‘Music, Migration and Mobility’ – An ongoing Research Project at the Royal College of Music

DOI: 10.32063/0907

Table of Contents

Norbert Meyn

German-born tenor, vocal coach and project curator Norbert Meyn teaches German Lieder and Diction at the Royal College of Music. He has over fifteen years of experience in practice-based research, exploring the performance practice of Lieder, the history of vocal pedagogy and the theme of music and migration. He is director of the London-based Ensemble Émigré.

by Norbert Meyn

Music & Practice, Volume 9

Reports & Commentaries

If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.

Theresa May, 2016

This provocative claim was made by British Prime Minister Theresa May at the Conservative Party Conference in 2016. Her words sparked a lively debate about the emotional attachment of people to nations and places in a globalized world that is (and has been for centuries) shaped by mobility and migration.[1] The Music, Migration and Mobility (MMM) project (2019–2023) at the Royal College of Music (RCM) aims to contribute to such debates by investigating the significance of migration and mobility for music. The project studies the legacies of migrant musicians who came to Britain from Nazi Europe in the 1930s in several research strands. Musical performance plays a central role in the project, exploring compositions by these musicians in rehearsals, workshops, performances and recordings. The project also involves a substantial programme of archival research, a mapping project that aims to visualize the journeys and networks of these migrant musicians, and a theoretical strand which facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration to connect the project’s practical work with recent research in the wider humanities.[2]

In this brief text I focus on the artistic research within the project, in which we explore works by these composers with a focus group of students and professional performers. I reflect on my own identity as a (voluntary) migrant musician and my interest in the stories and legacies of musicians who came to Britain in the 1930s as refugees from the Nazis, and I will explain how this has led me, with the help of my colleagues at the Royal College of Music, to develop a cross-disciplinary research project. I aim to show how my own research as a singer and curator of concerts connects with the interdisciplinary work of the project. Finally, I summarize what I have learned so far from interviewing fellow performers who have participated in the project’s focus group and discuss how I hope this research may benefit the wider field of classical music.

Encountering the legacy of migrant musicians from Nazi Europe in Britain

I am a German-born musician and have been living in Britain for 23 years. I grew up in communist East Germany and became an anglophile by reading novels and biographies during my compulsory national service in the East German army, just before the Berlin wall came down in 1989. Being an East German in post-reunification Germany was a bit like being a migrant in my own country. I had to get used to doing things differently, not unlike a migrant who needs to adjust to a new environment. Choosing to live somewhere else entirely didn’t make a huge difference. Having exchanged my East German ID for a new passport that allowed me to travel and work freely in the European Union, I first came to Britain in February 1990. When I arrived, I felt welcome. Everyone wanted to know what it was like to live behind the Berlin wall. After six months in Britain, I went on to study music in Dresden, Riga and my hometown of Weimar, but in 1997 I returned to Britain to study for a postgraduate degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and I stayed, working as a freelance singer in early music groups, opera companies and professional choirs, teaching at two conservatoires and coaching professional and amateur choirs all over the country.

It was during my studies and early work in London that I first encountered musicians who had come to Britain as refugees from Nazi Europe in the 1930s and 40s. My vocal coach at the Guildhall School was the pianist Paul Hamburger who had come to London from Vienna at the age of 17 and finished his studies at the Royal College of Music. I also met the conductor, composer and pianist Peter Gellhorn, who had conducted at the Royal Opera and the BBC and worked as a consultant for my agent.[3] My predecessor at the Royal College of Music, where I have been teaching German lieder and diction since 2005, was the singer Geraldine Frank.[4] All of them had come to Britain as teenagers as Jewish refugees and built successful careers. In countless conversations, my British colleagues in opera, symphony choruses and music colleges shared their memories of other migrant musicians from their generation who had taught and inspired them. Although my own experience of (voluntary) migration is different in many ways, it nevertheless helped me to relate to these stories. My experience of integrating in a new cultural environment, learning to work and fully express myself in a new language, forming attachments to new places and building a new, more fluid identity resulted in my growing fascination with the migrant experience and the lessons that can be learned from it for transcultural communication and understanding in a world that is getting more and more interconnected.

