Edinburgh Global

Escaping Nazi occupied Austria: Hans Gál's story

The University of Edinburgh has long been committed to its role as a University of Sanctuary, working in partnership with the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) to help protect vulnerable scholars and refugees. Here, we look at the role the University played in supporting renowned Viennese composer, Hans Gál, after fleeing from Nazi occupied Austria.

Hans Gal

Who was Hans Gál? 

Hans Gál was born in 1890 to a Jewish family residing in Lower Austria, near Vienna. From a young age, he displayed a remarkable talent for music and composition, studying at the New Vienna Conservatory under the tutelage of Richard Robert, and even winning the newly created ‘State Prize for Composition in 1915’. After serving in the First World War, Gál would return to Vienna to resume his career, even going on to work as a lecturer at the University of Vienna.  

At this time, his career seemed to soar from strength to strength. In 1919, Gál was awarded the Rothschild Prize and his opera, ‘Die Heilige Ente’ and ‘Overture to a Puppet Play’ were released in the 1920s to much acclaim. As the 1930s dawned, Gál was serving as the Directory of the Conservatory in Mainz, but this decade would prove to be far more turbulent for the composer due to the rise of fascism and the Nazi Party. 

Fleeing Austria 

The deeply rooted antisemitic dogma of the Nazi Party had a resounding impact on Gál’s career. When the fascist regime occupied Mainz, Gál was removed from his post at the Conservatory and later returned to Vienna. Austria was also being subjected to a rise in antisemitic sentiment, and thus Gál and many other talented individuals suffered due to the political climate.  

Nevertheless, as would prove to be typical of him, Gál never stopped composing despite the turmoil around him, managing to pen, De profundis, using it as an outlet to express his frustration and disappointment1. Gál and his family would continue to endure the oppressive conditions but, in 1938, as Germany looked to annex Austria, it became clear to Gál that he and his family would need to flee the country if they wanted to survive. They did so in March 1938, initially intending to stay in the UK briefly before moving to the USA. 

While staying in England, Gál encountered Sir Donald Francis Tovey, Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh. This friendship proved pivotal as Tovey encouraged Gál to move to Edinburgh, despite there being no vacancies at the University. Tovey was gained employment for Gál cataloguing the University’s Music Faculty library.  

Disappointingly, this temporary stability did not last long and, thanks to Churchill’s internment policy for ‘foreign aliens’, Gál would spend much of 1940 imprisoned near Liverpool and then on the Isle of Man. Conditions at the internment camp were far from pleasant but, thanks to the presence of other foreign intellectuals, Gál was able to endure, keeping a diary and even composing ‘What a Life!’ despite the poor selection of instruments present.  

Impact on Edinburgh

After his time spent on the Isle of Man, Gál would return to Edinburgh, working first as a fire warden before gaining a position as a lecturer in Musical Education at the University in 1945. He would maintain this post until his retirement thirteen years later. While residing in the city, Gál immersed himself in the local music scene and was closely involved with the formation of the Edinburgh International Festival, a venture spearheaded by Gál’s associate, Rudolf Bing. Gál would remain involved with the festival for many subsequent years and never stopped composing and remaining active as a scholar during this latter stage of his life, despite personal tragedies and adversity. 

Gál’s achievements would be honoured several times; in 1964 he was appointed as an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) and in 1971, he was honoured by the homeland he fled over thirty years earlier, gaining a first-class Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art. Gál passed away at the age of 97 in 1987.  

What can we learn from Hans Gál’s story? 

Hans Gál was a talented individual and, if not for the help he received fleeing Austria, it is likely that his story would have been cut prematurely short, robbing us of his contributions to music and Edinburgh. The story of Hans Gál is still extremely relevant in the turbulent global climate today, where thousands of similarly gifted academics face the difficult prospect of leaving their homes in the hopes of a better and more peaceful future elsewhere.  

The University remains devoted to offering such scholars a helping hand, working in partnership with the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) to extend help to those seeking aid. Earlier this year, the University announced its intention to offer ten fully funded fellowships for at-risk scholars and their families, providing them refuge for two years. This latest support only continues the University’s legacy as a University of Sanctuary, and undoubtedly, the University will strive to build upon this commitment in the years to come.  

1 http://orelfoundation.org/composers/article/hans_gal 

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