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Peter Gellhorn (1912-2004)


Biography by Dr. Terence Curran


You can download an extended biography here: PETER GELLHORN PDF



Peter Gellhorn was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) on 24 October 1912. Originally named Hans Fritz Gellhorn, he was known as Peter amongst his friends and family, and formally changed his name to Peter Gellhorn when he became a naturalised British citizen in 1947 (Anon., 1947).


His father, Alfred Gellhorn (1885-1972), was an architect by profession but had also served as an officer in the German army during the First World War. After the war Alfred Gellhorn ‘never fully returned to his family’ and he and his wife Else (1885-1950) separated and eventually divorced, leaving Peter and his younger sister Anneliese (1914-1978) to grow up with their mother (Malet & Grenville, 2002, p. 37).


The family moved to Berlin in 1923 but the absence of his father and the uncertainties of life in the post-war years of the Weimar Republic, including the hyperinflation of the early 1920s, meant that Peter Gellhorn remembered this as a particularly difficult time. Despite this, he received a good education at the Schiller Realgymnasium ‘and was able to pursue his musical studies thanks to a combination of grants and generosity’ (Malet & Grenville, 2002, pp. 10-11). By the age of 16 Gellhorn had enrolled at Berlin’s Staatliche Akademische Hochschule für Musik (affiliated to the Preussischen Akademie der Künste), where his teachers included Richard Rössler (piano), Leo Schrattenholz (composition), and Julius Prüwer (conducting). On completion of his piano studies in 1932 Gellhorn was awarded the Akademie’s gold medal as one of its most outstanding students, before entering Prüwer’s conducting class. He is also known to have attended the lectures of Paul Hindemith, and to have commenced studies in philosophy at the University of Berlin although he was unable to complete his course.


By the time Gellhorn completed his musical studies in 1934 he had already begun to establish a reputation as a conductor, pianist, and composer in Berlin. He had also made significant friendships with musicians including the violinist Maria Lidka, and singer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, both of whom remained lifelong friends. In 1933, however, the National Socialist Party gained power in Germany and began its persecution of Jews. Gellhorn’s father, Alfred, was Jewish and had also been linked to socialist groups including the Novembergruppe, so had to leave Germany immediately, travelling to South America. Peter Gellhorn, however, was only half-Jewish and so was able to remain in Germany, although as the Nazi government began to impose restrictions on the employment of Jews he found it increasingly difficult to find work, and especially so after his name was published in Das musikalische Juden-ABC (Rock & Brückner, 1935, p. 117), a book listing Jewish musicians.


Fortunately, Gellhorn had been introduced to Philip Loretz and Lionel Robbins, English friends of the film-maker Lotte Reiniger, for whom Gellhorn had written several film scores. They agreed that if Gellhorn felt he was in danger he should contact them and they would write to invite him for a ‘holiday’ in England. This duly happened and Gellhorn fled Germany in September 1935, travelling via France to England. In an interview in which he recalled his escape, Gellhorn stated that he visited friends in Saarbrücken en route (Malet & Grenville, 2002, p. 79). It is now known that Inge Camphausen, a singer based at the Saarbrücken Opera, helped him to cross the border into France where he was able to make contact with Lotte Reiniger in Paris before making his way to England. Gellhorn and Camphausen never met again and Camphausen was killed in the bombing of Dresden in February 1945.


After arriving in England Gellhorn stayed with Philip Loretz in Ascot before moving to London where he found employment as a ‘resident volunteer’ at Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, working in the music department under John Tobin. During this period he taught piano and harmony, directed chamber groups, arranged music for various ensembles, and also wrote incidental music for productions by the theatre players. Gellhorn also conducted his first opera at Toynbee Hall in a production of Gluck’s Orpheus, with the performance described by the critic of The New Statesman and Nation as ‘conducted with understanding and sympathy’ (Turner, 1939).


With the outbreak of war in 1939 Toynbee Hall ceased activities and Gellhorn went to stay with friends in Devon, returning to London occasionally. In the summer of 1940, however, the British government decided to place ‘enemy aliens’ in internment camps and on a return visit to London Gellhorn was arrested. He was sent first to a camp at Warth Mills, near Bury in Lancashire, and from there to Mooragh Camp, at Ramsey on the Isle of Man. While at Mooragh he gave piano recitals, played the organ in the local church, directed ensembles and choirs, and composed several works including two studies for violin, two works for string quartet, and a work for strings and male voices, Mooragh, in a setting of words by F. F. Bieber, a fellow internee. Gellhorn was eventually released on 21 January 1941 after intervention by Ralph Vaughan Williams in his role as chair of the Committee for the Release of Interned Alien Musicians.


