Musical movements, migrating composers

black and white photograph of a young man playing a piano

How contemporary composers moved within Europe in the 20th century

Jan Topolski

Why leave? To earn more money, get a better job, achieve self-fulfilment or enjoy artistic freedom – these are just some of the reasons why thousands of artists crossed borders in the 20th century.

It may seem that this was easier for composers, whose reception was not limited by a particular national language. But was it really the case?

There were several waves of composers' migration from, to and within Europe. Most of the relocations were forced or connected with political events. In the 1930s, dozens of renowned composers left for the Americas because of Hitler's rise to power and growing anti-Semitism. There was a similar movement in the 1950s – this time from the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain to the Western side – caused by Stalin's repressive rule.

From east to west

György Ligeti

György Ligeti (1923-2006) travelled one hundred kilometres, from Budapest to Vienna. Born in Transylvania (part of Romania since the end of World War II), half of his family were lost in the Holocaust and later tried to find his way as a composer under the pressure of communist authorities. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, brutally put down by Soviet troops, left no doubt about the future direction of the country – Ligeti decided to leave, just like many of his countrymen.

In one interview, he recalled that during his escape he had to hide in a mail train under bags full of letters. Soon after, he became an enfant terrible of the European avant-garde. In his senior years, however, he focused on vocal polyphonic works with references to Hungarian folklore.

black and white photograph portrait of György Ligeti
colour photogrpah of a stage set with performers in costume on stage

Szábolcs Esztényi

In turn, pianist and composer Szábolcs Esztényi witnessed terror on Budapest streets when he was only a teenager and later failed the entrance exams to a conservatory. The only legal way for him to leave the country was to go to Poland, where his sister lived at the time. It was there that the Hungarian artist was finally free to develop his original minimalist music.

The destination of Esztényi’s migration was not typical compared to other composers from the Eastern Bloc, e.g. Arvo Pärt from Estonia or Sofia Gubaidulina from Russia, who both chose Germany. Both composers are associated with highly spiritual music based on simple proportions, but they came to their mature styles in very different ways, so their motifs for migration seem to be slightly different.

Arvo Pärt

In his early years, Pärt (born in 1935) experimented with many modernist techniques that did not conform to official, conservative aesthetics. Religious inspirations were the last straw - his music was banned from being performed and he had no other choice than to emigrate. Arvo Pärt and his family left their country in 1980, first choosing Vienna (as Ligeti had done over 30 years before that) and eventually settling in Berlin.

black and white photograph, a conductor on stage with a violinist
black and white illustration, close-up portrait of Arvo Pärt, focusing on his face, his eyes are closed and his hands are on either side of his face

Later, he developed the so-called tintinnabuli style - based on reduction and meditation - that brought him a lot of attention and a prestigious contract with the ECM music label. According to some databases, Pärt’s works are performed more often than the compositions of any other living composer, not to mention dozens of film soundtracks that feature his music.

In 2015, the Estonian composer decided to return to his homeland and establish his own music centre, opened in 2018 in a beautifully designed building among pine trees.

colour aerial photograph of a building surrounded by trees in a forest

Sofia Gubaidulina

Sofia Gubaidulina was born in 1931 in Tatarstan, an autonomous Muslim province of what was then the USSR. After she moved from Kazan to Moscow, she co-established the Estreia group, which played and improvised on 'exotic' instruments from all corners of the vast country. In 1979, her music was harshly criticised by the USSR Union of Composers – however, she had to wait until the late 1980s and the success of her Offertorium to get a chance to flee Russia.

black and white portrait photograph of Sofia Gubaidulina, who stands by a narrow tree trunk

'I was already sixty years old, my life was largely over, but at last I was able to compose freely what I wanted. All doors were opened. In Russia, everything was totally locked up, now I could easily get in touch with musicians, critics, the audience. This interaction is of vital importance to an artist. For the first time I was able to set myself really large-scale goals and realize them; my production has increased considerably (…) I could hear this clearer in Appen [in Germany], because I got a much better contact with nature. It is a hamlet with only two streets. There is a tree in front of my house and I have a little garden, so I am literally in nature. In Moscow, I was stuck in a small apartment surrounded by housing blocks and factories; at night everything was bathed in light. I always dreamed of the outdoors.'

Sofia Gubaidulina: 'Artists must fight the trivializing tendencies in society', Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

Many of her subsequent works focused on transcendental values - including religious beliefs - and arithmetic proportions. She never returned to her home country. Gubaidulina lived in the small village of Appen, but the most attractive destination for many of her younger colleagues (Sergey Nevsky and Boris Filanovsky, among others) was the cosmopolitan Berlin, which continued to be an artistic centre even after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

red poster with black silhouette outline of Sofia Gubaidulina's face with text about a concert festival of her music

Berlin and Germany

Germany had played a key role in the system of new music since the 1920s. Its position was established, among other things, by the first festivals and associations organised under the patronage of the renowned Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music. Berlin provided composers with numerous opportunities, such as scholarships (DAAD being one of the most prominent), residencies, commissions and funds (both regional and federal). Therefore, it is no coincidence that over several decades the city attracted musicians from all corners of the world – Argentina, South Korea, Romania, Poland and Russia.

