The Life and Works of Franz Reizenstein

Renowned Pianist, “Enemy Alien” and Composer

Franz Reizenstein led a remarkable life, both in his career as a musician and piano professor, and as a Jewish refugee living in Britain during and after the Second World War. Born to Jewish parents in Germany, he was raised in Nuremberg and was considered a child prodigy. By the age of seventeen, he had already written, and had performed, a full-length string quartet. He studied piano at the prestigious Berliner Hochschule für Musik where he was awarded the 1932 Bechstein Prize. Yet, in 1934 Reizenstein sought to escape Germany following the rise of National Socialism and increasing persecution of Jews in the Reich. He left for England, becoming one of the first émigré musicians to do so between 1933 and 1945.

While he was able to pursue his studies and musical career in the UK, Reizenstein was later interned as an “enemy alien” in the Central Camp in Douglas on the Isle of Man following the beginning of the war. Despite his internment he continued to compose in the camp, and following his release, conducted war work on the railways in London. Reizenstein’s post-war career flourished and in 1948, he received his Certificate of Naturalization from the British government. In 1958, he became a professor of piano, teaching in several music academies across the UK. He became known for his tonal and expressive style, influenced by English lyrical tradition, and produced recordings as a pianist for the BBC. He also wrote two operas and composed orchestral scores for cult Hammer horror films during the 1950-60s. Reizenstein gave his last performance in September 1968, before passing away a month later. He is remembered for his technical mastery, individual musical vocabulary, and cinematic works, as well as his experiences as a German-Jewish immigrant living in wartime England.

Early Life

Franz Theodor Reizenstein was born on 7th June 1911 to an established, Jewish family living in Nuremberg, for whom music and the arts played an important role, and who were well integrated into the local community. The family counted professionals, scientists, bankers, artists, and musicians among its members, and both of his parents played the piano. His father Albert was a well-known physician, though he passed away when Reizenstein was just fourteen. His mother, Lina Reizenstein (nee Kohn), continued to encourage his creative talents, and the young Reizenstein was considered a child prodigy. He is reported to have composed his first musical pieces at the age of five and, by the time he was seventeen, had written and had performed a full-length string quartet.

Reizenstein attended the Berlin Musikhochschule where he studied as a pupil of composition under Paul Hindemith. His classmates included Bernard Heiden and Harald Genzmer, who would both become prominent composers after the war. By 1934, following the rise of National Socialism in Germany, Hindemith began to have his compositions banned by Reich propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, given his collaboration with leftist and Jewish musicians. Recognising that the situation was beginning to change for the worse for Jews residing in Germany, Reizenstein made the difficult decision to leave for England that year. Aged twenty-three years, he was permitted to immigrate by way of existing relatives already living in the United Kingdom; an uncle on his mother’s side offered him accommodation in Kingston, Surrey. Soon, Reizenstein made his way to London where he resumed his education at the Royal College of Music, studying piano and composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams. Reizenstein was one of the earliest German refugee émigré composers, and the first of Hindemith’s students, to arrive in Britain. This is recorded in a letter of support that Sir Donald Tovey wrote on his behalf to the Undersecretary of State, Ministry of Labour, to support Reizenstein’s application to remain in Britain on 21st December 1937:

Mr. Franz Reizenstein, who is applying for a further extension of his permission to teach music in England, has asked me to explain some particulars of his case. What he specifically wishes to teach is the harmonic system of Paul Hindemith, a subject which nobody resident in England is qualified to teach, and which is, in the opinion of those qualified to judge, of the utmost importance to all musicians who hope to see order emerge from the present chaos of modern music […] this method is no obscure by-way of modern eccentricity, but it is the outcome of the practical experience of one of the most eminent and genuinely public spirited masters of modern music […] In short, I think it would be in accordance with public policy to secure Mr. Reizenstein‘s continued presence in England for the eminently practical purpose of propagating Hindemith‘s teaching.

