Enemy Aliens: Music in Internment

Mooragh internment camp in Ramsey, Isle of Man, 1940. Courtesy of Manx National Heritage (PG/5396/8)
The internment of German and Austrian refugees on the Isle of Man in 1940/41 has been a recurrent focus point in our research about the legacy of migrant musicians from Nazi Europe in Britain. It was a shared experience of many of our featured musicians during a difficult and uncertain time, during which music was vitally important to keep up morale.

Download sheet music and hear recordings of the internment revue What a Life!

Author: Norbert Meyn

We launched the Singing a Song in a Foreign Land project in 2012 with a performance in the RCM’s Amaryllis Fleming concert hall of the revue What a Life! by Hans Gál, which was written on the Isle of Man in 1940 (Excerpts of the performances can be watched below). In 2016, we made editions and recordings of several works by Peter Gellhorn, written in Mooragh camp in the north of the Island. After that, in 2017, twelve musicians from the RCM and Ensemble Émigré performed the programme Leaves from the Isle of Man in London and on the island, in collaboration with Culture Vannin, who produced a series of short films about the project that are also available below. Finally, as part of the AHRC project ‘Music, Migration and Mobility’, a team of RCM editors produced a first critical edition of the revue What a Life!,  which can be downloaded free of charge on our Featured Works page.

Historical Context

In May 1940, Nazi-Germany launched a surprise attack on Belgium and the Netherlands. Faced with the threat of an invasion and in fear of sabotage, the British Government embarked on a policy of mass internment of German and Austrian Nationals in the United Kingdom. The large majority of the prisoners were Jewish and other refugees who had escaped persecution by the Nazi Regime and were ready to fight against the Nazis together with the British, who had given them a fairly warm welcome so far. Now they fell victim to the general hysteria at the beginning of the war, and to growing hostility towards foreigners fuelled by the press. They had to stay in the camps for many months until the authorities had dealt with each case individually to make sure they were not a danger and could be released. Some internees were deported to Canada or Australia and one transport ship, the Arandora Star, was torpedoed and sunk in July 19401.

However, after an initial period in poorly organised temporary camps such as Huyton near Liverpool or Warth Mills in Barry near Manchester, most of the internees were brought to the Isle of Man, which had already been used for internment during World War One. They stayed in a number of locations spread out over the island, mostly in terraces of now disused boarding houses which had been cordoned off with barbed wire. The internees soon developed a hierarchy of self-administration to improve conditions and deal with issues including food supply, communication with families outside (which was heavily restricted) and access to medical services. The camps also developed programmes of lectures that came to be called ‘universities’, as some of the finest minds of Europe were among the internees.

Musicians interned on the Isle of Man included Hans Gál, Egon WelleszFranz ReizensteinFerdinand RauterHans KellerPaul HamburgerPeter Gellhorn and the three Austrian members of the Amadeus Quartet; Norbert BraininSiegmund Nissel and Peter Schidloff, who first met during internment. The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of several British musicians who campaigned for the release of their colleagues.

Interview with Norbert Meyn at Mooragh promenade

Photo: Mooragh promenade in Ramsay in 2017, with traces of the barbed wire fence still visible. Credit Norbert Meyn.

Hans Gál and the bilingual revue 'What a Life!'

The composer Hans Gál (1890-1987) was almost 50 years old when he was interned. He had enjoyed considerable success as a composer in Vienna in the 1920s and had been appointed Director of the Conservatory in Mainz in 1929. After his dismissal by the Nazis in 1933 he returned to Vienna but was forced to emigrate to Britain after the annexation of Austria in 1938. He and his family had found refuge in Edinburgh, but like most of his fellow internees he was arrested on Whit Sunday in May 1940. He was first brought to Huyton near Liverpool and then to the Isle of Man.

There Gál became a leading member of the arts committee at Central Camp in the capital Douglas. After several successful concerts of classical music, the arts committee decided to put on a comic revue to provide much needed light entertainment. It was the brainchild of the Austrian film director Georg Höllering (1897-1980), who had worked with Berthold Brecht on the film Kuhle Wampe in 19322. He asked Gál to compose the music for it and called it What a Life!

Hans Gál, 'Keep Fit' from What a Life!, manuscript detail, reproduced with kind permission from Eva Fox-Gál

Hans Gál, 'Keep Fit' from What a Life!, manuscript detail, reproduced with kind permission from Eva Fox-Gál

Gál wrote the music of the revue from his bed in the camp hospital, where he was suffering from a severe skin allergy. He was awaiting his imminent release due to medical hardship. When it finally came, Gál asked to be allowed to stay an extra day so he could conduct the second performance. The camp commander found this 'very sporting' and gave permission. Both sold-out performances took place at the Palace Theatre in Douglas, a large venue with a proper stage and orchestra pit. Performers and audiences were given special permission to go to the theatre which was outside the camp boundaries. The first performance on September 2 was followed by a substantially revised and extended second performance on September 26.

Höllering, an experienced film producer, had succeeded in involving countless volunteers in a quick succession of varied tableaus and group scenes with stage designs, interspersed with scenes in front of the curtain. There were two compères, one speaking German the other English, and two main singers, a baritone and a tenor. During a grand parade, presumably the Einzugsmarsch, the entire hierarchy of the camp including the camp council, the house fathers and the hospital doctors appeared on the stage. The songs are parodies of actual life in the camp, making fun of the seagulls, the barbed wire, the gender separation, the fitness routine, cleaning up, sharing double beds and observing the blackout. Sadly, not all of these songs survive. There are some fragments of songs in the manuscript that could not be reconstructed, including a Porridge Elegie.


