How WWII Jewish refugees to the UK formed the world famous Amadeus Quartet

One silver lining in the darkness of war, writes this UK author and editor, was the arrival in Britain of Jewish refugees. Op-ed for VE Day

Daniel Johnson ,

violin
violin
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Medieval scholastics loved the term nunc stans, the “eternal now”, which first occurs in The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman Boethius. For the past six weeks of the Corona Lockdown, we could be forgiven for thinking that we have all been living in a state of nunc stans. As time stands still and hangs heavy on our hands, we are certainly in need of consolation — not least the consolation of music.

Last week there was a glimmer of hope, as the UK Prime Minister returned from the nearly dead and told us that we were “past the peak” of the pandemic. This week, however, the message is that only a vaccine will win this war of “humanity against the virus”. The time horizon has receded into a distant and uncertain future. With even the promised plan to lift the lockdown postponed for a few more days, our thoughts may well turn back to the past.

This Friday we commemorate VE Day. One of the silver linings in the darkness of war was the arrival in Britain of Jewish refugees from Europe. Escape from the Nazi nightmare seemed to endow them with creative energy, and the influx of talent enriched cultural and intellectual life here beyond measure. Their achievements included the transformation of the London musical scene, not least by the formation of the Amadeus Quartet.

Incomparably the finest string quartet of the postwar period, and among the most remarkable ensembles ever to perform that most demanding of repertoires, the Amadeus was a revelation to the war-weary British public. Named after Mozart’s middle name and known to aficionados as “the Wolf Gang”, the quartet stayed together for almost forty years. When Peter Schidlof, who played viola, died in 1987, the others — the violinists Norbert Brainin and Siegmund Nissel and the cellist Martin Lovett — did not try to replace him, as chamber music ensembles usually do. The “Amadeus sound” was unique and inimitable.

Three of the members fled from Austria after the Anschluss. After the war began, Brainin and Schidlof met in a British internment camp, where “enemy aliens” were detained (see this leading article ). Brainin was released before Schidlof, who then met Nissel in the Isle of Man camp. Only after the war did they encounter Lovett, who soon became the youngest member of the quartet — “the Benjamin”. They soon abandoned their awkward moniker, “the London Vienna Quartet”, in favour of a name that combined God, love and Mozart. In January 1948 the Amadeus Quartet gave its first concert at the Wigmore Hall, with the help of a £100 donation from Imogen Holst, the composer’s daughter.


This week, as we remember the end of the most destructive war in history, we should spare a thought for both the victims and the survivors. The latter could never forget the former, but they were able to rebuild an entire civilisation with little more than determination.
Now Lovett has died aged 93 and the Amadeus has passed into history. He was its only Englishman — “I had to learn German quickly” — but his background was no less musical than that of the others. Europe lay in ruins; thanks to the Amadeus, though, British listeners could turn away from the Vienna of The Third Man and return to the Vienna of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. The fact that they were all Jewish added poignancy to their performances in Germany and Austria, where they were received with reverence.

My own introduction to Beethoven’s late quartets was entirely due to the Amadeus. Hearing their performances in the Theatre Royal, Windsor, in the early 1970s was a revelation. But they also championed new music, often composed with the “Amadeus sound” in mind. I recall their première of Benjamin Britten’s Third Quartet in 1976, a kind of requiem for the composer, who had died just a fortnight before. The Amadeus played with an intensity that was simply shattering; the audience was stunned into silence by this posthumous tribute to an English composer by the custodians of the Austro-German tradition.

Britain owes an incalculable debt to the Amadeus, as it does to all the Jewish and other refugees from the Nazis. This week, as we remember the end of the most destructive war in history, we should spare a thought for both the victims and the survivors. The latter could never forget the former, but they were able to rebuild an entire civilisation with little more than determination. As we contemplate the task of reconstruction that awaits us after the pandemic, we would do well to draw inspiration from their example.

Daniel Johnson is the founding Editor of TheArticle. For two decades he was a senior editor, editorial writer and columnist for The Times and the Daily Telegraph, before leaving to set up Standpoint magazine, which he edited for 10 years. He contributes regularly to Daily Mail, Wall Street Journal, Commentary, New Criterion, National Review and other papers, magazines and websites.

Reposted with author's permisiion from The Article.



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