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The Music of Peter Gellhorn, by Prof. Erik Levi

It’s clear that Gellhorn was already an accomplished composer at a relatively early age. A good example of his youthful mastery is the four movement Kleine Suite for Oboe and Piano composed in 1932. As its title suggests, this work can be regarded on one level as a typical  product of neue Sachlichkeit,  a cool  neo-classical composition written in a highly chromatic yet tonal idiom that in its closely worked- out contrapuntal interplay ( a typical feature of

Peter Gellhorn, who emigrated to the United Kingdom during the 1930s as a result of Nazi persecution, was an exceptionally versatile musician. Equally gifted as composer, conductor, opera coach and pianist, he benefited from a thoroughly grounded musical education at the University of Berlin and the Prussian Academy of Arts, two of the most prestigious institutions in the country. Furthermore, his formative years as a student in Berlin took place against the backdrop of the later years of the Weimar Republic, arguably the most dynamic cultural environment of the twentieth century. As a young man, Gellhorn would almost certainly have been fully aware of a host of significant figures operating in the German capital such as composers Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith. Franz Schreker and Alexander Zemlinsky, or conductors Erich Kleiber, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter.



Gellhorn’s 1930s compositions) demonstrates some stylistic connections to Hindemith. Yet beneath the surface playfulness of the music lie elements of anxiety, manifested most obviously in the allusions to menacing march rhythms and sinister trills three –quarters of the way through the work. To what extent, these musical images are indicative of the unsettled political situation in Germany, a year before Hitler came to power, is difficult to estimate. Yet they are also present in the much more ambitious First String Quartet, composed between 1933 and 1934. Here Gellhorn demonstrates exceptional understanding of the technical and timbral capabilities of the instruments presenting further refinements in his control of contrapuntal argument. It might be argued that the string textures, particularly in the outer movements are too full-blooded and at times crave for orchestral treatment. But Gellhorn provides necessary emotional and textural contrast in the beautifully elegiac fourth movement dominated by a mournful dialogue shared between the two violins over a pizzicato accompaniment.                

Whether the Second String Quartet (completed in 1935) predates Gellhorn’s decision to leave Germany for England, or was written after his emigration remains unclear. Whatever the case, this ambitious  often Bartókian four movement work marks quite a significant advance on its predecessor, demonstrating a much tighter control of structure  and a more  closely argued  musical fabric. Texturally the work is bold and arresting. In every sense, it is a significant contribution to the repertoire.


It’s impossible to speculate how Gellhorn’s music might have developed had the political situation in Germany not driven him out in 1935. Suffice it to say that adaptation to the very different and more parochial cultural environment of his newly adopted country inevitably caused a significant change is his creative outlook. At first, his productivity did not suffer unduly, though the impetus for composing was primarily stimulated by the close musical partnerships he forged on his arrival in the UK. Two substantial works for Two Pianos a large-scale Sonata (1936)   and the Totentanz  (1937)  illustrate his formidable command of a particularly challenging medium. The second of these works is perhaps the more impressive, its sardonic and often aggressive humour recalling the grotesque distortions of conventional dance rhythms that feature  in Ravel’s La Valse. In contrast, two pieces for Violin and Piano, Capriccio (1936)  and Intermezzo (1937)  are wistful and introverted in character. Only the flighty middle section of the Capriccio offers a momentary relief from an underlying sense of melancholy – a feature which also dominates Gellhorn’s moving setting of Walter de la Mare’s poem Autumn (1938), one of the earliest of his vocal works to set an English text.    

Another fascinating work from this period is the Trio Suite of 1937 composed for two violins and viola, the same instrumental combinations as that employed in  Dvořák’s Terzetto As its title suggests, this six-movement work pays homage to JS Bach particularly in the lively fugal gigue of the final movement whose upbeat energy  surely recalls the second movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3  and in the fourth movement Aria where the violins spin a sinewy melodic line against  a trudging pizzicato accompaniment, a musical gesture reminiscent of the famous Air from the Third Orchestral Suite. 


By 1938, Gellhorn’s creative impulses were beginning to wane. Perhaps the pressure of securing professional work as a performing musician deflected his attention away from composition. But it is also possible that he was  experiencing a sense of dislocation since there is little evidence that the English musical establishment was much interested in hearing his work. We should remember of course that Gellhorn was trying to establish himself in Britain during the difficult years preceding the outbreak of the Second World War. So many fellow refugees found it difficult to adapt to new circumstances and even stopped composing.

A particularly traumatic event in Gellhorn’s life must have been internment as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man in 1940. Forced to cohabit in squalid conditions with many fellow refugees, Gellhorn threw himself with abandon into enhancing cultural activities, teaching music and participating in many concerts.  One of the most moving products of this period is the short piece Mooragh for male voices and strings, a gloomy and desolate portrayal of daily existence in Ramsey Internment Camp. In contrast an Andante for String Quartet composed around the same time is much more defiant, its aggressive bitonal clashes eventually resolving on an unequivocal and optimistic major chord.              


Gellhorn was far less prolific as a composer in the post-war era, focusing much of his attention on an increasingly busy conducting career. Without having comprehensive access to all the works he composed up to his death, it would be premature to make an assessment of his development during this period. Indeed, there is quite a disparity of utterance and intention between the rather eccentric Thoughts on a Chinese Tune for Two Clarinets and Piano Duet (1976) and the far more nostalgic almost Brahmsian  setting of I Want To Sing a Song  (1949), both impressive demonstrations  of Gellhorn’s musical versatility.



Prof. Erik Levi

Erik Levi is Reader in Music and Director of Performance at Royal Holloway. He studied in the Universities of Cambridge and York and at Berlin Staatliche Hochschule für Musik. An extremely versatile musician, he has interests both in the academic and practical aspects of music, having become a worldwide authority on German music of the 20th century especially during the Nazi era  with the  pioneering books Music in the Third Reich (1994) and Mozart and the Nazis (2010). He has also worked as a professional accompanist, appearing at the South Bank and Wigmore Hall, the Aldeburgh Festival and on over thirty BBC Recordings. A frequent broadcaster for BBC Radio 3, he also works regularly as a music journalist writing articles and CD reviews for BBC Music Magazine and International Piano. Erik Levi sits on the executive board of the International Forum for Suppressed Music at London's School of Oriental and African Studies and has organised a number of Conferences on topics that include music and national identity in the 1930s, the composition class of Franz Schreker, Music and Displacement, the impact of Nazism on twentieth-century music and most recently Hanns Eisler.  The research students he has supervised  have submitted PhDs on a wide range of topics including the use of Kitsch  and popular culture  in opera during the Weimar Republic, Paul Bekker, Alfredo Casella and Italian Fascism, the music of Matyas Seiber and most recently, the musical press in Franco’s Spain. 

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