their voices were restricted to British listeners) the picture was a very depressing one. The creative output of most composers was deeply affected. A sort of paralysis set in. Some of them never composed again.


These were some of the migrant musicians who came to Britain, listed by Florian; Walter Goehr; EH Meyer; Pa’l Ignotus; Louis Kentner; Mosco Carner; Leo Wurmser; Fritz Busch; Carl Ebert; Rudolf Bing; Ilona Kabos; Bertold Goldschmidt; Leopold Czinner; Gyorgy Mikes (Hungarian writer); Arthur Willner


At the moment of migration, Florian argued, there is a PULL factor - attraction - and a PUSH factor - the need to get out of a hostile environment.  In 1939, the vast majority of intellectual refugees form a hostile Europe wanted to come to Britain or the USA. They felt that these countries were culturally closer to them. In the USA, the big PULL factor was Hollywood, partly through the prestigious names of Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.


Florian told the cautionary tale of the Festival of Britain Opera Competition of 1950 /1951. Operas were to be submitted for judgment, and the best one selected for a ‘flagship’ series of performances. It was supervised by the Arts Council, who asked the BBC to run it. There wee many submissions, and the best score turned out to be by an immigrant composer, Bertold Goldschmidt (1903-1996). Astoundingly, to us in 2020, it was discarded because he was an immigrant.  Indeed the first three operas deemed to be excellent by the judging panel were all by Immigrant composers. The first British composer to be considered was Alan Bush (1900-1995). He was side lined  (inevitably) as a paid-up member of the Communist Party. So the competition was cancelled, and instead, Benjamin Britten was commissioned to write Billy Budd (first performed 1951), which is, as it happens, one of his finest works. In the context of all this odd and negative behaviour, Florian said, it is important to remember that from 1939 to 1945, Britain was at war, and that there was a permanent fear of foreigners, musicians or otherwise, infiltrating British society, and potentially inflicting harm. This may seem a bad thing to us in 2020, but at the time it was an understandable attitude for many people.


Note: Dr Florian Scheding plays the viola in an amateur string quartet at Bristol University, outside his duties as an academic teacher and researcher in the Department of Music.


Copyright Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor, Literature and Humanities, BRLSI, Bath

Based on notes made at Dr Florian Scheding’s talk on 17 January 2020, with some additions.