Yesterday, 18 January 2023, marked the 120th anniversary of the birth in Hamburg of the émigré British composer Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1996). The date might have passed one by except for the fortuitous coincidence that it also marks the opening of a brand new exhibition in London on émigré composers at the Royal College of Music's recently rebuilt and refurbished Museum, an exhibition entitled Music, Migration and Mobility, which runs until 16 April 2023. Supported by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant, it forms part of a major RCM research project in collaboration with Royal Holloway, University of London and University of Salzburg.
The exhibition itself focuses on the legacy of émigré musicians who found refuge in Britain from Nazi Europe in the 1930s and 40s. At the opening preview on 16 January 2023, which I was fortunate to attend, the select audience included several émigrés and their descendants who had donated objects (including scores, documents, recordings and other everyday objects), as well as scholars and interpreters who have in recent years been involved in the process of reclaiming much of the neglected music and musical history of the Second World War and immediate post-war period. To launch the exhibition preview, we were regaled with an impressive performance by flautist Hannah Gillingham of the Capriccio for Solo Flute (1949) by Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970), the Spanish-Catalan-born émigré composer who studied with Schoenberg in the 1920s, and lived in Cambridge from 1939.
The work's distinctive combination of Modernist serialism and English lyrical modality set the scene for the remarks by Gabriele Rossi Rognoni, the curator of the RCM Museum, who described how the current exhibition had evolved over ten years since the RCM's earlier Singing a Song in a Foreign Land project, combining oral histories, performances and recordings, led by Norbert Meyn, a singer and faculty member at the RCM. Meyn, who is now curatorial leader of the new project Music, Migration and Mobility, then spoke in more detail about the project's aims and methods, and thanked the academic partners from Royal Holloway College, and the departments of the RCM including the Museum, as well as the scholar Alison Garnham and cellist Raphael Wallfisch, who will feature in two events complementing the exhibition, in February and March 2023.
Overall, the exhibition gives a compelling flavour of the rich contribution the émigré musicians made to British musical life. Object-based, and enhanced with sonic accessories (audio guides and installations), the exhibition is elegantly put together, its systematic theme-based organisation highlighting the phases of the refugee experience spanning from childhood in Europe, persecution, emigration and acculturation, all the while focusing on poignant and fascinating material. For instance, the first display case relating to the background features a gold medal awarded to Peter Gellhorn for outstanding achievements at the Berlin Academy, a copy of the notorious antisemitic Lexikon of Jews in Music published in Nazi Germany, letters from family members to composers interned on the Isle of Man, and a youthful self-portrait of composer Joseph Horovitz (1927-2022), who was also a promising artist at the start of his musical career.
Themed display cases trace the émigrés' journeys, including a focus on the experience of internment, with the remarkably lively original poster by Humpoletz from Hans Gál's 1940 camp review What a Life!, produced behind barbed wire at Douglas on the Isle of Man. More serious works relating to refugee experience, by Mátyás Seiber (1905-60), Berthold Goldschmidt, Franz Reizenstein and the much younger Joseph Horovitz, form a telling display, as also does one which focuses on the seminal humourist Gerard Hoffnung, with hilarious objects and manuscripts of music composed for the Hoffnung Music Festivals in the 1950s, classic models of musical wit. Installations and audio guides allow one to absorb fascinating interviews by émigrés such as the writer and BBC producer Hans Keller, composer Alexander Goehr, and performers such as the violinist Maria Lidka, for whom many works by émigré composers were composed. Various interactive maps highlight international migrations whilst a map of North West London, drawn from an exhibition in 2002 for the anniversary of the Association of Jewish Refugees, shows the whereabouts of concert clubs and venues, famous coffee houses, and refugee musicians' homes.
Without claiming to be comprehensive, the exhibition promotes an insightful overview of a cross-section of refugee musical experience that supports the notion, expressed powerfully in Daniel Snowman's The Hitler Emigrés that the generation of musicians who came in the 1930s enriched and transformed musical life in Britain. As the first in a series of exhibitions as part of the larger Music, Migration and Mobility project, the story of the 1930s-40s refugees has a continued relevance for our own time, where more recent forced migrations continue to create challenging social contexts and environments producing powerful new creative expression.
Posted 19 January 2023 by Malcolm Miller