Musical Training in England

While Reizenstein did not arrive in England with the extensive skills of his fellow, older émigré colleagues, he underwent meticulous training during his time at the Royal College of Music until 1936. He embraced the musical structures of the 19th Century and adopted a confident and mature approach as a performer. He studied composition with Vaughan Williams and refined his piano skills under Solomon Cutner. Under Vaughan Williams's tutelage, who provided generous support and encouragement, Reizenstein's musical language broadened, and became increasingly informed by English music and pastoral qualities. Williams described Reizenstein as being “an excellent, well-trained musician and a pianist of the highest rank”. He published his first piece in 1936: the Suite for piano, Op. 6, issued by Alfred Lengnick, and was the first to perform his former tutor Paul Hindemith’s three piano sonatas in the UK. Moreover, his compositions Prologue, Variations and Finale, Op. 12, written for the violinist Max Rostal, were inspired by an extended tour to South America during 1937-38 and brought him wider recognition as composer. Unfortunately, it was this trip to South America that would compromise Reizenstein’s naturalisation status, leading his position as an immigrant to be questioned by the British authorities.

Internment on the Isle of Man during WWII

Despite Reizenstein’s growing reputation, musical accomplishments and long-term residency at the Royal College, his status as a British resident became compromised following the beginning of WWII. Consequently, he joined thousands of other German and Austrian Jewish refugees who were interned as “enemy aliens” on the various camps established across the Isle of Man, which had previously been used throughout WWI. When war broke out in September 1939, the British government established tribunals to evaluate the potential security risk of all resident German and Austrian nationals. Of the 73,000 cases heard, only 569 were deemed ‘significant risk’ (known as ‘Category A’). Minimal risk cases were deemed ‘Category B’. The vast majority, about 66,000, were classified ‘Category C’ (no risk whatsoever). About 55,000 of those classified ‘Category C’ were refugees from Nazi oppression. In May 1940, Nazi-Germany launched an attack on Belgium and the Netherlands and, faced with the threat of an invasion and in fear of sabotage, the British Government embarked on a policy of the mass internment of these German and Austrian nationals who were all male and between the ages of 16 and 60. By this stage, it did not matter which “risk” category they had been previously assigned.

Most of the prisoners were Jewish, but also included other refugees who had escaped persecution by the Nazi regime; many were ready to fight against Germany alongside the British. However, the general hysteria and paranoia that followed the initial air attacks on the UK led to hostility against immigrants, who had to remain in these camps until each individual case was assessed to ensure that the person held no threat to the country. Only then could they be released. Some of these refugees were even deported to Canada or Australia. Reizenstein was interned in the Central Camp in Douglas which had opened in June 1940 on the Central Promenade and consisted of a square block of hotels from Empress Drive to Castle Drive, divided and contained by barbed wire fences. In all, the 34 properties held about 2,000 internees. Central Camp was considered one of the worst camps in terms of conditions. Overcrowding led to the men sleeping on dirty floors, zero privacy, and items could be very easily confiscated, including musical materials; the internees quickly dubbed the mess hall “Starvation Hall”. Some members had even already experienced the German concentration camps prior to their immigration. Roll calls were given twice a day, although internees sometimes swapped identities when opportunities arose when internees arrived or left. As such, official records were not well documented or were simply lost.

Mooragh internment camp in Ramsey, Isle of Man, 1940. Courtesy of Manx National Heritage Museum (PG/5396/8)

A self-administrative system was eventually established to improve conditions within the camps, including food supplies, news publications, communication with families, and access to medical supplies. Educational programmes were also developed which included lectures and were referred to as “universities”. Some of the finest minds of Europe were among the internees; these individuals were often able to emigrate to Britain in the first place through their professional or personal connections. In addition to Reizenstein, other musicians interned on the Isle of Man included Hans Gál, Egon Wellesz, Ferdinand Rauter, Hans Keller, Paul Hamburger, Peter Gellhorn and the three Austrian members of the Amadeus Quartet; Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel and Peter Schidloff, who first met during internment. To some extent, cultural life continued behind the barbed wire, despite the internees not being able to carry on their professional work and personal development, which brought about great frustration. Vaughn Williams, Reizenstein’s former tutor from the Royal College of Music, was one of several British musicians who campaigned for the release of their colleagues.

Taken from the album FRANZ REIZENSTEIN, THREE CONCERTOS. Produced and distributed by Kritzerland ( Courtesy of Kritzerland.

