What a life  


Norbert Meyn


A blog detailing the events and progress of Singing a Song in a Foreign Land written by RCM professor and project curator Norbert Meyn.

May 2013

I visited the exhibition "Schwitters in Britain" at the Tate Britain last week. Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) was a Dadaist artist from Hannover in Germany whose art was branded as "degenerate" by the Nazis. He spent the last part of his amazingly creative life in Britain as a refugee, and, as the exhibition was able to demonstrate, influenced a whole generation of British artists with his masterful collages, sculptures and architectural constructions.

Like the composers Hans Gál and Egon Wellesz Schwitters was interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien in 1940, and the exhibition documented this period in his life and showed several portraits of fellow internees. In the camp Schwitters took part in several exhibitions and recited his non-sensical poetry to cheer up his compatriots, much in the same way as Gál and his colleagues when they wrote and performed the revue "What a Life!".

April 2013

It was a pleasure for me to work together with the German violinist Heime Müller in Paris on April 8 and 9. As a former member of the Artemis Quartet and professor at the Musikhochschule Lübeck, he gives regular masterclasses at Pro Quartet, but this collaboration on repertoire for string quartet and voice was as new for him as it was for me. It is a unique situation for a singer to perform with a string quartet. Normally a singer is accompanied either by a pianist, who is quite flexible and can accommodate breathing and tempo changes quite easily, or by an orchestra with a conductor in front. A singer in the middle of a string quartet has to find other ways of keeping the pulse together with the four string  players, and the quartet have to adjust their balance to the singer and the expression of the text, another element they don't usually have to deal with. This was a fascinating experience!

February 2013

I have been reading Daniel Snowman's book about the cultural impact on Britain of refugees from Nazi Germany, and I was fortunate to hear his excellent lecture at Senate House in London on February 21. Snowman spent many years interviewing emigres and has captured the spirit of a generation with remarkable detail. The book is a great read, and leaves the reader feeling optimistic about the ability of the human spirit to recover from the most terrible events. I recommend it wholeheartedly. (Snowman, Daniel, The Hitler Emigres, Pimlico, London 2002)

It strikes me that the foundation for the success of so many emigres in Britain was their education and their love for the arts. For us at the RCM this is perhaps the most valuable insight we can gain from studying this period in our recent history. Hitler emigres, as Snowman calls them, played a major part in the evolution of British cultural  institutions like the BBC, Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House and the Edinburgh Festival, and of course the RCM. It will be interesting to look at this in more detail with this project over the next year.

October 2012

On the plane back to London I am thinking about the last week, trying to collect my thoughts on the experience of our performance in London and our trip to the Festival für Verfemte Musik in Schwerin.

It has been so interesting to work on What a Life!, a bilingual piece that is so much fun yet has such a rich and deep background in the history of the Second World War. The project has raised more questions, some “big” questions, about the role of music in our lives and how music is linked to the national identity of a composer or a performer. I look forward to grappling with them further.

The excerpts from Hans Gál's diary "Music behind barbed wire" were an important part of our performances. Through those brilliantly written diary entries about the creation of the revue we were able to connect with the composer Hans Gál and with the events of the internment in 1940 in a very personal way.

We learned from the diary that the revue was created for light entertainment, to lift the spirits of people who faced considerable hardship and uncertainty. Today it is a great way for us to learn about what it meant to be a refugee then, and it is hugely entertaining, uplifting and moving at the same time.

The wonderful inventions of the revue, the song about two men having to sleep in a double bed, the conservatoire scene where musicians are seen practicing different pieces which, as if by magic, fit together in perfect counterpoint, or the subtle irony of a song about the inner nature of a broom, these inventions were all the more poignant in the context given by the diary.

In the beautiful golden hall in Schwerin we were performing for a very different audience from the one we had in London. There were musicians and other people who had survived the holocaust and had emigrated to the USA, the UK or Israel, and there were researchers and scholars from several countries who have written books and papers about musicians who were persecuted by the Nazis. Many of them knew the stories about the revue but had never heard a performance of it.

There is something timeless about this light-hearted piece. The music, created in less than two weeks for just 7 instrumentalists and a few singers, is simple and accessible, comparable in style to Kurt Weill at times. There are gentle moments of instrumental music when we are left to contemplate the story, and they are perhaps the most powerful ones. Music has a special dimension when it connects with meaning and relates to strong emotion. But there are other levels here, there is a distinct Viennese lightness about the piece, there is the bilingual nature which evokes entertaining stereotypes of the British army (“Dad’s Army” style), and there are dramatic climaxes which remind us that Hans Gál had been one of the most successful opera composers in Germany in the 1920ies. The clarinet adds colours of Jewish music, and the Quodlibet with its many quotations of famous pieces worships the tradition of European classical music. This piece is no longer part of any single national identity, it was written in and belongs to no man’s land. It is here that the creators of What a Life! show us their vision of a place where all are united by their humanity and their love of the arts as an expression of it.

