We are currently seeing many commemorations of events relating to both World Wars including the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. How timely then that a new book has recently been published by Toccata Press www.toccatapress.com concerning Austrian-born composer Hans Gál (1890–1987) who fled to Britain from Hitler’s Third Reich only to find himself interned in prison camps in Britain as an ‘enemy alien’.
The diary Hans Gál kept during his captivity, a vivid and very human account of personal survival and creativity in extraordinary circumstances, is a monument to the human spirit. Many of his fellow internees went on, like Gál himself, to become shaping forces in the intellectual life of Britain, but in captivity this colourful array of distinguished personalities had to put up with bureaucratic inertia and the indifference of their captors to their undeserved fate.
It is salutary to see in this new volume a photograph of Gal in 1927, the newly appointed Director of the Stadtische Musikhochschule in Mainz, Germany, sitting comfortably at home in his study. Already a successful composer he could not have envisaged what was to befall him in just a very few years.
Hans Gál, born near Vienna in 1890, soon established himself as one of the foremost composers of his time, particularly following the decisive success, in 1923, of Die heilige Ente, the second of his four operas, which was staged in many major European opera houses until it was banned by the Nazis. His appointment as Director of the Music Academy in Mainz was brought to a sudden end in 1933 when he was summarily dismissed after Hitler’s seizure of power. After returning to Vienna, Gál and his family again had to flee with the Anschluss in March 1938, to London. There, an encounter with Sir Donald Tovey brought him to Edinburgh.
In 1940 events took another turn for the worse for Gál when, as the result of a panic decision by Churchill fearing a ‘fifth column’ of Nazi sympathisers, he was amongst a large number of supposed enemy aliens interned at first in Huyton, Liverpool then at the Central Promenade Camp, Douglas. Although this internment lasted for only five months the experience was profound, with his recording in his diary ‘I sit writing until it is almost dark. That’s how a day looks for us…’
It is this diary that is the focus of this new book recording his feelings and experiences from his arrest on Whit Sunday, 1940, when he was held at Donaldson’s Hospital in Edinburgh on 13th May 1940, through his removal to Huyton, Liverpool to his eventual arrival at the Central Promenade Camp at Douglas on the Isle of Man where his diary entry for that day records with great fortitude, ‘If we hadn’t had such a marvellous day and the wonderful voyage, I am afraid that the first impression of our new camp would have been depressing…it is better to stick to the positive aspects.’
Every day details are recorded ‘one bathroom and two WC’s in the whole house for 72 people’. On a more positive note ‘The camp university is up and running again’ and later ‘musical life is flourishing.’ The breadth of talent amongst the 2,000 inmates was wide ‘All the work in the camp is for the common good done by doctors, chemists, teachers and professors. Gál’s contribution, of course, was music and a CD with this book presents recordings of the Huyton Suite he wrote for two violins and flute (the only instruments available to him), songs from the satirical review What a Life! composed on the Isle of Man and the piano suite he drew from it.
The separation of families was also a concern, with him writing on 30th June ‘Tomorrow a transport will leave with a mysterious purpose…we assume…the destination is Canada…a few days ago a list was drawn up…made in order to provide a basis for the intended transports…if I was asked what I, as a married man, would do if I were earmarked for the transport, I…would refuse…be shot rather than go voluntarily…’
By 2nd July he records ‘Many of our best, most active people have left…others will soon follow…so far married men have been exempted.’ 5th July ‘I must train new forces for my concerts.’ 8th July ‘There is a role call twice a day…the way it is done now, at our suggestion, is the simplest in the world.’
15th July ‘…the harshest and most ridiculous of all injustices, the withdrawal of newspapers, has at last been abolished…we have already learnt that …a debate took place in the House of Commons in which the internment question was discussed…the injustice perpetrated on refugees was openly discussed and condemned…’
17th July ‘Tovey (Sir Donald Francis 1875-1940) has died…was really responsible for my staying in this country…he brought me to Edinburgh, found work for me…performed my music…’ 18th July ‘We are going to perform the Huyton Suite…’
20th July ‘It is so despicable…comrades who went voluntarily with the third overseas transport…trusting that their wives would join this transport, were deceived.’ 24th July ‘Sleepless and unhappy…a letter came from my wife…so calm and confident that for the moment I felt reassured…’ By 1st August there is hope of releases occurring, recording that ‘Scheider is in a high state of excitement…his wife has telegraphed to him that his release is secured.’
By 13th August the skin problems that he had been experiencing (apparently eczema) were worsening ‘My condition is getting ever more intolerable…the rigid marks of scabs getting closer and closer around the eyes…I explained that I had reached the limits of endurance…the Medical Officer…explained to me…that a transfer to a hospital was out of the question…’ He does, eventually, get moved but only to the camp hospital from where he records on 26th August ‘I shall go out in the evening today for the first time since I’ve been in the hospital…’
On 3rd September he writes about the camp revue ‘the acting on stage was splendid…our audience was intelligent, no points lost on them…’ ‘today…another pleasure: I have taken a bath. There is a water heater in the house but its use is dependent on a doctor’s prescription.’
15th September ‘I have got a new doctor…a youngish German dermatologist who arrived in the camp only a few weeks ago.’ 20th September ‘I have spent several days in bed…as I am half blind.’ 22nd September ‘My eyes appear to be gradually improving…’
24th September ‘As I was coming back from the post office with a telegram from my wife saying that a new, urgent application had been made on my behalf, Sugar rushed up to me. ‘You have been released’’
27th September ‘ The outline of the Isle of Man is blurred in a haze…the sea is rough…I have the feeling that I have become years older since we crossed over there on a wonderful, sunny day in June.’
I hope that I have given a brief flavour of this engrossing diary one that has to be read in full to experience the full impact.
Hans Gál returned to Edinburgh where he spent the rest of his life, a much-loved and active composer, teacher, author and musical personality. He died in October 1987, aged 97.
This new volume contains a biographical introduction to Hans Gál by his daughter, Eva Fox-Gál, and a general historical introduction to British internment policy by Professor Richard Dove. The foreword is by the distinguished economist, the late Sir Alan Peacock, who studied composition with Gál. Walter Kellermann provides A Memoir of Hans Gál.
Eva Fox-Gál also provides a section on Gál in Britain and there are Appendices for Personalia, Contents of the CD provided with the book, Hans Gál in Conversation an interview by Martin Anderson with the composer and details of the Hans Gál Society www.hansgal.com . There are details of the contributors, a bibliography, an index of Gál’s works and a general index. There are numerous black and white illustrations and photographs.
This is a book that not only sheds light on one of the more shameful British responses to the threat of Nazi invasion but also reveals much about the character of one of the most distinguished composers of the 20th century, one who we were fortunate to have live amongst us.
In recent years, a revival in interest has seen frequent performances, broadcasts and recordings of much of his substantial output, including symphonies, concertos, chamber music and a range of solo works, revealing a master craftsman with a distinctive voice. My next blog will feature a review of a new release from Avie that brings together all four of Hans Gál’s symphonies.