Gellhorn initially returned to London but later went to stay with Jo Hodgkinson and his wife, Winnie. Jo Hodgkinson had been deputy warden at Toynbee Hall but was also a theatre director and was by then working as manager of the Vic-Wells (later Sadler’s Wells) Company, which was based in Burnley, Lancashire for the duration of the war. Through Hodgkinson, Gellhorn was introduced to Lawrance Collingwood and Joan Cross, the directors of the Vic-Wells Opera. Recognising his experience, they invited Gellhorn to join the company as a répétiteur and assistant conductor. Gellhorn subsequently toured with the company, gaining invaluable experience. Through the company he also met Olive Layton, who was a member of the Chorus and whom he later married. On the evening of their wedding at Caxton Hall, London in May 1943 Gellhorn was invited to conduct a performance of Traviata, with Joan Cross and Peter Pears singing the lead roles.


Gellhorn continued to work for the Vic-Wells Company until he was called up for war work in October 1943. He was assigned to an electrical factory in London, overseeing the production of aircraft parts, and worked there for two years, occasionally conducting with the Vic-Wells Company if it was performing in or near London. He was eventually discharged in November 1945 but by this time Peter and Olive had started a family and Gellhorn needed work. Fortunately, he was introduced to H. B. Phillips, director of the Carl Rosa Opera Company, who engaged him as conductor. Gellhorn made his first appearance with the company on 6 December 1945, conducting Gounod’s Faust at the Wimbledon Theatre, and over the course of the next 12 months conducted a total of 115 performances of various operas.


In the meantime Gellhorn had come to the attention of David Webster, who had been appointed as general administrator of the newly reopened Covent Garden opera house and had recruited Karl Rankl as music director. In 1947 Webster invited Gellhorn to join the staff at Covent Garden as Head of Music Staff and assistant to Rankl, and he gave his first performance at Covent Garden on 7 June 1947, conducting Mozart’s Magic Flute. Over the course of seven years he conducted over 260 performances at Covent Garden and on tour, while also working as répétiteur and coach.


In 1954 Gellhorn began working at Glyndebourne, first as a coach, then as chorus master and, later, as a conductor, conducting 30 performances between 1956 and 1961. However, letters at the British Library suggest that Gellhorn became frustrated by the lack of opportunities to conduct at Glyndebourne and so in 1961 he joined the BBC as Director of the BBC Chorus (later known as the BBC Singers). His tenure coincided with that of William Glock, who encouraged the programming of a wide variety of repertoire, including contemporary music, and Gellhorn also collaborated with a series of leading conductors including Antal Dorati, Colin Davis, and Pierre Boulez. The BBC’s then policy meant, however, that he was forced to retire at the age of 60 in 1972.


In the years following his departure from the BBC, Gellhorn remained active as a conductor, working regularly with various groups including Morley College Opera, London Opera Players, and the Barnes Choir, as well returning to Glyndebourne as conductor and chorus master in 1974 and 1975. As a pianist he continued to give recitals and to work with singers and chamber groups, touring in a piano duo with Margaret Bruce and with the soprano Rhonda Bachmann, amongst others. He also taught extensively, both privately and at institutions including the National Opera Studio, Dartington, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the Royal College of Music.


Peter Gellhorn died at Kingston Hospital, Kingston-upon-Thames, on 13 February 2004.



Anon. (1947). List of Aliens to whom Certificates of Naturalization have been granted by the Secretary of State, and whose Oaths of Allegiance have been registered in the Home Office during the month of August. The London Gazette, 19 September 1947(38075), 4388-4419.

Malet, M., & Grenville, A. (Eds.). (2002). Changing countries: the experience and achievement of German-speaking exiles from Hitler in Britain, from 1933 to today: a study based on thirty-four interviews. London: Libris.

Rock, C. M., & Brückner, H. (1935). Das musikalische Juden-ABC. Munich: Brückner.

Turner, W. J. (1939). Orpheus at Toynbee Hall. The New Statesman and Nation, 17(416), 204-205. 

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