Excerpt of Franz Reizenstein’s composition “Jig from the Partita for Flute and Piano as performed in 1940, Courtesy of Manx National Heritage Museum, Isle of Man

Before his release in 1942, several of Reizenstein’s compositions were performed in “house concerts” in Central Camp, including Jig from the Partita for Flute & Piano, which was played in October 1940, and eventually published after the war. As Suzanne Snizek notes, with its melodic contours and underlying jaunty 6/8 rhythmic patterns, Jig might call to mind an English Sea Chanty, yet the harmonic language was strongly influenced by Hindemith, with whom Reizenstein had earlier studied in Berlin, reflecting his native and adopted musical environments. Reizenstein‘s Ballet Suite for Small Orchestra also premiered in the camp on a Sunday afternoon concert on 8th December 1940, played by the Central Camp Chamber Orchestra in House number 29. In an accompanying concert programme, Reizenstein stated: “This Ballet Suite was in the process of composition when the composer was interned. The Finale was written in the internment camp. The Arts Theatre Ballet, London, intends to produce the work this season. It was specially scored for the players in the Central Camp”.  In December 1940, he also co-conducted a programme for Christmas and Boxing Day and performed Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. He marked the New Year with another musical programme and, for his final concert during his internment on the Isle of Man, he ironically chose to perform Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse.

Life after the War

Following Reizenstein’s release from Central Camp on 3rd January 1941, the course of WWII continued. While many immigrant refugees went on to fight against the German army, Reizenstein was not permitted to serve in the British army on account of his poor eyesight. Snizek suggests that during his internment, Reizenstein felt pressured to secure a place with the Pioneer Corps for the duration of the war in the hope that it would ensure his naturalisation process, though he did not wish to fight. As his teacher and sponsor Vaughn Williams noted in correspondence to the camp administrators during the campaign for his release: “Reizenstein is a first-rate pianist. If he undertakes hard manual labour he will almost certainly ruin his hands for playing, and on this his livelihood depends. Would it not be possible to reserve him for musical or clerical work for which he would be admirably fitted? Surely there is ample scope for workers of both these kinds”. In the end, Reizenstein realised that military service would not secure his British citizenship either way, and he worked on the railways for the rest of the war.

During this time, Reizenstein continued his composition and performance work, and made piano recordings for the BBC. In 1942, he married the English music critic Margaret Lawson, from a Jewish family in London, and the pair later welcomed their son, John. During the same year as his marriage, he also gave his first public performance of his Piano Concerto No 1 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. By the end of the war, he had produced the substantial Piano Sonata, Op. 19, and the Violin Sonata, Op. 20, composed for Maria Lidka, and Cello Sonata, Op. 22, completed in 1947. The Piano Quintet, Op. 23, one of the composer's best-known works, was finished in 1948. He also wrote two operas: Men Against the Sea in 1949, and Anna Kraus (the first opera intended for radio, commissioned by the BBC) in 1952, the latter of which featured a German refugee as its main protagonist, based on Reizenstein himself.

On 24th June 1948, Reizenstein finally signed his Certificate of Naturalization from the British government, which was officially registered by the Home Office on 9th July. His occupation was listed “Composer, Concert Pianist and Teacher of Music”, and his alternate “British name” also documented as being Frank Rayston, which he used when publishing light music.

Reizenstein’s career continued to flourish and, in 1958, he became a professor of piano at the Royal Academy of Music and in 1964, also the Royal Manchester College of Music. Other notable works included his 1951 collaboration with librettist Christopher Hassall on the cantata Voices of Night, as well as Preludes and Fugues for Piano in 1955. In 1958, he was commissioned to compose an oratorio, Genesis, for the Three Choirs Festival. Between 1956 and 1958, Reizenstein also produced two large scale compositions for the Hoffung Concerts, including Concerto Popolare and Let’s Fake an Opera. Some of his best-known works became the parodic piece, Variations on the Lambeth Walk and his numerous piano performances at the Proms. Moreover, in 1966 he was appointed Visiting Professor of Composition at Boston University for six months, where concerts of his works were also held.

