Peter Gellhorn (born 1912)
by Martin Anderson
Peter Gellhorn, conductor, teacher and composer: born Breslau, Germany 24 October 1912; Musical Director, Toynbee Hall 1935-39; Assistant Conductor, Sadler's Wells Opera 1941-43; Conductor, Royal Carl Rosa Opera 1945-46; Conductor and Head of Music Staff, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 1946-53; Conductor and Chorus Master, Glyndebourne Festival Opera 1954-61, 1974-75; Director, BBC Chorus 1961-72; Conductor, Elizabethan Singers 1976-80; Professor, Guildhall School of Music and Drama 1981-92; married 1943 Olive Layton (two sons, two daughters); died Kingston upon Thames, Surrey 13 February 2004.
Peter Gellhorn was one of the many Jewish or part-Jewish Hitlerflüchtlinge whose presence immeasurably enriched Britain's cultural life. Music was especially blessed: Hans Keller, Berthold Goldschmidt, Hans Gál, Peter Stadlen, Otto Erich Deutsch, Erwin Stein — these men and many like them transformed the parochial outlook of pre-Second World War British music-making, laying the foundation for the unparalleled richness of musical life in the UK today. Though a less public figure than, say, Keller, in Gellhorn's area of expertise — vocal music in general and opera in particular — he was as influential as any of them.
Gellhorn was born in Breslau (which these days is Wrocláw, in Poland) in 1912, into a comfortable family where music was part of the fabric of daily life — his father was an architect, who was also to flee to Britain from the Nazis. His parents moved to Berlin in 1923 and divorced soon afterwards: Peter had been born illegitimately and was then brought up by his mother alone. He attended the Schiller Realgymnasium before going on to the Berlin Hochschule für Musik in 1932, where he gained a number of prizes, for both piano and conducting. His main teachers were Richard Rössler (piano), Leo Schrattenholz (composition) and Julius Prüwer and Clemens Schmalstich (conducting). Franz Schreker had been the director of the Hochschule on Gellhorn's arrival, but with the Nazi accession to power he was replaced by Fritz Stein, generally remembered as a supporter of the new regime. But Gellhorn, reminiscing almost 70 years later, was quick to defend him against a black-and-white interpretation of the times:
Stein was quite helpful — he behaved very well indeed, and I have only very pleasant memories of him and of Schmalstich. One could hardly refuse the jobs they were offered, but they didn't approve of what was going on.
Leaving the Hochschule in 1934, Gellhorn then studied music history (with Arnold Schering) and art history at Berlin University.
In 1935 he escaped to Britain, coming to London after a few months in Ascot and, at the end of the year, moving to Toynbee Hall (a settlement of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge) in the East End of London. There, until 1939, he lectured on opera, conducted the chorus and presented chamber concerts and piano recitals. It was at Toynbee Hall that he made his début as an operatic conductor, presenting Gluck's Orfeo, in a translation by Edward Dent (who was present); the décor was by Lotte Reininger, for whom Gellhorn had written film scores in Germany as he did again in England.
In the first months of the war he toured a concert programme with two singers,
before returning to London where, in 1940, he was interned, like all 'enemy
aliens' (Hans Gál observed, 'It was a very curious policy, to lock up Hitler's
best enemies'). His first internment camp was at Warth Mills, near Bury in
Lancashire ('an awful place'), before he was moved to the Isle of Man, where his
fellow internees included Hans Keller and three members of what would become the
Amadeus Quartet. 'I never did more music than in that camp,' he recalled:
although he was not allowed access to scores (printed material was forbidden),
he called on his memory to give piano recitals, and taught harmony, the piano,
singing and so on.
Upon release in 1941 he went to Burnley to meet the agent of the Vic-Wells company — the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells — and was engaged as répétiteur for Sadler's Wells opera by the singer Joan Cross, its director, and Lawrance Collingwood, the music director.
It was through Vic-Wells that Gellhorn met his wife, Olive (daughter of the economist Lord Layton), who was an actress with the Old Vic. On the evening of their wedding Gellhorn conducted his first Traviata, with the whole company present at the reception (Joan Cross sang Violetta, and Peter Pears, as Alfredo, was making his first appearance in opera). In 1943, after a year at Sadler's Wells, Gellhorn was called up for industrial war service and spent the remainder of the conflict working in a factory that made aircraft components.
With the return of peace he joined the Carl Rosa opera company (1945-46), tucking over a hundred performances under his belt before Karl Rankl, a fellow refugee a few years earlier and now music director at the Royal Opera House, Covert Garden, appointed him conductor and head of music staff there. He was to remain for seven years, conducting some 270 performances, most of which he had prepared from their early stages, also working as répétiteur and coach for productions conducted by others.