There was also a scientific colloquium in Schwerin about "Continental Britains". There were many exciting talks about composers and musicians who were persecuted by the Nazis and had to emigrate as far as the USA, Australia or even New Zealand.

George Zeisel, a French journalist and artistic director of Pro Quartet, one of the partners in project ESTHER, analyzed a public exchange of letters between the eminent conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Wilhelm Furtwängler and the German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. In April 1933 Furtwängler openly critisized the relentless division between Jewish and non-Jewish musicians against the background of a so-called "restoration of German national dignity", trying to defend great German Jewish musicians he wanted to continue to employ. His statement: "I recognize only one line of division - that between good and bad art" could be seen as visionary or as naive. Goebbels, replies in a really manipulative way: He sais that "Politics too is an art" and adds that "Music must not only be good, it must also appear to be connected with the people". From his position of absolute power, where he could decide what “connected with the people” meant, any amount of censorship was possible, and his power was based on a message of hate which used the Jews and experimental artists as scapegoats. The talk also recounted a public letter by the great violinist Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947, a pupil of Joseph Joachim), published in the Manchester Guardian on March 7, 1936. Huberman had refused to play in Germany after 1933 and had publicly lamented the “brutalisation of a large section of the German population”, which Furtwängler optimistically rejected as a “monstrous generalisation which had nothing to do with reality“. Huberman goes on to accuse the “German intellectuals, you non-Nazis, as those truly guilty of all these Nazi crimes, all this lamentable breakdown of a great people“.

There is something especially powerful about this public exchange involving great musicians who are attributed with a special kind of spiritual authority. It paints a grim picture of the climate in Germany at the time, and is a reminder that being a passive bystander to an injustice does not absolve anyone of their responsibility.

There were several other talks about composers and musicians who had to emigrate, among them Egon Wellesz (1885-1974), a pupil of Schoenberg who enjoyed much popularity between the wars and emigrated to the UK to become a highly respected Oxford professor, and Karl Rankl (1898-1968), a successful conductor and composer who also emigrated to the UK and became musical director of the Covent Garden Opera Company from 1946-1951.

The discussion at the Schwerin symposium was particularly interesting. There was overall agreement that something great and valuable was lost by expelling these composers from Germany and Austria, and that their music should be claimed by those nations as part of their heritage. While they made invaluable contributions to musical life in the UK, the US or even Australia and New Zealand, (RCM researcher Katy Hamilton gave a talk about Hans Gál’s contributions to the Edinburgh Festival for example) they were never really “owned” as composers by their various host nations, they essentially remained German and true to the great tradition of classical music in Germany. I was fortunate enough to meet several members of the musical émigré community in London when I came here as a student, among them my former teacher, the pianist Paul Hamburger (1920-2004) or the family of the accompanist and composer Ferdinand Rauter (1902-1987). I feel that something survived in them that was almost completely lost in Germany and Austria during the Nazi period. Perhaps it can be described as a special kind of moral integrity that is expressed in their worship of classical music and musical performance as a spiritual necessity. By exploring their work and their heritage we can connect with this spirit and contemplate its relevance for performers and audiences today.

September 2012

On September 26, 2012, the RCM launched a two year exploration of music written in emigration with the title Singing a Song in a Foreign Land. Until spring 2014 the RCM will contribute a concert series and a symposium to project ESTHER, a partnership with Jeunesse Musicale Schwerin (Germany), exil.arte Vienna and Pro Quartet Paris, with the support of the Culture Programme of the European Union.

The launch concert featured music by the Austrian composer Hans Gál (1890-1987) who had been a very successful composer of symphonies, operas and chamber music in Germany before having to emigrate after the Nazis came to power. He settled in Edinburgh where he remained active until his death in 1987.

The programme featured the beautiful “Nachtmusik” from 1933, sung by soloist Patricia Rozario, the quintet op 107 written in Edinburgh in 1977, and a staged performance of the comic wartime revue What a life!, written during internment of Austrian and German refugees in the UK on the Isle of Man in 1940.

The RCM singers and chamber musicians had the opportunity to repeat the concert at the golden hall of the Neustädtisches Palais in the north German city Schwerin as part of the Festival Verfemte Musik 2012.

What a life   
RCM singers Luke Williams, Peter Kirk and Tim Nelson on stage in Schwerin.

Click here to view further images from the performances