‘Keep Fit’ from ‘What a Life’

Performed by Peter Kirk and other students at the Royal College of Music in 2012

For the second performance, Höllering and Gál added three numbers: the Ballade vom Deutschen Refugee, the Ballade vom armen Jakob and the Quodlibet. The last of these had been entirely improvised in the first performance as a parody of the many musicians practicing in the camp who made an unbearable noise. For the second performance, Gál decided to compose this in counterpoint, using musical quotations that could be recognised by connoisseurs. The Ballade vom Deutschen Refugee was half spoken, half sung by an actor playing a harp strung with barbed wire while sitting on a crate of porridge, with cardboard cut-out figures appearing behind him. It was interspersed throughout the revue in three instalments with four verses each time. The other new piece, the Ballade vom armen Jakob by Norbert Elias, was performed by a speaker and a chorus from the youth group of the camp, with group scenes and shadow backdrops to illustrate the story.

Unfortunately, the text of the spoken dialogue scenes that were performed between the musical numbers does not survive. What we do have are the songs and instrumental numbers from Gál’s manuscripts, and his wonderful diary Music behind Barbed Wire, which recounts the whole episode of internment and the creation of the revue in great detail. In our performances we interspersed the songs with relevant excerpts from Gál’s diary to put them in context. The order of songs was also slightly re-arranged to better incorporate these diary excerpts. The excerpts have been included in our critical edition, in both English and German, with kind permission from the composer’s daughter Eva Fox-Gál.3

‘Quodlibet’ from ‘What a Life’

Performed by Tim Nelson and other students at the Royal College of Music in 2012

After his release from internment, Gál composed Suite from What a Life! for solo piano. It was never published and only ever performed by him and fellow émigré pianist Edith Vogel. It is dedicated 'To all my dear friends from Central Camp, Douglas, Isle of Man'. We are pleased to have been able to include it in our edition.

After internment Hans Gál returned to and settled in Edinburgh, where he composed more than half of his entire oeuvre. He became a well-known personality in the musical life of the city as composer, performer, scholar and teacher and remained active until his death in 1987. His music is available from major publishers including Universal Edition, Boosey & Hawkes, Breitkopf & Härtel and Schott. It has enjoyed considerable interest in recent years, with major recordings and opera productions in Britain and Germany making it more accessible and better known to performers and audiences alike.

Download our Critical Edition of ‘What a Life’ here

Peter Gellhorn's internment compositions

Born in 1912, Peter Gellhorn was in his late 20s when he was interned on the Isle of Man. Having finished his studies in Berlin shortly before his emigration in 1935, Gellhorn had been working as music director at Toynbee Hall in east London before his arrest. After the war Peter Gellhorn became a well-known conductor at Covent Garden (1946–1953), Glyndebourne Opera (1954–1961) and the BBC (from 1961).4



'I had a letter from Vaughan Williams...': Letters from the Mooragh Camp by Peter Gellhorn

Gellhorn spent many months in Mooragh Camp in the north of the island, where he kept himself busy with musical activities. Without access to sheet music, Gellhorn had to reconstruct and perform entire programmes of piano music from memory. There were a number of excellent string players to hand, and there was a choir (male only because of the gender segregation) which Gellhorn directed.

The most substantial and original of his compositions from the Isle of Man is Mooragh for four-part male choir (or 4 soloists) and strings, dated August 1940. It is a setting of a poem by F. F. Biber that had been published in the camp newspaper, the Mooragh Times.

Beyond barbed wire
The sea, 
And the sun’s last fire
Burning up a tree
And a cottage on the green hill. 
Gulls idle on the beach,
Then rise into the air and cry.
The field across the bay we cannot reach, 
We can but pace our cage and let our hungry eye
Take in far loveliness which will remain. 
Beyond our sadness and beyond despair, 
Beyond our stubborn hope, beyond our fair 
And puzzled sense of justice. 
They will stand,
This bay, this pier, this beach, this sea, 
This distant friendliness of wooded land – 
To bid farewell to us when we are free.  

Gellhorn also wrote two pieces ‘for strings without double bass’ for players in the camp. With the absence of other sheet-music they were probably written on the spur of the moment so people had something to play. Andante (4 ½ minutes) is constructed as a fugue and has a lyrical, quasi-religious atmosphere. The Cats (November 1940, approx. 2 ½ minutes) is a caricature with quirky rhythms and slurs, evoking images of bendy felines. Sheet music and recordings Mooragh, Andante and Cats by Peter Gellhorn are available on our Featured Works page. 

Mooragh by Peter Gellhorn

Further reading

Connery Chappell, Island of Barbed Wire, Robert Hale, London, 1984

Hans Gál, Music behind Barbed Wire, translated by Eva Fox- Gál and Anthony Fox, Toccata Press, London, 2014.

Hans Gál, Musik hinter Stacheldraht, Edited by Eva Fox- Gál, Peter Lang, Bern, 2003

Terence Curran and Norbert Meyn, Peter Gellhorn Biography, RCM Editions 2016, available here


1Connery Chappell, Island of Barbed Wire, Robert Hale, London, 1984, page 28

2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Hoellering, accessed on December 20, 2020

3The diary is available both in German and English. The English publication includes short biographies of key figures mentioned in the diary and a comprehensive introduction. In German: Hans Gál, Musik hinter Stacheldraht, Edited by Eva Fox- Gál, Peter Lang, Bern, 2003 In English: Hans Gál, Music behind Barbed Wire, translated by Eva Fox- Gál and Anthony Fox, Toccata Press, London, 2014.

4Terence Curran and Norbert Meyn, Peter Gellhorn Biography, RCM Editions 2016, pages 9-12

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