Jutta Raab Hansen’s 1996 study NS-verfolgte Musiker in England[5] and Daniel Snowman’s 2003 book The Hitler Emigres[6] have documented many aspects of the experience of Frank’s, Hamburger’s and Gellhorn’s generation of migrant musicians. The individual life stories of these musicians are very different, of course, but there are some experiences many of them had in common. Approximately 80,000 refugees from Nazism were given entry to Britain before the beginning of the War in 1939.[7] Like most refugees today they were not allowed to work initially. After the invasion of Holland and Belgium, in 1940, many were interned as ‘enemy aliens’, a shared experience that took most of them to the Isle of Man where they had to remain for up to a year until the government had determined that they were not a fifth column of spies but rather reliable allies in the fight against the Nazis. Raab Hansen estimates that there were approximately 400 professional musicians among these mostly Jewish refugees.[8] Eventually, many of them became British citizens and had successful careers, for example as performers, teachers, conductors, publishers and broadcasters. Their contribution to and impact on post-war British culture was significant and has been widely acknowledged.[9] However, despite the significant size and quality of their outputs, the composers among them have remained relatively little-known. I wanted to understand why, and I decided to focus on exploring their music as much as I could.

Exploring the compositions of migrant composers

An opportunity presented itself in 2012, when the RCM was invited to contribute to the European-Union-funded Holocaust education project ‘Esther’. This project gave me and some of my colleagues the chance to feature and celebrate music by some of these composers. We could choose from a significant body of musical repertoire of the highest quality that was almost entirely unknown. Our exploration, which involved students and colleagues as performers, has been focused mostly on performing vocal and chamber music written after the composers’ arrival in the UK, with the aim of celebrating their contribution to culture in Britain. Our participation in the Esther project led to further performances outside the RCM, and in 2016 I founded the professional group ‘Ensemble Émigré’ to further explore this repertoire. The Ensemble has given more than 30 performances to date and has just released its debut CD with chamber music, piano music and songs by Robert Kahn.[10] Members of Ensemble Émigré are now also contributing to the Music, Migration and Mobility project. Figure 1 presents an overview of the composers who were most frequently represented in our concerts at the RCM and with Ensemble Émigré so far.

Figure 1 Table of composers most frequently represented in our concerts at the RCM and with Ensemble Émigré.

Significant efforts have been made in recent years to revive the music of these composers, highlighting the injustices they and their families suffered at the hands of the Nazis as well as the loss to the culture of their home nations resulting from their emigration. In Germany and Austria this has been part of a long overdue effort towards restitution, recovery and education about the Nazi era, and it has also been part of commemorating the Holocaust internationally.[11] While most such initiatives have focused on these composers in the context of their home nation and the historical injustice they suffered, my own perspective as a migrant musician living in Britain made me particularly interested in their experiences as migrants and the music they had written in their new environment. I found myself wondering if uncertainty about their national belonging and general attitudes to migration had something to do with the fact that their music was so little known. This made me focus (mostly) on works that were written after the composers arrived in Britain and foreground their history of migration through my choices of repertoire and presentation. I became something of a curatorial activist and advocate of this repertoire, and exploring it further became the focus of the artistic (or practice-) research within the Music, Migration and Mobility project. In particular I wondered how we could champion this music without being able to locate it within the tradition of a single nation or place. Was this music of the world, or music of nowhere?

Connecting reflective practice to theory

Successful advocacy of neglected repertoire depends on a comprehensive understanding of the music’s historical context. When the Music, Migration and Mobility project was designed in 2017/18, I reached out to the historical musicologist Nils Grosch at Salzburg University, who together with Wolfgang Gratzer had just launched a research initiative and book series about Music and Migration at Salzburg University and the University Mozarteum Salzburg. Alongside our plans to explore their compositions through performance, we developed a programme of archival and oral history research that could help to gain a wider picture of the history, experience and cultural impact of this generation of migrant musicians. Grosch has long pointed out that as long as we study and describe the music of migrants through narratives of singular national belonging, we cannot adequately represent it. While the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for example, still ascribes a single main nationality to each of the composers listed above, we felt that identifying them as primarily German, Austrian, Hungarian, Spanish, British or English cannot contain the complexity of their music and stories. Even the widely used concept of exile, while acknowledging migration and injustice, continues to identify the expellees as belonging to the culture of the home nations. The anthropologist Liisa Malkki has pointed to the analytical consequences of assigning identity within what she calls the ‘national order of things’.[12] These ‘deeply territorializing concepts’ become problematic if a person no longer inhabits the place their identity is associated with. Being ‘uprooted’ or ‘displaced’ can often be seen as pathological in such a context, comparing a human being without roots to a tree that is doomed to die. Malkki observes that concepts of rootedness are often built into everyday language and considered to be common sense, but they are much more elusive as objects of study. ‘People are often thought of, and think of themselves, as being rooted in place and as deriving their identity from that rootedness. The roots in question here are not just any kind of roots, very often they are specifically arborescent in form’.[13] Such arborescent narratives within the construction of national identities can be seen as ‘exclusionary’ in nature.[14] On the other hand, they can be used to critique and even ridicule ideological nationalism. The literary critic and philosopher George Steiner, himself a Jewish émigré, famously said of himself: ‘Trees have roots, I have legs’.[15]

