Peter Gellhorn

Peter Gellhorn

Breslau – London
1912 – 2004
Origin: Germany

Peter Gellhorn’s Early Life

Peter was born Hans Fritz Gellhorn in Breslau, Germany – now Wroclaw, Poland. His father, Alfred, was an architect and had fought in the First World War. In 1923, the family moved to Berlin where Peter learned the piano.

When the Nazis came to power, Alfred Gellhorn, being Jewish, was forced to flee. Peter, being half-Jewish, was able to remain with his mother, Else, and younger sister, An Elise.

Peter’s Journey

Peter studied piano and conducting in Berlin before beginning a career as a musical director. Although initially allowed to perform by the Nazis, Peter’s name was soon included among a list of Jewish musicians no longer allowed to work in Germany. In 1935, artist friends in Britain invited Peter to ‘holiday’ with them as a means of escape.

Peter based himself at Toynbee Hall in East London, where he taught music and directed performances. During this time, he also wrote and accompanied other notable musicians on recordings.

Peter’s Internment

When war broke out, Peter was sent to a tribunal. Like most refugees fleeing persecution, he was classified as exempt from internment. As the situation in Europe worsened, however, all Germans and Austrians resident in Britain were arrested and interned. This included Peter.

Peter was sent to Warth Mills and, like most men, found life there a struggle. He later described it as “an awful place”. After a few weeks, he was transferred to the Isle of Man. It was here that he met fellow musician Hans Keller and associated with the founding members of the Amadeus Quartet. Peter claimed he never produced as much music as he did on the Isle of Man – a moment in time when creativity thrived against the odds.

Released at the start of 1941, Peter found work as an assistant conductor at Sadler’s Wells Opera, temporarily relocated to Burnley from London. From 1943 until the end of the war, he would work in an aircraft factory to support the allied war effort.

Life After the War

Peter primarily worked in opera and joined the Royal Opera House in 1947 as a conductor. He remained there until 1953 when he moved on to Glyndebourne and then the BBC Chorus.

Alongside this work, Peter performed at festivals and concerts around the world, often supporting smaller companies. He founded Opera Barga in Italy in 1967 and became a Professor at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he taught between 1981 and 1992.

Peter married actress Olive Layton in 1943 and they had four children. He died in 2004 at the age of 91. Even into his old age, Peter continued to run a choir near his London home.

Thanks to Toynbee Hall and Peter’s family for providing biographical information and archive images. All rights reserved by the Estate of Peter Gellhorn. More detailed information about Peter’s life and work can be found at

Next Internee

Stephen Hearst

Vienna — London

Read more