Peter Gellhorn (1912-2004)

Peter Gellhorn was a German conductor, composer and pianist. He fled Germany during the 1930s and settled in London. Following his arrest and internment as an enemy alien during the Second World War, Gellhorn conducted at the Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells and Glyndebourne. He collaborated with composers such as Benjamin Britten, Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen, and his pupils include composer George Benjamin. His compositions include works for string orchestra, voice and chorus.

Born Hans Fritz Gellhorn – but always called Peter by family and friends – in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), he studied the piano from age nine and attended the Hochschule für Musik after the family moved to Berlin. During the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, Gellhorn’s father was forced to flee Germany because of his Jewish heritage and links to the Socialist Novembergruppe. Though Peter remained in Germany, he found it increasingly difficult to find work and, after finding his name listed in Das Musikalische-Juden ABC, a list of Jewish musicians, Gellhorn decided to leave Germany. Gellhorn was invited to England under the auspices of composing for films.

He arrived in London in September 1935 and was employed as musical director at Toynbee Hall whilst he continued to compose, teach and play the piano. Toynbee closed at the outbreak of war, and Gellhorn was classed as an enemy alien: he had a permanent residence visa, but was not yet a naturalised citizen. He was sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man, where he met many other European refugee musicians, including composer Hans Keller and pianist Paul Hamburger. He continued performing and teaching in the internment camp, remarking that he gave more recitals during his internment on the Isle of Man ‘than I did in my whole life.’ He also composed prolifically, producing works for violin and piano, string quartet, and a piece for string quartet and male voices, ‘Mooragh,’ which set words by F. F. Bieber (a fellow internee), named after and inspired by the camp. In 1941, with the support of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gellhorn release was secured.

Back in London, Gellhorn began conducting with the Vic-Wells (now Sadler’s Wells) Opera, and toured the UK with the company. He also met his wife, Olive Layton, who was a singer in the chorus. He was conscripted for war work in an aircraft factory in 1943. After the war Gellhorn worked as the conductor at the Carl Rosa Opera Company before becoming assistant to the director of music, Karl Rankl, at the Royal Opera House from 1947. He became conductor and chorus master at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1954, and joined the BBC as director of the BBC singers and BBC chorus in 1961.

After his retirement in 1972 Gellhorn taught at the Guildhall and the Royal College of Music, played the piano in a duo and worked as an accompanist. When he died in 2004, his papers and manuscripts were donated to the British Library; in 2016 the Royal College of Music digitised and performed many of his scores through the AHRC-funded Cultural Engagement Project, ‘Exile Estates and Music Restitution: The Musical Legacy of Conductor/Composer Peter Gellhorn,’ thus giving Gellhorn’s compositional output the recognition that it did not fully receive during his lifetime.

by Abaigh McKee


Royal College of Music and AHRC (2016) ‘Peter Gellhorn: The Musical Legacy’ [] (accessed 29 May 2017)

Anon.  (2004) ‘Peter Gellhorn’ The Telegraph [] (accessed 26 May 2017)

Britten, B. et al (2008) Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976 Vol. 4, 1952-1957 (Woodbridge: Boydell in association with the Britten-Pears Foundation)