Peter Gellhorn

Conductor, composer and teacher
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The Independent Online

Peter Gellhorn, conductor, teacher and composer: born Breslau, Germany 24 October 1912; Musical Director, Toynbee Hall 1935-39; Assistant Conductor, Sadler's Wells Opera 1941-43; Conductor, Royal Carl Rosa Opera 1945-46; Conductor and Head of Music Staff, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 1946-53; Conductor and Chorus Master, Glyndebourne Festival Opera 1954-61, 1974-75; Director, BBC Chorus 1961-72; Conductor, Elizabethan Singers 1976-80; Professor, Guildhall School of Music and Drama 1981-92; married 1943 Olive Layton (two sons, two daughters); died Kingston upon Thames, Surrey 13 February 2004.

Peter Gellhorn was one of the many Jewish or part-Jewish Hitlerflüchtlinge whose presence immeasurably enriched Britain's cultural life. Music was especially blessed: Hans Keller, Berthold Goldschmidt, Hans Gál, Peter Stadlen, Otto Erich Deutsch, Erwin Stein - these men and many like them transformed the parochial outlook of pre-Second World War British music-making, laying the foundation for the unparalleled richness of musical life in the UK today.

Though a less public figure than, say, Keller, in Gellhorn's area of expertise - vocal music in general and opera in particular - he was as influential as any of them.

Gellhorn was born in Breslau (which these days is Wrocláw, in Poland) in 1912, into a comfortable family where music was part of the fabric of daily life - his father was an architect, who was also to flee to Britain from the Nazis. His parents moved to Berlin in 1923 and divorced soon afterwards: Peter had been born illegitimately and was then brought up by his mother alone. He attended the Schiller Realgymnasium before going on to the Berlin Hochschule für Musik in 1932, where he gained a number of prizes, for both piano and conducting. His main teachers were Richard Rössler (piano), Leo Schrattenholz (composition) and Julius Prüwer and Clemens Schmalstich (conducting).

Franz Schreker had been the director of the Hochschule on Gellhorn's arrival, but with the Nazi accession to power he was replaced by Fritz Stein, generally remembered as a supporter of the new regime. But Gellhorn, reminiscing almost 70 years later, was quick to defend him against a black-and-white interpretation of the times: Stein

was quite helpful - he behaved very well indeed, and I have only very pleasant memories of him and of Schmalstich. One could hardly refuse the jobs they were offered, but they didn't approve of what was going on.

Leaving the Hochschule in 1934, Gellhorn then studied music history (with Arnold Schering) and art history at Berlin University.

In 1935 he escaped to Britain, coming to London after a few months in Ascot and, at the end of the year, moving to Toynbee Hall (a settlement of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge) in the East End of London. There, until 1939, he lectured on opera, conducted the chorus and presented chamber concerts and piano recitals. It was at Toynbee Hall that he made his début as an operatic conductor, presenting Gluck's Orfeo, in a translation by Edward Dent (who was present); the décor was by Lotte Reininger, for whom Gellhorn had written film scores in Germany as he did again in England.

In the first months of the war he toured a concert programme with two singers, before returning to London where, in 1940, he was interned, like all "enemy aliens" (Hans Gál observed, "It was a very curious policy, to lock up Hitler's best enemies"). His first internment camp was at Warth Mills, near Bury in Lancashire ("an awful place"), before he was moved to the Isle of Man, where his fellow internees included Hans Keller and three members of what would become the Amadeus Quartet. "I never did more music than in that camp," he recalled: although he was not allowed access to scores (printed material was forbidden), he called on his memory to give piano recitals, and taught harmony, the piano, singing and so on.

Upon release in 1941 he went to Burnley to meet the agent of the Vic-Wells company - the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells - and was engaged as répétiteur for Sadler's Wells opera by the singer Joan Cross, its director, and Lawrance Collingwood, the music director.

It was through Vic-Wells that Gellhorn met his wife, Olive (daughter of the economist Lord Layton), who was an actress with the Old Vic. On the evening of their wedding Gellhorn conducted his first Traviata, with the whole company present at the reception (Joan Cross sang Violetta, and Peter Pears, as Alfredo, was making his first appearance in opera). In 1943, after a year at Sadler's Wells, Gellhorn was called up for industrial war service and spent the remainder of the conflict working in a factory that made aircraft components.