Mauricio Kagel

One of the first composers to move to Berlin was Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008), a charismatic and witty artist born in Buenos Aires, who was only 25 when he left his home country. He became a prominent innovator of music theatre, added a lot of wit to the life of the avant-garde and provided a new perspective on the German tradition (e.g. in Sankt-Bach Passion, an oratorio on J.S. Bach or the film Ludwig van about Beethoven).

black and white photograph of Mauricio Kagel who sits on the edge of a desk with a piano in the foregound

Isang Yun

In turn, the Korean composer Isang Yun (1917–1995) usually drew on the musical tradition of his own country. In his case, however, it was more than just a story of the migration from the periphery to the centre. In 1967, while in Berlin, Yun and his wife were kidnapped by the South Korean intelligence and transferred to Seoul, because several years earlier he visited North Korea on his own. He was accused of being a secret agent and sentenced to life imprisonment after a brief trial. He was released after two years – following the outrage of European and American intellectuals – and came back to Germany.

black and white photograph of Isang Yun standing in front of a poster

It is quite ironic that he was imprisoned by the USA's biggest ally in the Far East rather than by the communist regime. Nevertheless, Korean composers continued to choose Germany as their destination (Younghi Pagh-Paan and Unsuk Chin), whereas their Chinese counterparts preferred France (e.g. Quigang Chen, one of the last pupils of the great Olivier Messiaen).

Later, France and Germany saw a wave of Romanian spectral composers who were interested in the inner life of sound, esoteric vibrations and cosmic dimensions. Horatiu Radulescu (1942-2008) moved to Paris and then settled in Switzerland, while Iancu Dumitrescu (1944) and Ana-Maria Avram (1961-2017) lived in Germany. During the communist era, most artists based in Bucharest were under the surveillance of omnipotent secret services, the Securitate. However, even in the first years of capitalism in Romania, the current of new music was not a lucrative field, so composers migrated for economic reasons as much as for political ones (which was also partly the case with Gubaidulina).

Free movement

European Union integration was another factor in the migrations: open borders allowed many composers to travel freely across Europe. Kaija Saariaho (1954) left Helsinki to study in Paris and became so connected to spectral aesthetics that she decided to stay there, similarly for a fellow Finn, Magnus Lindberg (1958). The Netherlands attracted many composers from Poland, e.g. Hanna Kulenty (1961) and Andrzej Kwieciński (1984).

colour portrait photograph of Kaija Saariaho who holds a microphone

In turn, Austria seemed to be an equally good destination both during the Cold War and in the times of the EU – Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, a Polish Jew, became a renowned professor at the Conservatory of Vienna and taught the next generations of both local and migrant artists, including Peter Ablinger, Beat Furrer and Paweł Szymański.

To what extent were the composers inspired by their native traditions and to what extent did they try to reflect the new environment? This question remains unanswered – and it is an interesting question indeed. Nevertheless, it seems that many Eastern authors established their position in Western music on the basis of their original inspirations.

Giya Kancheli, who left Georgia for the Netherlands, is often associated with spiritual and conservative currents in contemporary music, along with Panufnik, Pärt and Gubaidulina. Medieval-like, simple and meditative pieces (some of which refer to religious themes or use exotic timbres) written by these composers turned out to be especially appealing in times of the intensive secularisation of Europe.

Also, it has been suggested that the brutal force hidden in Xenakis's early orchestral oeuvres has lot to do with ancient Greek roots or that Ligeti's sense of surreal humour apparent in his vocal works Aventures, the opera Le Grand Macabre or Poème symphonique for 100 ticking metronomes is linked to his background. Of course, there is also a lot of stereotypical thinking that connects the distinct timbral aura of Saariaho's and Chen's work with their Finnish and Chinese origins, respectively.

Especially nowadays, the global character of new music has become so strong that it can incorporate a lot of the features earlier perceived as exotic on the common basis of the expansion of the sound universe, namely the introduction of new instruments, techniques, scales and rhythms.

If anyone could have predicted this process, it was surely Kagel in his piece Exotica for a hundred of ethnic percussion instruments from all over the world, all unified in joi de jeux. It comes as no surprise that the piece was commissioned for and first performed at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich to serve as a symbol of globalisation.

This blog post is a part of the Migration in the Arts and Sciences project, which explored how migration has shaped the arts, science and history of Europe.