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Playlist: Émigré

Politics and culture have always had a significant influence on each other. In the 20th century, when dark times broke out unexpectedly, many composers had no other choice but to seek a better life far from their homeland. Take a listen to Émigré playlist, only on Primephonic. 


Igor Stravinsky

The outbreaks of World War I & II forced many to flee the country: Stravinsky left his homeland, Russia, for the better and calmer future in Switzerland, France, and finally settled down in the United States. Igor Stravinsky composed the ballet Apollon Musagète ("Apollo, Leader of the Muses") in 1927-28, which was Stravinsky’s first American commission. Stravinsky said about his ballet: "Summing up: What is important for the lucid ordering of the work – for its crystallization – is that all the Dionysian elements which set the imagination of the artist in motion and make the life-sap rise must be properly subjugated before they intoxicate us, and must finally be made to submit to the law: Apollo demands it."

Erich Korngold

The author of successful Hollywood scores, the Austrian-born Erich Korngold was proclaimed a child prodigy by Gustav Mahler himself. The ballet by an 11-year-old, followed by two operas couple of years later, made a young composer a real sensation in Vienna. Already famous in Europe for his "proper classical" repertoire, Erich had to leave Austria to escape the Nazi regime. Fortunately, Austrian film and theatre director Max Reinhardt convinced Erich to try his luck in Hollywood, which turned out quite well for an émigré. Scores for the films Robin Hood and Anthony Adverse got Korngold two Academy Awards, accompanied by the nominations for Sea Hawk and Captain Blood.

Paul Hindemith

Hindemith had a reasonably busy career as a violin and viola player, touring around Europe and beyond, but it took a while for people to recognise his talent as a composer. The Nazis proclaimed Hindemith’s music “an atonal noise” and pretty much banned its performance in Germany. Because of his wife’s Jewish ancestry, they decided to move to Switzerland, before settling down in the United States in 1940. The Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by C.M. von Weber, a neoclassical work written in 1943, remains one of Hindemith’s most triumphant works. Hindemith became an American citizen, but didn’t like the American culture and decided to come back to Europe very soon after. Hollywood career wasn’t a possibility for Hindemith either. This is an excerpt from Hindemith’s letter to his wife after visiting Hollywood: «I think I am quite cured of the idea of doing something here in the area of film (based on the completely crazy idea of creating something of artistic value). One cannot do anything of that kind in earnest.»

Ernest Bloch

The only Swiss-born composer on the list was very proud of his Jewish heritage and was raised in the family where religion played a huge role. Ernest Bloch composed a lot of music using the traditional Jewish themes, feeling a strong bond to the culture that he was exposed to from early childhood. Ernest Bloch studied violin with Eugène Ysaÿe and Francois Rasse and moved to Frankfurt to continue his studies. In 1924 Ernest Bloch became an American citizen, and soon after, a director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and accepted the post of the first director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. During the summertime, he also taught the University of California at Berkeley.

Béla Bartók

Bartók dedicated his entire life to studying the Hungarian folk music, lots of which he incorporated into his own compositions. Eventually, he started gathering the national music of other countries too, such as Serbia, Romania, Slovakia and Turkey. With the growth of the fascist community in Hungary during the Second World War, Bartók decided to move to the United States, however, didn't feel comfortable in the new environment and stopped writing music for a while. Diagnosed with leukaemia, he wrote some of his most successful pieces, such as the “Evening in the Village”.

Sergei Rachmaninov

With the start of the October Revolution in 1917, many artists decided it was the right moment to leave Russia, and Rachmaninov wasn’t an exception. After going on tour to Norway, Rachmaninov never comes back and moves to the United States. His talent and fame spread all over the continent with lightning speed: a phenomenal Russian musician received an offer to become an appointed conductor for the Boston and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras (which he politely declined), and he was performing in the best and worst American halls as a pianist nearly every day. The exhausting touring schedule affected Rachmaninov’s composing life – very often he felt “uninspired”, which resulted in 8 years during which he wrote no music at all. The critics didn’t help much either: often described as “melancholic”, Rachmaninov’s compositions weren’t nearly as successful as his pianistic career. After touring in Europe, Rachmaninov’s poor health forced him to come back to his newly purchased house in Beverly Hills, where he died in 1943.

Bohuslav Martinů

Life away from the homeland was indeed not always easy for a distinguished Czech composer, whether it was Paris, New York or elsewhere, but it never stopped him from writing music. He composed the famous Rhapsody-Concerto for viola and orchestra in 1952, which was commissioned by a longtime friend from Paris – the Ukrainian-born American viola player Jascha Veissi. It became one of the three successful collaborations with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra in a city that had a robust Czech community.

Sergei Prokofiev

Similar to his colleague, Sergei Rachmaninov, Prokofiev also decided to search for a better place after the outburst of the October Uprising. In the next two decades he was wandering around the world – the United States, France, Germany and even Japan. After all this travelling, Prokofiev decided to settle down in Paris in 1923 and made friends with pretty much everyone in the Parisian artistic circles – from prolific poets to famous French composers. Most importantly, he established a long-term relationship with Sergei Diaghilev – a famous impresario of the Ballets Russes. While being in exile, Prokofiev wrote his renowned opera “Love for Three Oranges” and Piano Concerto No. 3, which wasn’t received well at a premiere. Unlike Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev decided to come back in 1936 and start all over again in the Soviet Union.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Originally from Italy, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco earned a reputation of one of the foremost composers for the guitar in the twentieth century. With the rising of anti-Semitism all across Europe and announcement of the Italian Racial Laws, which completely banned his music, Castelnuovo-Tedesco immediately moved to America. With the help of his friend, a distinguished violinist Jascha Heifetz, he received a contract as a film composer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He did not only succeed in the film industry but also became a prolific teacher with such famous students as Henry Mancini and John Williams.

Arnold Schoenberg

The inventor of the twelve-tone technique, Arnold Schoenberg escaped the Nazi regime and immigrated to Los Angeles in 1934. In 1938, German émigré rabbi of the Society for Jewish Culture–Fairfax Temple in Los Angeles asked Schoenberg to compose a new version of Kol Nidre (a recitation before the beginning of the evening service on the Day of Atonement). Rabbi was a big supporter of contemporary music and thought it would resonate well in modern American society. Kol Nidre is the only liturgical work Schoenberg has ever written in his life, and his original intention was to try to facilitate the rescue for Jewish colleagues and friends who were still trapped in the Third Reich.