With the return of peace he joined the Carl Rosa opera company (1945-46), tucking over a hundred performances under his belt before Karl Rankl, a fellow refugee a few years earlier and now music director at the Royal Opera House, Covert Garden, appointed him conductor and head of music staff there. He was to remain for seven years, conducting some 270 performances, most of which he had prepared from their early stages, also working as répétiteur and coach for productions conducted by others.

The next seven years (1954-61) were spent as conductor and chorus director at Glyndebourne Festival Opera; here, too, he conducted a generous number of operas. He then moved to the BBC, where for 11 years (1961-72) he was director of the BBC Chorus, taking over from Leslie Woodgate and conducting them at several Proms. When in 1974 he reached the BBC's compulsory retirement age and was shown the door, he returned to Glyndebourne, staying for two more years. In his "retirement" he was active as a freelance pianist, vocal coach and conductor, leading his own choir in Barnes from 1973 until 2000.

Peter Gellhorn was associated with many other music groups. He was co-founder and music director of Opera Barga in Tuscany (1967-69), conductor of the Morley College Opera Group (1973-79) and the Elizabethan Singers (1976-80), music director of London Opera Players (1960-2000), a member of the opera-school staff at the Royal College of Music (1980-88) and professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (1981-92). He also lectured and adjudicated widely, in Britain and abroad.

For all the relentless activity of his life, Gellhorn was devoid of personal ambition. Typically both of his modesty and his perfectionism, he once turned down an opportunity to conduct The Threepenny Opera in the West End: he didn't think the sanitised translation, by the American composer Marc Blitzstein, was good enough, even though Kurt Weill himself was consulted and approved of it.

Gellhorn's composing was perhaps the least well-known of his activities. His own works - or at least "the ones I am prepared to own up to" - included two string quartets, written before he left Germany, a "small oratorio", Baida der Kosak (1935: the work he said he would most like to see revived), as well as a number of other chamber pieces and songs. He often composed for his musician friends: the two-piano team of John Tobin and Tilly Connelly, for example, received a sonata and a Dance of the Dead in 1936, and his duo-partnership with the violinist Maria Lidka was furnished with an Intermezzo and a Capriccio.

In 1939 he wrote incidental music for Toynbee Hall productions of Romeo and Juliet and Le Malade imaginaire. And, in internment on the Isle of Man in 1940, he wrote for the instruments available: The Cats for string quartet and Two Studies for solo violin. His last composition, a song, was penned in 1995, when he was in his mid-eighties. Though his personal acquaintances included Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen (and he was a formative influence on the young George Benjamin), his own style is tonal and relatively conservative; the craftsmanship is of a high order.

Gellhorn's music provided a startling illustration of his continued mental powers, well into what was supposed to be old age. Two years ago, when he was 89, I went to see him to discuss which of his compositions the International Forum for Suppressed Music should present in two concerts of composers who had taken refuge from Hitler in Britain. He provided the illustrations at the piano, from memory (I had the scores at the other end of the instrument), including such works as the Piano Sonata he had written in January 1936, almost seven decades earlier, dipping into others in mid-movement to play passages he was especially fond of - all of it note-perfect.

Peter Gellhorn's memory will also live on among the singers whom he found time to coach privately, helping what must now be many hundreds. One of them, the contralto Phillida Bannister, who studied with him from the mid-1980s, found that the quiet manner, gently piquant humour and diminutive frame hid a demanding teacher:

He was very severe; I was probably one of the few people whom he never made cry. But he made you understand music. His gift as a teacher was that he made you believe you could do it, even though he was incredibly hard. And you felt every expression that was required just from his playing: he gave you that support, he made it easy to sing.

He had a total understanding of the voice - it was instinctive. And although he was no singer himself - he had a terrible voice - he could encapsulate a style in instant: when he sang Weill, he sounded exactly like Brecht or Ernest Busch. Because he was so immersed in the music, he made it sound right.

Martin Anderson

Peter Gellhorn and his family were friends of our family dating back to the 1930s, writes Professor Richard Robbins. He represented those who brought so much benefit to Britain and reminded us of the tragedy at the heart of Europe that brought him here.

May I just comment on his private-public performances late in life? Hiring, or having hired for him, a venue, he would present evenings when he would demonstrate his understandings of composer's intentions, speaking of and playing through them. Memorable, for example, was his singing, playing and talking through the Ring Cycle and Mozart's operas.

These performances in very old age were informed and driven by a freshness and directness that amounted to the very breath of originality. His perceptions drove his ageing being into totally unexpected spheres of expression, demonstrating the true importance of art in the living of life.