The ‘new mobilities paradigm’

Instead of perpetuating narratives of rootedness and singular national belonging, we decided to focus on studying and foregrounding the mobility of these musicians. This approach was inspired by the ‘new mobilities paradigm’, which has established itself in sociology, human geography and the wider humanities and calls for such a change of perspective. The paradigm, first defined by Mimi Sheller and John Urry in 2006, opposes sedentarist theories which ‘treat as normal stability, meaning, and place, and treat as abnormal distance, change, and placelessness’.[16] It calls for radical change in the way we think about culture and place. In his 2010 manifesto Cultural Mobility, Stephen Greenblatt states that, ‘There is no going back to the fantasy that once upon a time there were settled, coherent, and perfectly integrated national or ethnic communities’ and calls for a new set of principles in cultural analysis to account for the ‘shaping power of colonization, exile and emigration’.[17]

Inviting the human geographer Peter Adey, a leading figure in the new discipline of mobility studies and author of Mobility (2009), to join our team as a co-investigator has given us the opportunity to start a cross-disciplinary dialogue about the implications of the paradigm for historical musicology and musical practice.[18] The mobilities paradigm is not entirely new to musicology. In his 2019 book Musical Journeys: Performing Migration in Twentieth-Century Music the musicologist Florian Scheding produced an impressive methodological model for applying the mobilities paradigm when discussing the work of migrant musicians, with case studies on Hanns Eisler, Mátyás Seiber and István Anhalt. Scheding references Edward Said’s call to ‘empower the migrant as a central figure in modernity, enacting a move from a dystopian world of homelessness and uprootedness to an almost utopian vision that imagines migration as not only a central experience of the human condition, but as essential for socio-cultural progress more widely’.[19] While it is important to reconcile such utopian approaches with the history of persecution and violence that forced the migration in the first place, they do offer an opportunity for historical musicology to frame the musical creativity of migrants in a positive way. Through our artistic research within the project, we aim to test if such a change of perspective can have a positive impact on musical practice as well.

Celebrating Heterogeneity

In our performance projects so far, we have found that by putting migration and mobility centre stage we can open up a more complete understanding of the repertoire. If we see mobility as a fact rather than a pathological anomaly, and highlight or even celebrate the multiple influences that are reflected in a musical composition, heterogeneity of musical styles, a common attribute of the musical output of migrant musicians, appears logical and interesting rather than odd. Franz Reizenstein’s hybridity between the styles of Hindemith (his main influence before his migration) and Vaughan Williams (his teacher at the Royal College of Music), Egon Wellesz’s and Karl Rankl’s choices to set English texts in a style that is clearly influenced by Schoenberg’s central European modernism, and Mátyás Seiber’s fascinating stylistic diversity as a multilingual composer influenced by Hungarian folk music, dodecaphonic techniques, jazz and popular music can be seen as logical results of mobility rather than unfortunate inconsistencies. In a recent oral history interview, due to be published on our project’s online resource, Seiber’s daughter Julia pointed out that ‘The British always thought of him as Hungarian, and the Hungarians thought of him as British’.[20] Our long-established habit of classifying composers through geographical or national belonging does not work for many migrant composers and exposes the gap multi-national composers may fall into.

Video 1: Mátyás Seiber – Traveller between Worlds – a mini documentary celebrating multiple national affiliations and stylistic diversity (copyright: Royal College of Music 2020).

In November 2020 we produced a concert with chamber music and songs by Mátyás Seiber with members of our focus group. For this we produced a short introductory film (Video 1), questioning the need for a singular national affiliation and pointing out how interesting it is that he lived in three different countries (Hungary, Germany and Britain), spoke ten languages, learned about jazz on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner after studying with Kodály in Budapest and was influenced by Schoenberg’s modernist techniques, thereby celebrating the heterogeneity that characterizes Seiber’s music. This awareness also helped the musicians in the rehearsal process to reconcile seemingly contradictory elements in his music, such as the combination of jazz and dodecaphonic techniques, and perform the music with greater confidence. It is striking that, within our focus group, this approach has resonated most with participants who have multiple national affiliations themselves. One musician whose parents came from two different countries and brought him up in a third and fourth, articulated how the story of Mátyás Seiber compares to his own heterogeneous identity which he views as normal and positive:

For people who are native (somewhere) and spend the whole time growing up there it’s very clear cut. … It’s easier for them … than for someone who was born there and then lived somewhere else. And then that their family is from another culture altogether. If you’re younger it is harder to work out (who you are …). The older you get I suppose you just kind of embrace it all, … I definitely can enjoy all of it and feel like I am part of something bigger, without having to feel like I’m not really part of anything. … I suppose some people can fall into that void. You can definitely find a way to embrace it all.[21]

‘Embracing it all’ can make a big difference when exploring and contextualising works by migrant musicians. Consequently, gaining access to the information needed for understanding their complex stories is vital.

