As the United Kingdom was bracing itself for the potentiality of another World War, hoards of Austro-Germans, Italians and Hungarians fled to Britain to escape the nightmare that was slowly engulfing their respective homelands. Hidden amongst this enormous wave of refugees was an estimated 400 Austrian and German musicians. Given the relatively dire state of Britain’s musical reputation, such an event might have been regarded by some as Hitler’s gift to the UK, as with the exception of an enormous catalogue of folk songs, a handful of Gilbert and Sullivan operas and some less than revolutionary symphonic works, Britain had struggled to hold a candle to the great European works of the latter half of the Millennium, especially those from the germanic states.
Although a much younger country, with perhaps a little less to prove given its distance from Europe, the same could be said for America. Revered amongst Europeans for its wealth of industry and seemingly bottomless supply of innovation, America too was receiving a hamper of talented European musicians.
In spite of the enormous potential to capitalise on this influx of composers, teachers and performers, the all too real threat of espionage in the UK at a time of war and desperation resulted in the internment of every one of the estimated 400 musicians in the UK. Although these camps can hardly be likened to the concentration camps being erected all over Europe at this time, the fact remains that interns were contained in a nest of barbed wire, with strained resources. With nothing in the way of intellectual or vocational stimulus, interns were starved of any sense purpose in these prisons British history has so readily forgotten, mixing innocents and jews with nazi sympathisers. After forming ramshackle ensembles in crowded performances space and even composing new works such as Hans Gál’s ‘Huyton Suite’, the troop of musical interns were slowly released from these artistic wildernesses into a different kind of prison altogether. That is that of musical life in wartime Britain. With the great musical powerhouses such as Vaughan Williams taking a staunchly defensive approach to the rush of talent injected into the veins of Britain’s distinctly uninterested and stagnant musical culture, Britain refused to accept Hitler’s gift. Through the lens of history, it is easy to put things in such terms, as some level of patriotism is required in all fields of life for a country at war. Especially when one considers that Britain had been losing the musical war for years, and perhaps saw this turn of political events as an opportunity to get ahead artistically. Ridiculous though it may seem to us now, it is clear that the UK’s somewhat understandable, yet undeniably selfish approach to welcoming its wartime guests resulted in nothing other than the reaffirmation of these European composer’s disposition that Britain, was doomed to be a musical wasteland.
The stupidity of refusing refugees the right to accept commissions or make serious contributions to musical life in England can be truly contextualised by comparing the USA’s reaction to newcomers. Although public opinion was just as sceptical of the refugees as in the UK, the US did not deprive them the opportunity to excel in the same way. Having invited Anton Dvorak to lead the USA’s musical charge at the end of the nineteenth century, the USA had already begun a fruitful relationship with the acceptance of foreign influence.
Perhaps if the UK had not taken such a rigid view to these musical victims of war and made efforts to create a better environment for artists to work in, Hollywood, Broadway and other musical American musical communities wouldn’t have snatched away so many great musicians such as Kurt Weill, Béla Bartók and Arnold Schoenberg.