The miracle of refugee musicians

Countless musicians have been uprooted by war or persecution — to the benefit of conservatoires, orchestras and concert halls around the world. A newly formed Ukrainian refugee orchestra is set to follow in their footsteps.
lviv orchestra
Concert near Lviv National Opera a month after the Russian invasion commenced. Credit: Ruslan Lytvyn / Alamy Stock Photo.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

One day in 1939, a 16-year-old named Menahem Pressler from the German city of Magdeburg arrived with his family in Israel after having escaped the Nazis’ persecution of Jews. Seven years later, the piano prodigy was a famous soloist in American and European concert halls. To this day, the now-99-year-old remains a venerated professor of music at Indiana University and continues to teach the piano. He’s just one of countless musicians who have been uprooted by war or persecution — to the benefit of conservatoires, orchestras and concert halls in other countries. The most recent entry: a newly formed Ukrainian refugee orchestra that will perform at the BBC Proms this summer.

When, in 1955, Pressler decided to scale back on his soloist career and joined the music faculty of at Indiana, he became part of a conservatoire that was already home to several other refugees from Nazism. The European refugees, in fact, helped raise the Jacobs School of Music to such heights that it was often said that the conservatory should thank two men for its success: IU’s President Herman Wells and Adolf Hitler.

By the 1950s, virtually every American conservatoire and symphony orchestra, and many British ensembles had received highly skilled musicians from countries ravaged either by the Nazis, the Soviets or both. Among them: Jewish-German cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch (a former member of the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz), Jewish-German conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, Jewish-Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg, Jewish-Austrian violinist Max Rostal, Jewish-German violinist Maria Lidka, Jewish-German cellist Eva Heinitz, Austrian composer Hans Gál, Jewish-German conductor Peter (Hans Fritz) Gellhorn, German composer Paul Hindemith and Soviet composer Igor Stravinsky. Many other exiled musicians were far less famous, serving as orchestral players or instrumental teachers.

But all brought a phenomenal skill and verve to orchestras, conservatoires and teaching. Heinitz, for example, went on to teach generations of cellists at the University of Washington and elsewhere. In the early 2000s, I was privileged to attend one of the closing passages of this remarkable chapter of world history. It was a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by music director Daniel Barenboim at the orchestra’s home in Chicago. After the concert ended, Barenboim announced that three of the musicians were retiring that night. He asked them to stand up, and three elderly (but, as ever, musically first-rate) players arose. All three were, as it turned out, European refugees who had arrived during or just after the Second World War. The visibly moved audience gave them a rousing ovation.

Those Second World War refugees have been followed by others. In 1978, for example, a new US-based orchestra called the Soviet Emigré Orchestra – ‘comprised of the finest of recently arrived Soviet emigré musicians from the Bolshoi and Kirov Theaters and the Moscow and Leningrad Philharmonics’ — made its debut. More recently, refugee musicians have been fleeing new countries for safer ones around the world. In Chile, the Música para la Integración Foundation provides a home for musicians fleeing Venezuela, a country previously known as an extraordinary hotbed of classical-musician training but today making the headlines mostly for corruption and authoritarian rule. In 2015, Syrian musicians founded the Syrian Expat Symphony Orchestra in Germany.

And today, yet another wave is arriving — from Ukraine. This summer, many of these musicians will assemble in the new Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra. The ensemble, supported by New York’s Met Opera and the Polish National Opera and comprising recent refugees, Ukrainian members of European orchestras and musicians from Kyiv National Opera and other Ukrainian ensembles, will make its debut this July and perform at the BBC Proms, followed by tours to various other European cities and New York’s Lincoln Center. Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture has given male musicians qualified to play in the orchestra special permission to leave their military posts for the tour.

Most of the musicians who fled Europe during the Second World War knew that they wouldn’t be able to return very soon, if ever. By contrast, today’s Ukrainian refugees are counting on a somewhat swift return to their home country. The military-age male members of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra are, of course, only on a very temporary furlough from combat duties.

It took Menahem Pressler many years — decades, in fact — to perform in Germany, but in 2008 he did so. And in 2014, the 91-year-old Pressler was invited to do what he, under other circumstances, might have been invited to do as a rising star in 1944 or 1945: he made his debut with Berlin’s celebrated Philharmoniker. Angela Merkel was in attendance. After his and the orchestra’s performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23, the Chancellor and the rest of the audience rose to their feet.

Elisabeth Braw

Elisabeth Braw is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defence and deterrence against greyzone threats. She is also a columnist with Foreign Policy, where she writes on national security and the globalised economy. Before joining AEI, Elisabeth was a senior research fellow at RUSI, whose Modern Deterrence project she led. Prior to that, she worked at Control Risks, a global risk consultancy. Elisabeth is also a member of the steering committee of the Aurora Forum (the UK-Nordic-Baltic leader conference), a member of the UK National Preparedness Commission and an associate fellow at the European Leadership Network. Elisabeth started her career as a journalist, reporting for Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor and the international Metro group of newspapers, among others. She regularly writes op-eds, including for the Financial Times, Politico, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (writing in German) and the Wall Street Journal. She is also the author of 'God’s Spies', about the Stasi (Eerdmans, 2019) and 'The Defender’s Dilemma' (forthcoming).

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.


Kate Bush

Running Up That Hill: Origin Story

Kate Bush’s 1985 hit has been reborn as the song of summer, and is everywhere from TikTok to the top of the charts as it is discovered by a new generation. The story of how the extraordinary song came into being is fascinating.


The first Yugoslav

Amidst growing unease with Austrian-Hungarian political dominance in the nineteenth century, Ljudevit Gaj, a visionary 26-year old Croatian linguist and writer, laid the foundations for a vision of a single, united, Slavic group.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.