The importance of stories

Several members of the focus group spoke of the importance of stories in their interviews. One example that came up several times was that of the almost superhuman achievement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, composed during the siege of Leningrad. This shows, as one project participant put it, how ‘knowing the history changes how we hear the music’.[22] One could say that this is true of all music, but it seems that stories of achievement against the odds such as that of Clara and Robert Schumann’s love in defiance of Clara’s father Friedrich Wieck, or that of Beethoven composing while growing increasingly deaf, have a particular power. Similarly, stories of migrants’ achievements in their new countries have been found to be powerful tools for successful advocacy of their music. One such story is that of the late romantic Jewish composer Robert Kahn’s Tagebuch in Tönen, a musical diary consisting of a staggering 1,160 piano miniatures, written over 14 years after he was removed from his post at the Akademie der Künste Berlin by the Nazis. [23] This unique musical diary (see Video 2), written mostly during his time as an elderly refugee in Britain, is evidence of his spiritual and creative survival after the total loss of the public recognition as a composer, pianist and teacher which Kahn, a protégé of Brahms, had enjoyed throughout his professional life.[24] This story has the power to engage both musicians and audiences in Kahn’s music, including that written before his forced migration to Britain.

Video 2: Endurance against the odds: Robert Kahn’s Tagebuch in Tönen. Ensemble Émigré, CD ‘Leaves from the Tree of Life’, Rubicon Classics 2021.

Building an online resource for musicians

The main public-facing output for the artistic research within the Music, Migration and Mobility project is its online resource on the website of the Royal College of Music, which was launched in March 2021 under the title Singing a Song in a Foreign Land (www.rcm.ac.uk/singingasong). Here our free-to-download PDF editions and recordings of featured works will be combined with biographical information about composers and musicians, filmed oral history interviews, short documentaries and in-depth stories. One of the works available as a free RCM Edition download is the bilingual revue ‘What a Life!’ by Hans Gál, written during internment on the Isle of Man in 1940. It is scored for two singers and chamber ensemble and has been performed widely by Ensemble Émigré (Video 3). This online resource, which will be maintained for a minimum of 10 years, will also host the story maps produced by our mapping strand as well as a searchable repertoire guide with details of publishers and existing recordings for individual musicians, orchestras and choirs. It is our hope that it will engage fellow musicians and audiences and make this repertoire more accessible.

Video 3:Music reflecting migration history: ‘Barbed Wire Song’ from the 1940 internment revue ‘What a Life!” by Hans Gál, Norbert Meyn, tenor, Ashley Solomon, flute, Christopher Gould, piano, filmed at the Royal College of Music Studios

Looking ahead

During the next stages of artistic research within the MMM project we hope to further access and explore this neglected repertoire, create models for its performance and presentation and share the knowledge gained from this exploration. Following performances and recordings we will continue to gather reflections from participating musicians through semi-structured interviews. During the first set of such interviews, conducted in December 2020, several musicians mentioned a sense of pride about having risen to the challenge of developing an interpretation of a piece of music that had never been recorded before. They also welcomed the opportunity to reflect critically about their practice, contemplating the political, ethical and practical implications of engaging with the history of migration and mobility of these composers. Their reflections and the discussions within the focus group will continue to inform the way in which we communicate about the music and its wider context.

As a mobile musician who moved from Germany to London 23 years ago and spent many years travelling and touring, feeling emotional attachments to several nations, places and cultures is quite natural. While I sincerely hope that this does not make me a ‘citizen of nowhere’, I do understand that many others still think of themselves as firmly belonging to a single nation or place. They may also think of music only in national terms, perceive their nation’s culture as homogeneous and distinct, and believe that it is under threat from migration and mobility. I hope that our research, and our performances of music by migrant composers, can show how important migration has been for the development and dynamism of culture, and how interesting the cultural products of migrants can be. I hope this can help us to reflect more widely about the historical and contemporary reality of migration and inform us as citizens of nations as well as citizens of the world.