The next seven years (1954-61) were spent as conductor and chorus director at Glyndebourne Festival Opera; here, too, he conducted a generous number of operas. He then moved to the BBC, where for 11 years (1961-72) he was director of the BBC Chorus, taking over from Leslie Woodgate and conducting them at several Proms. When in 1974 he reached the BBC's compulsory retirement age and was shown the door, he returned to Glyndebourne, staying for two more years. In his 'retirement' he was active as a freelance pianist, vocal coach and conductor, leading his own choir in Barnes from 1973 until 2000.
Peter Gellhorn was associated with many other music groups. He was co-founder and music director of Opera Barga in Tuscany (1967-69), conductor of the Morley College Opera Group (1973-79) and the Elizabethan Singers (1976-80), music director of London Opera Players (1960-2000), a member of the opera-school staff at the Royal College of Music (1980-88) and professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (1981-92). He also lectured and adjudicated widely, in Britain and abroad.
For all the relentless activity of his life, Gellhorn was devoid of personal
ambition. Typically both of his modesty and his perfectionism, he once turned
down an opportunity to conduct The Threepenny Opera in the West End: he
didn't think the sanitised translation, by the American composer Marc Blitzstein,
was good enough, even though Kurt Weill himself was consulted and approved of
Gellhorn's composing was perhaps the least well-known of his activities. His own works — or at least 'the ones I am prepared to own up to' — include two string quartets, written before he left Germany, a 'small oratorio', Baida der Kosak (1935: the work he said he would most like to see revived), as well as a number of other chamber pieces and songs. He often composed for his musician friends: the two-piano team of John Tobin and Tilly Connelly, for example, received a sonata and a Dance of the Dead in 1936, and his duo-partnership with the violinist Maria Lidka was furnished with an Intermezzo and a Capriccio. In 1939 he wrote incidental music for Toynbee Hall productions of Romeo and Juliet and Le Malade imaginaire. And, in internment on the Isle of Man in 1940, he wrote for the instruments available: The Cats for string quartet and Two Studies for solo violin. His last composition, a song, was penned in 1995, when he was in his mid-eighties. Though his personal acquaintances included Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen (and he was a formative influence on the young George Benjamin), his own style is tonal and relatively conservative; the craftsmanship is of a high order.
Gellhorn's music provided a startling illustration of his continued mental powers, well into what was supposed to be old age. Two years ago, when he was 89, I went to see him to discuss which of his compositions the International Forum for Suppressed Music should present in two concerts of composers who had taken refuge from Hitler in Britain. He provided the illustrations at the piano, from memory (I had the scores at the other end of the instrument), including such works as the Piano Sonata he had written in January 1936, almost seven decades earlier, dipping into others in mid-movement to play passages he was especially fond of — all of it note-perfect.
Peter Gellhorn's memory will also live on among the singers whom he found
time to coach privately, helping what must now be many hundreds. One of them,
the contralto Phillida Bannister, who studied with him from the mid-1980s, found
that the quiet manner, gently piquant humour and diminutive frame hid a
He was very severe; I was probably one of the few people whom he never made cry. But he made you understand music. His gift as a teacher was that he made you believe you could do it, even though he was incredibly hard. And you felt every expression that was required just from his playing: he gave you that support, he made it easy to sing. He had a total understanding of the voice — it was instinctive. And although he was no singer himself — he had a terrible voice — he could encapsulate a style in instant: when he sang Weill, he sounded exactly like Brecht or Ernest Busch. Because he was so immersed in the music, he made it sound right.
* * *
Peter Gellhorn and his family were friends of our family dating back to the 1930s, writes Professor Richard Robbins. He represented those who brought so much benefit to Britain and reminded us of the tragedy at the heart of Europe that brought him here.
May I just comment on his private-public performances late in life? Hiring, or having hired for him, a venue, he would present evenings when he would demonstrate his understandings of composer's intentions, speaking of and playing through them. Memorable, for example, was his singing, playing and talking through the Ring Cycle and Mozart's operas.
These performances in very old age were informed and driven by a freshness and directness that amounted to the very breath of originality. His perceptions drove his aging being into totally unexpected spheres of expression, demonstrating the true importance of art in the living of life.
First published in The Independent on 21 February 2004
Chronological List of Compositions by Genre
'These are the ones I am prepared to own up to.'
The Cats, for string quartet or string orchestra without double-bass
Ramsey, Isle of Man, November 1940 (in internment)
est. dur. 3'
Dialogue, for violin, viola and strings
Chorus with Orchestra
Baida der Kosak, 'small oratorio'
Bass-baritone and tenor soloists, SATB chorus, chamber orch. (2121/1110/timps./strings)
est. dur. >30'
This is the piece PG suggested when asked: 'Which of all your works would you most like to hear'.
