In the wrong place at the wrong time.

When I decided to focus this week’s blog on the end of World War I, the centenary of which is marked this Sunday, Armistice Day, little did I think I’d be opening with a Franz Liszt connection and continuing with sketches of a group of musicians who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, namely at the outbreak of the war on 28 July 1914.

But then I’d forgotten about Ruhleben, a Berlin racecourse that was commandeered as an internment camp when war was declared. Hosts of foreigners who were in the country at the time for well intentioned reasons – on business, on holiday, for study – were rounded up and packed into the racecourse. Its population was to reach some 5,500 civilian prisoners of war. As such, these non-combatants were given a relatively loose rein by the German military, but securely restricted nonetheless in their new home. Among them were a number of noted musicians.

One such was the Scottish-born pianist Frederic Lamond (1868-1948), one of the last surviving pupils of Franz Liszt; he was living and teaching in Berlin at the time. His unfortunate ill health led to his happy release from Ruhleben after only a few weeks. Others were not so lucky and spent the entire war confined where horses had been stabled. Here’s a recording of Lamond playing one of Liszt’s 3 Études de concert: No. 3 in D flat major, Un sospiro (8.110678). It was recorded before the onset of the war, on a Welte-Mignon piano roll.

Un sospiro


The English composer Benjamin Dale (1885-1943) had the misfortune to be on holiday in Germany in August 1914. He was able to return to England only in 1918, after spending four years at Ruhleben.  A year after reaching home, the music critic Edwin Evans wrote that “his admirers were looking forward with much curiosity to the composition upon which he is now engaged”. Daleʼs health was impaired, however, and though he wrote a Violin Sonata in 1922, the rest of his life was spent mainly working in education, primarily at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where he had been a student. But prior to the war he had developed a close friendship with Lionel Tertis, the great virtuoso and father of the modern viola. Tertis became professor of viola at the Royal Academy in 1900 and took it upon himself to encourage colleagues and students such as Dale to compose for an instrument that had almost no existing solo repertoire. We can listen to the beautifully atmospheric close of Dale’s Introduction and Andante for Six Violas (8.573167).

Introduction and Andante


A number of conductors were similarly holed up in Ruhleben, including Frederick Charles Adler (a student of Mahler who served as chorus master for the premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony) and Ernest MacMillan (later to become a conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra). They turned their indomitable spirits to creating a Ruhleben orchestra, seeing that a number of excellent performers had arrived with their instruments; their arranging skills were called on to accommodate any missing instruments or compensate for less advanced players. A magazine published by the Ruhleben internees noted that:

“Mr Adler has run the changes on Bach and Offenbach; in quick succession we have had Beethoven, Brahms, Balfe and Bellini; we have had extracts from ‘The Mastersingers’ ‘The Messiah’ ‘The Mikado’ and both kinds of Strauss.

“The autumn season will begin with ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’ – the score having been kindly presented by Novello & Co. of London – followed by Verdi’s Requiem for which Ricordi of Milan have sent the score.”

There was certainly no rest for the wicked here! Let’s listen to Adler conducting the Vienna Philarmonic in part of McKonkey’s Ferry Overture (9.80121), written by George Antheil in 1948.

McKonkey’s Ferry Overture


You can read a full and fascinating account of life at Ruhleben by following this link to a 2014 edition of Centenary News. In it, the author makes mention of “Edgar Bainton, British composer, pianist and teacher, who had a distinguished career, eventually becoming Director of the State Conservatorium of Music in Sydney, Australia in 1934. He remained in the Ruhleben camp the entire four years and contributed greatly to the musical life there, providing compositions for all occasions, training the choir, conducting the orchestra, sometimes playing the solo part when a piano concerto was on the programme.”

Bainton, arrested while en route to the Bayreuth Festival of August 1914, continued to compose at Ruhleben (including a String Quartet and Three Pieces for Orchestra). He also left us a number of songs, of which the unpublished setting of John Masefield’s Twilight (8.571377) has a special history. In the spring of 1918 the health of several internees had deteriorated to the point where they had to be invalided out to The Hague for convalescence and the manuscript of Twilight bears the endnote ‘Scheveningen, July 30th 1918’, revealing that for Bainton song-writing, indeed composing generally, proved to be essential therapy during this very traumatic period.



Finally, to the Australian-born composer Arthur Benjamin who spent many years in Britain, first as a student, then a teacher (Benjamin Britten was among his piano students). Born in Sydney in 1893, he moved to London aged 18 to study at the Royal College of Music where he became a pupil of Charles Villiers Stanford and was considered to be among his most promising students. Yet in 1914 he was eager to enlist for service in the war. Back in Brisbane his mother wrote to Sir Hubert Parry, director of the Royal College, to ask him to persuade her son to change his mind. The letter arrived too late for anything to be done. Parry replied that he had already told Benjamin he could benefit the country and humanity at large in a higher way, but the young man could note be dissuaded. He joined first the infantry, then the air force, was taken captive, and sent to Ruhleben.

On seeing him again after the war, Parry described him as a changed man. Benjamin is known to many as the composer of the jolly Jamaican Rumba, but it would be inappropriate for today’s theme to play out with that music. Instead, let’s listen to the closing section of the first movement of his Symphony No. 1 (8.223764). Are those very final bars a flashback to his military trauma and shades of Ruhleben? Perhaps.

Symphony No. 1


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