[1] See, for example, a public debate facilitated by Intelligence Squared, uploaded to Youtube on 23 April 2018, www.intelligencesquared.com/events/if-you-believe-you-are-a-citizen-of-the-world-you-are-a-citizen-of-nowhere/

[2] The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council with approximately £900,000. The project’s research team includes principal investigator Norbert Meyn, co-investigators Nils Grosch (Head of Musicology at Salzburg University) and Peter Adey (Professor of Human Geography at Royal Holloway University of London) and the project’s postdoctoral research associates Beth Snyder and Michael Holden. See the project website, www.musicmigrationmobility.com/team.

[4] You can watch my oral history interview with Geraldine on the Royal College of Music website, www.rcm.ac.uk/singingasong/oralhistorycategory1/geraldinefrank/.

[5] Jutta Raab Hansen, NS-verfolgte Musiker in England (Hamburg: von Bockel, 1996).

[6] Daniel Snowman, The Hitler Emigrés: The Cultural Impact on Britain of Refugees from Nazism (London: Pimlico, 2003).

[7] See Tony Kushner The Battle of Britishness: Migrant Journeys, 1685 to the Present (New York: Manchester University Press, 2012), 123.

[8] Raab Hansen, NS-verfolgte Musiker in England, 19.

[9] See, for example, Daniel Snowman, The Hitler Emigres and the oral history interviews published by the author on the Royal College of Music website, www.rcm.ac.uk/singingasong/oralhistoryinterviews.

[10] For a list of performances see the ensemble’s website, www.ensemble-emigre.com.

[11] Berthold Goldschmidt’s music, for example, has featured prominently in the Decca CD series Entartete Musik (degenerate music) curated by Michael Haas, which has highlighted the suppression by the Nazis of music by Jewish, modernist and left-wing composers. The initiative Musica Reanimata in Berlin has featured music by Robert Kahn, Karl Rankl, Mátyás Seiber, Egon Wellesz and Franz Reizenstein in numerous concerts in the Konzerthaus Berlin and on German radio. The Festival and Center for Ostracised Music in Schwerin and Rostock have also done much to promote the music of composers such as Hans Gál and Egon Wellesz through concerts, an international competition and educational events with Holocaust survivors. In London, the International Centre for Suppressed Music, established by the Jewish Music Institute, held a conference about the Impact of Nazism on Music in 2008 and organized events on the subject. See Erik Levi, ed., The Impact of Nazism on Twentieth-Century Music (Köln: Böhlau, 2014). In his 2013 book Forbidden Music – The Jewish Composers banned by the Nazis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), Michael Haas discussed the work of Hans Gál, Egon Wellesz, Berthold Goldschmidt and others in the context of the long history and ugly mechanics of antisemitism and racism that affected their lives even long before the Nazis came to power. Wellesz and Goldschmidt are also featured as émigrés on the website Music and the Holocaust, holocaustmusic.ort.org, which also highlights the stories of the many composers and musicians who perished in the Shoah.

[12] Liisa Malkki, ‘National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees’, Cultural Anthropology, 7/1 (1992), 24–44, at 37.

[13] Malkki, ‘National Geographic’, 27.

[14] Felix Christoph Ohnmacht, ‘Only Trees have Roots; But Men have Legs: Nationalism’s “Exclusionary” Effects and the Overcoming of Common Misconceptions’, E-International Relations, 12 October 2009, www.e-ir.info/2009/10/12/only-trees-have-roots-but-men-have-legs-nationalism’s-‘exclusionary’-effects-and-the-overcoming-of-common-misconceptions.

[15] See Maya Jaggi, ‘George and his Dragons’, The Guardian, 17 Mar 2001, www.theguardian.com/books/2001/mar/17/arts.highereducation.

[16] Mimi Sheller and John Urry, ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm’, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 38/2 (2006), 207–226 (208).

[17] Stephen Greenblatt, Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 2, i.

[18] Peter Adey, together with research associate Michael Holden, is now working on our project’s ongoing mapping strand that uses interactive online maps to visualize the mobilities and immobilities of migrant musicians.

[19] Florian Scheding, Musical Journeys: Performing Migration in Twentieth-Century Music (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2019), 15.

[20] Julia Seiber-Boyd, interview with Norbert Meyn, filmed on 14 July 2021.

[21] Interview transcript 3, anonymized.

[22] Interview transcript 5, anonymized.

[23] As part of the MMM project an edition of selected pieces from the diary is being prepared for publication.

[24] Ensemble Émigré, Leaves from the Tree of Life, Rubicon Classics RCD 1040, 2021.