Cf. also The Star of Bethlehem under INCIDENTAL MUSIC
String Quartet No. 1
est. dur. 20-25'
String Quartet No. 2
est. dur. 20-25'
Capriccio, for violin and piano
24 January 1936; published Augener 1938
('I'm not so proud of that')
Polonaise, for flute, horn and four violins
5 February 1936
Written for Max Rostal
Dead of the Dead, for two pianos
Written for John Tobin and Tilly Connelly
Sonata for Two Pianos
Written for John Tobin and Tilly Connelly
Intermezzo for violin and piano
For Maria Lidka
Trio Suite, for two violins and viola
'in the olden style'; 1937
Piece for cello and two pianos
(found with Two-Piano Sonata — details to follow)
Ten Short Pieces, for piano (for children)
An…, for piano
Sonata for piano
Two Studies, for solo violin
September 1940 (written in internment)
Autumn (de la Mare)
I Want to Sing a Song (Gellhorn)
Published Boosey 1949
Aedh Wishes for the Cloth of Heaven
Music for Lotte Reininger silhouette films
Romeo and Juliet
(oboe, piano, strings)
Toynbee Hall, London, April 1939
Le Malade imaginaire
Toynbee Hall, London, June 1939
The Star of Bethlehem
Music for Lotte Reininger film, cantata
SATB chorus, chamber ensemble (1020/0100/timp./perc./strings (string quartet with double-bass or small string ensemble)
Performed on several occasions by the Barnes Choir (cond. PG 1973-2000)
Mozart, Piano Concertos, K488 and K491
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Peter Gellhorn (October 24, 1912 - February 13, 2004) was a German conductor, composer, pianist and teacher who settled in London and made a career in Britain that lasted unbroken until his death.
Gellhorn, the son of an architect, came from a typically musical Jewish family and was educated at the Schiller Realgymnasium, at Berlin University and at the Berlin Music Academy. He was a pupil of the composer Franz Schreker. When the National Socialists came to power he was obliged to leave Germany and settled in England, although he was interned in Mooragh Camp on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien from 1939 to 1941.
During his later career he conducted at Glyndebourne, at the Royal Opera House (at the invitation of its conductor, Karl Rankl); with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and for the BBC, where he conducted the BC Singers for eleven years. In later life he taught and coached singers and other musicians from his home in south-west London.
He married the actress Olive Layton in 1943; they had two sons and two daughters.
A Personal Tribute to Peter Gellhorn from his Old Chorister and Friend,
Delivered at the memorial service for Peter Gellhorn, 25 October 2004
The rise of Nazi Germany during the 1930s had an unexpected side effect on the life of this country. We received a gift in the form of people: talented people. They were like a shot in the arm and brought with them an extra-ordinary wealth of mind and spirit. I was lucky enough to know quite a number of them, one of the most influential, in terms of the impact he made on me as a young musician, was Peter, in his capacity as master of the Glyndebourne Chorus.
To walk into the chorus rehearsal room in 1956 was unforgettable. My colleagues then as now, were all very much up and coming performers convinced that the world was their oyster and that fame and fortune
beckoned. Peter was good to us: we were chosen and special in a way, but he was very anxious to make us aware of our great luck in being there at all and also of the huge privilege and responsibility that membership of the Glyndebourne Chorus carried with it. He impressed on us that the chance to watch, listen and learn from both the music staff and distinguished colleagues around us was an unparalleled opportunity which we should grasp with enthusiasm.
He taught us the value of discipline. To be on time: rehearsal time is expensive and being late was an inexcusable and unforgivable sin. To learn our work: t o study our choruses and our lines. I was given a small
understudy role in a Rossini opera which involved fast passages of music and a lot of words. Some bright spark informed me that we were very rarely if ever called to the stage and advised me not to waste my time learning it: I decided to obey my chorus master and ignored him. Peter used to say that to learn our understudies was not only useful but was also a matter of personal integrity since we were being paid a small sum for doing so.
Sure enough, some time later, I was called out of the chorus rehearsal room and told to report on stage: one of the Italian singers was unwell and I was required to do the last half-hour or so of the morning rehearsal before the lunch break. It just so happened that they had reached the first-act finale, a very fast and wordy ensemble which had taken me hours of sweat to learn: I found myself on stage with the principals and expected to fit in at a moment's notice. If the lesson Peter had taught us hadn't been taken seriously, I would have been left with a large amount of egg in my face.
He taught us respect for the music: to regard the notes on the page as sacrosanct. He showed us the amount of work necessary to achieve international standards. He told us time and again to put passion into our singing. So often down the succeeding years I've heard his voice urging us to "sing with a will": I strived all my working life to do just that. He was proud of us and sometimes used to tell us so. To be exposed to quality is great good fortune and we always remember those who inspire us especially when we're young. Peter was a great chorus master and a great influence.
In recent years the phone would ring on my birthday and I would hear Peter's voice at the end of the line, sounding just as always: he would greet me affectionately. It was good to have those calls. One of the sad aspects of loss is the store of memories our friends take with them. My recollections of Peter and our Glyndebourne days are not necessarily like his: everybody sees the same situation slightly differently. We need shared memories to get a clearer picture of our lives.
Those who help us, teach us, encourage us and give us confidence remain special: The contribution Peter made to my own development as a musician is something I've cherished and never ceased to be grateful for: It means such a lot to me to have this opportunity to acknowledge my debt to him and to say 'thank you' before his family and friends this afternoon.