By the mid-20th century, Elizabeth Braw reports, “virtually every American conservatoire and symphony orchestra [included] highly skilled musicians from countries ravaged either by the Nazis, the Soviets, or both.” Since that time, a sort of community has formed around musicians who fled violence and brought distinctive musical traditions to their new homes. As Braw notes, many such musicians will soon assemble in the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, a project of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Polish National Opera.
One day in 1939, a sixteen-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-ninety-nine-year-old remains a venerated professor of music at Indiana University (IU) 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.
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.
[Among the best-known refugee musicians are] the Jewish-German cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch (a former member of the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz), the Jewish-German conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, the Jewish-Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg, Jewish-Austrian violinist Max Rostal, [and others]. 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.