Cult Horror Composer

In addition to Reizenstein’s more traditional academic and performative career, he also composed two extravagant orchestral scores for films, including the cult Hammer horror picture The Mummy in 1959, directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee. The film, which had a substantial budget and was enhanced by Technicolour photography, was notably credited for its grand, chilling, operatic soundtrack, and rousing theme music, replete with chorus and xylophones to produce an audible combination of horror, romance, and adventure. In fact, in a remastered version of the soundtrack, actor Christopher Lee deemed Reizenstein’s score to The Mummy as the best of all the Hammer horror films. In 1960, Reizenstein also co-produced the original score for Circus of Horrors alongside Muir Mathieson: a film based around a European circus act which was “richly produced and lavishly directed”. Circus of Horrors starred actor Anton Diffring, also a German born Jew who, like Reizenstein, fled Germany before the outbreak of WWII. The accompanying music provided suspense and drama as the actors performed real circus stunts and boasted one of the successful production teams in Britain at the time, and arguably prefigured many horrors and thrillers that followed. Thus, Reizenstein’s experience as a cult horror composer demonstrated both his sense of the absurd, cultural interests, and sense of humour.


Although it is suggested that Reizenstein’s post-war accomplishments were sometimes marginalised by the UK’s inward-looking and occasionally anti-Semitic musical establishments, his academic contributions, film scores, and regular performances at concerts and broadcast studios ensured his place as one of the UK’s most significant classical musicians. Inspired by the work of his teachers before him, both in Germany and in England, Reizenstein engaged with conventional rhythmic ideas, harmonic processes, and classic forms that were adapted to produce a unique, sophisticated, and individual style. In all, his extensive musical catalogue features a wide range of operatic and chamber works, and a high technical ability which could be applied to his teaching and professorship, although he never taught composition at an English institution. Similarly, his willingness to experiment and adapt musical styles led to several successful cinematic works, and the production of highly regarded cult-horror scores.

Reizenstein’s experiences as an internee on the Isle of Man are also important and represent an often-overlooked aspect of the UK’s treatment of refugees during the war, including many of the émigré musicians who escaped Nazi persecution. However, the continuation of compositions and musical performance throughout their internment testifies to the importance of creativity behind barbed wire as a form of spiritual resistance and therapeutic relief from the realities of their imprisonment. For Reizenstein, the continuation of his composition in the Central Camp also meant that his works produced during internment could also be published after the war, therefore limiting the disruption of his status as an “enemy alien” on his musical career. This kind of determination could also be said for his decision not to use his alternate Anglicised name following his official naturalisation as a British resident.

Reizenstein’s last performance was a radio broadcast in his hometown of Nuremberg, Germany in September 1968. The programme included his Second Piano Sonata and the Zodiac Suite. Sadly, he passed away one month later at the age of 57. His last completed work, the Concerto for String Orchestra Op. 43, premiered in 1969, posthumously adding to the list of Reizenstein’s musical accomplishments which are still celebrated and performed to this day.

By Hannah Wilson


Simon Wynberg, Franz Reizenstein, The OREL Foundation:

Correspondence between Sir Donal Tovey to Franz Reizenstein, dated 21 December 1937. Reizenstein family collection. Published in Suzanne Snizek, German and Austrian Émigré Musical Culture in the British Internment Camps of World War II: Composer Hans Gál, Huyton Suite and the Camp Revue What a Life! (Vancouver: The University of British Columbia, 2011)

Suzanne Snizek, “Music in British Internment Camps”, Music and the Holocaust World ORT:

Norbert Meyn, Enemy Aliens: Music in Internment, Royal College of Music London:

Connery Chappell, Island of Barbed Wire, (London: Robert Hale, 1984)

Snizek, “German and Austrian Émigré Musical Culture…”, 114-115.

Central Camp concert programme, originally dated 11 November 1940 then adjusted to 8 December 1940, published in Snizek, “German and Austrian Émigré Musical Culture”, 114.

Vaughan Williams to camp administrator (very likely Captain Davidson, though it is only addressed ―Dear Sir‖), 6 December 1940, Reizenstein family private collection published in Snizek, “German and Austrain Émigré…”, 63.

“Music from the American National Picture Circus of Horrors”, Original LP insert.