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Home Thoughts from Abroad: Composers in Exile [5&1 Classical Playlist #18]

It feels rather apt to be considering Exiles for this playlist, since I’m actually spending the week at the Rabbit Room mothership, North Wind Manor (or should that be motherburrow?). Robert Browning perfectly captured the nostalgia of homesickness with his sonnet, “Home Thoughts from Abroad,” as he finds himself wistfully imagining the exuberance of an English Spring from Italy (and within a few years of writing this, he would move there permanently with his new wife Elizabeth until her death in 1861).

Here is the first stanza:

Oh, to be in England  Now that April’s there,  And whoever wakes in England Sees, some morning, unaware… That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf, While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough In England—now!  —”Home Thoughts from Abroad,” Robert Browning

The Brownings would live in Italy primarily because of her poor health. But many do not live far from home by choice. Their native land has, for whatever reason, become inhospitable or even dangerous. That was certainly true for several of this week’s composers.

1. Flow My Tears (2nd Book of Songs, 1600)

  • John Dowland (1563-1626, English)

  • Stile Antico

If anyone qualifies for the title Renaissance King of Melancholy, it is surely the lutenist John Dowland. A shadowy figure from London (or possibly from Dublin), he found favour in the Danish royal court at a time when he was discriminated against by Elizabeth I (or so he claimed) because of his Catholicism (although Elizabeth did employ other known Catholics, despite their potentially divided political loyalties). The subject matter of many of his songs seem consistent:

I saw my Lady weepe;
Flow my teares fall from your springs;
Mourne, mourne, day is with darkness fled;
If fluds of teares could cleanse my follies past.

You catch the drift. Apparently, he was a more jovial chap than this setlist suggests, but one can’t help feeling that we’re dealing with quite the misery-guts. Still, he was a brilliant misery-guts. And his songs have stood the test of time, with a wide range of fans from Benjamin Britten and Percy Grainger all the way to Elvis Costello and Sting, not to mention sci-fi genius Philip K. Dick (if you know his work, you will recognise this track’s title).

This song is perhaps his most famous. It was an early seventeenth century hit, undoubtedly the number one request at all his gigs. It’s one thing if your best-loved hit is a jolly happy number since that’s tough to pull off every time, when being on the road means you’re exhausted, tired, or lonely. But having a misery-memoir as your hit? I’ve no experience of such things, but I imagine it’s tough constantly having to suppress those occasional rays of sun. Anyway, this arrangement is a gorgeous one for choral ensemble sung by a superb English choir, Stile Antico. One of its founding members is a friend and since 2000 they have gone from strength to strength in the realm of renaissance music.

2. On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912)

  • Frederick Delius (1862-1934, English, then French)

  • Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner (cond.)

Frederick Delius had German blood but grew up in the north of England. However, he spent the last thirty years of his life outside Paris with his German wife, Jelka, having spent some time on a family-owned orange plantation in Florida. He lived a fairly bohemian lifestyle even after his marriage, so he was never going to blend easily into the mercantile respectability of his family. He certainly had little time for business and was easily distracted by musical cultures he encountered; for example, the African American spirituals he heard in the U.S. or the Nordic sound world of Edvard Grieg.

So, it is perhaps surprising to find this composition amongst his most celebrated: a palpable nostalgia trip to the England of his youth written a decade after his marriage. Along with George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad (1911) and Vaughan-Williams’ The Lark Ascending (1914, in the very first 5&1), the piece is the epitome of so-called ‘English Pastoral’ school, so rudely dismissed in the 1950s by Elizabeth Lutyens as ‘cowpat music’ with its ‘folky-wolky melodies on the cor anglais’! Very unfair. But as in Browning’s poem, the earth’s annual Spring rebirth lies at the heart of the celebration, heralded by noting the first cuckoo call of the year. Beethoven famously included a cuckoo in his great Pastoral Symphony. But Delius here makes it sound particularly English!

3. The Woman Who Lived Up There, from Street Scene (1946)

  • Kurt Weill (1900-1950, German then American)

  • Bonaventura Bottone, (tenor), Janis Kelly (soprano) & Meriel Dickinson (mezzo), English National Opera

Weimar, Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s was a seething cauldron of political strife, bohemian morals and insatiable creativity. It was thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. The best way to get a feel for the place is through Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novels Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939). These in turn inspired a stage play which in turn was turned into the musical Cabaret.

Of those most associated today with Berlin cabaret of the era (with its risqué humour and dark satire), most famous were the playwright Berthold Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, along with the latter’s wife Lotte Lenya. You may know her from her role as Bond Baddie Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love!). And you almost certainly will know the much-covered Mack the Knife from the Brecht-Weill work, The Threepenny Opera.

But once the Nazis came to power, the cabaret scene died, not least because its leading lights were largely by left-, if not communist-, leaning. Weill was doubly at risk because he was also Jewish. Unlike the millions who never managed it, Weill escaped, first to England and then to New York, alongside thousands of German Jewish intellectuals and artists. An exile, of course, has a creative choice at that point: hark back or embrace the new. Weill did both.

