Drawing: Fred Dolbin Walter
Drawing by Benedikt Fred Dolbin, Bruno Walter conducting a piano concert with Myra Hess
Institut für Zeitungsforschung Dortmund © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015


Many musicians were forced out of work by occupational bans when the Nazis took over power. As many orchestras and opera houses in Germany were state institutions, it was relatively easy for those in power to establish an overview of Jewish and politically undesirable musicians. The same applied to the music academies and universities. We currently know of 4.000 musicians who emigrated from Germany.

Music is frequently granted the character of a “universal language”, making it understandable worldwide. Is it really the case? What do musicians experience when they are compelled to leave their home countries and go into exile? What kind of career can a soloist, orchestra musician or singers expect in exile? 

Much was dependent on the country that a musician went to, what structures he found in the music business there, whether he wanted or was able to adapt to them by developing new networks and contacts. The USA, England and France offered emigrants an excellent and well-developed music scene; on the other hand, this meant that they faced greater competition. Well-trained instrumentalists and singers from Germany and Austria were not welcomed with open arms everywhere. In England and France, musicians could expect to face occupational bans that made it difficult or sometimes even impossible to follow their profession in exile despite the great similarities in public taste.

But in countries like Japan, Turkey or South America emigrant musicians were often extremely welcome, as they could help to develop a music business oriented on European musical taste in those countries. It was an emigrant who established opera in Canada, in Palestine the first symphony orchestra evolved from the initiative of emigrants. But other musicians in those countries, unable to collaborate on developmental projects of this kind, were obliged to abandon their careers and quite often lived in poverty. 

What impact does exile have on a composer’s creative production? Was there conscious handling of this topic in their works? Is there such a thing, perhaps, as exiled music? There are some compositions including direct references to flight and life in exile; in others, however, the conditions of life in a strange country and the experience of persecution are reflected subliminally. Many works produced in exile remain entirely free of such reference. It is impossible to speak of exiled music, therefore. Nor can we make a single assessment regarding the termination or continuation of creative trends in the case of individual composers. If a composer saw himself as a political artist in Germany, for instance, occasionally the bottom might fall out of this aim in his aesthetic studies and productivity as a result of exile. By contrast, for a modern composer whose music had already been regarded with scepticism by wider audiences in Germany, frequent rejection of his compositions by audiences with similar preferences abroad would be nothing new or specific to the state of exile. 

Exiled musicians of the present day – composers as well as instrumentalists or singers – face similar problems. But as opposed to the period from 1933 to 1945, today factors such as electronic media, greater mobility and the charms of stylistic crossover stimulate musicians in exile, and also attract audiences in their host countries.