In the spring of 1940, thousands of Jewish refugees who had left Germany, Austria and Central Europe to build new lives in England were taken into custody by the British government, declared to be “enemy aliens” and spent anywhere from a few weeks to two years in internment camps throughout the country. Among those imprisoned were composers and musicians, some of whom had achieved fame in their former homelands.
Many men were housed in quaint seaside rooming houses and hotels ringed by barbed wire on Britain’s Isle of Man. There, they put their skills to use, in performance and in teaching and mentoring the young and talented in their midst. The gifted teenage violist Peter Schidlof studied harmony and music theory with the eminent pianist Ferdinand Rauter, whose efforts made possible his later success. After meeting on the Isle of Man, Schidlof joined forces with another internee, violinist Siegmund Nissel, to establish the Amadeus Quartet, a chamber music group renowned during the post war era. They played together for more than 35 years.
Coordinating auditions and rehearsals, music committee members in several camps produced “House” concerts of familiar repertory— beloved works by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann——which were performed in whatever space was available, including the bed rooms. Audience members paid a small fee which was donated to charity. Since music making in the home by friends and family had been a staple of cultural life in Austria and Germany, these recitals in intimate settings must have conjured bittersweet memories for all involved.
Although suicides were common in the camps, the presence of music buoyed the spirits of many and could sometimes make the difference between life and death. Cellist Fritz Ball recollected:
“In the camp, I met a man, with whom I had played chamber music in Berlin. He was...so broken that [he] had not played a note in years. I asked him if he would play with me but he refused, until the evening of the first concert, when all the inmates were in the theater and the camp was empty, that he finally gave in. And from that day we played together, and he was my best accompanist. I could see that the music was freeing him from his depression.”
A well-known piano duo, Marjan Racwiz and Walter Landauer, had immigrated in 1935 to England, where they were frequently heard over the BBC. King Edward VIII, later the Duke of York, was one of their biggest fans. The team’s celebrity status did not prevent their arrest, but British authorities contrived to have them both sent to the Isle of Man, to entertain in the camps. Soon released, they resumed their successful international touring schedule and later made a number of best-selling recordings.
Han Gáls’ life in Germany as a well-known opera composer and pedagogue was decimated after Hitler came to power in 1933. Arriving in England in 1939, he joined the faculty of Edinburgh University before he was taken into custody by the police in the spring of 1940. Gál was first at Huyton, a camp near Liverpool, and then was sent to Central Camp in Douglas, on the Isle of Man, where he remained for five months. Describing this time as “the worst period of my life,” Gál kept a diary whose entries document the remarkable resiliency of his creative impulse, which endured despite physical and emotional privations.
All the musicians in Central had either worked together or had known of each other during their former lives in Europe. Their recognized leader, Gál composed two works which were premiered by the inmates before his release.
The sprightly music of the Huyton Suite, a trio scored for two violins and flute written for Central’s best soloists, imitates the sounds that Gál associated with his time at Huyton—the playing of reveille, the whistle for roll call, the horns of passing boats. In its third movement, a wistful motif conveys the sadness that he probably did his best to conceal. Conflicted and perhaps traumatized by his situation, Gál confided to his diary:
“In my sober moments it is clear to me that I am mad. Here I am writing this music, completely superfluous, ridiculous, fantastic music for a flute and two violins, while the world is on the point of coming to an end.”
His fellow inmates assisted with everything, from working the lights to designing and printing the program, which was illustrated with the figure of a minstrel playing a barbed wire harp. What a Life!, a show featuring Gál’s music, was staged in Douglas’ Palace Hotel ballroom on September 2, 1940. Gál stayed past his release date to conduct the opening night.
Much of What a Life! focuses on the small annoyances and tribulations encountered by Central’s residents, gently poking fun at the cacophonic mishmash produced by a bunch of musicians practicing different—but always discernible—solos in one small common room, to the embarrassing etiquette of bed sharing, a situation resulting from a shortage of space and furniture. Although most of the Gál’s skits were classical in style, he ventured out of his comfort zone for songs with a serious content by drawing on more popular sources, earthy ballads and jazzy cabaret tunes that his audience would have associated with the politics of Weimar Germany during the 1920s. It is music written in this style which accompanies the poetic lyrics of The Barbed Wire Song:
The seagulls are in a curious mood
Maybe they are getting much food
One thing they all very much deplore
Is the ugly barbed wire that grows up the shore
So in the seagulls’ parliament
There was a great debate on that end
Many of them did there inquire
Why are human beings behind a wire
As scholar Suzanne Sinek notes in her thesis on Gál and the works he composed on the Isle of Man:
“Years later, Gál was asked if he, a serious composer, had found it ―somewhat trivial‖ to write the music for this revue. He remarked, ‘Not at all, because it was such a genuine improvisation, written within days [...] with gifted performers, gifted singers, actors ... everything there was real, it was a real community.’”