But with his Street Scene, using texts from the African American genius Langston Hughes and the German Jewish but American-born Elmer Rice, he created a genuinely American opera. Set in the poverty of New York tenements on Manhattan’s East Side, it focuses on three families during a couple of blisteringly hot days. It is raw and unflinching—and tragic; as far removed as it is possible to get from the common perception of operas as ivory-towered, elitist, and escapist. Here the young Rose Maurrant comes home to find her mother had been killed by her brutal father. Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story would follow a decade later, and the influences of Street Scene are obvious.

4. Escape & Storm / Fog / Cooky / Asleep (from The Sea Wolf, 1941)

  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957, Austrian, then American)

  • Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra, Erich Korngold (cond.)

Another Jewish émigré musician was Erich Korngold. Instead of New York, however, he settled on the West Coast, becoming one of the most important composers in Hollywood. Despite actually being Austrian (he held several senior positions in Vienna’s musical establishment), the rise of Nazism was clear. Germany’s annexation of Austria (the Anschluss) would not occur until 1938, but Korngold and his wife left in 1931, two years before Hitler became Chancellor over the border.

Korngold had already won two Oscars for film scores (the second was for the Errol Flynn swashbuckler, The Adventures of Robin Hood). The Sea Wolf (1941) starred Edward G. Robinson but was far from escapist; and the music richly evokes the dark claustrophobia of being trapped on a ship out at sea dominated by a brutal and brutalising captain. While the drama was set decades earlier, the musical narrative seems to reflect the wartime era, and perhaps could only have been composed by someone watching with mounting horror what was taking place in his homeland. This track especially illustrates the European émigré impact on Hollywood. It might feel dated now but this was the archetypal sound of those movies. How different things would have been had they not found sanctuary across the Atlantic.

5. On The Willows (from Godspell, 1971)

  • Stephen Schwartz (1948- , American)

  • Richard LaBonte, Steven Reinhardt, Jesse Cutler, Original Off-Broadway Cast

A very different mood now, composed by someone born in the States, but like Weill and Korngold, also Jewish. It’s a surprise to find him writing a Jesus musical, based on Matthew’s gospel (though perhaps less surprising when we explore the musical’s emphases and themes). On the Willows is based on Psalm 137, surely the ancient world’s number one exile song, but now given a 60s/70s flower-power hippy turn. The musical is imprinted on my memory because I grew up in the 70s and Godspell was one of the few tapes we had in the car! I have always loved it (even after it quickly faded from coolness) so am glad to see it frequently revived nowadays.

It is gentler and more wistful than Lloyd-Webber/Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) but they are fascinating to compare. [In my view, JCS and Evita (1978), are their true masterpieces, heights which Lloyd-Webber never again attained (especially once he and Tim Rice went their separate ways.)] Schwarz’s take on the psalm here is sublime, perfectly capturing the exile’s nostalgia (apt since it was itself an ancient Greek word formed by combing the words home(coming) and pain). I especially love the lilting rhythms which evoke Babylon’s rivers and the melody’s conflicting, 2s-against-3s, rhythm. There’s plenty of theology in that fact alone!

Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’, Op. 4, 1899)

  • Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951, Austrian, then American)

  • Isabelle Faust, Anne Katharina Schreiber, Antoine Tamestit, Danusha Waskiewicz, Jean-Guihen Queyras & Christian Poltera

So to our final exile, another Austrian Jewish genius who found safety in the USA. But his music is notorious and much of it is (I must confess) almost impossible to listen to. Devotees will no doubt accuse me of ignorant prejudice, probably justly, and to be fair, I’ve not given it a huge amount of time. He pioneered the 12-note system (which effectively abandons the notion of musical keys) and the principle of atonality. It’s hard work! I’m tempted to say that had the bitingly witty English Conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, been asked if he ever performed Schoenberg just as he had of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s, his response might have been similar. He said, “No, but I have trodden in some.” Harsh.

So, imagine my wonder a few years ago when listening to BBC Radio 3 in the car (the UK’s main classical music station). I switched on early during a piece that was so overwhelming, I had to pull over to concentrate on it. It seemed emotionally tortured but utterly compelling and starkly beautiful. I couldn’t believe it when the announcer then said it was Schoenberg. Early in his career he was still working within fairly conventional, nineteenth-century rules (thus proving the adage that before you can learn to break artistic rules convincingly, you have to learn how to obey them). And this piece, written for String Sextet in five sections corresponding to a German poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel, is a case in point. So even though this was composed fifty years before most of the others in this list, and long before Schoenberg ended up in exile, consider this simple point: how absurdly evil to reject and seek to murder people of such musical genius simply because of their religion or racial heritage… (for which substitute skin colour, politics, ethnicity, lifestyle or anything else).


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