SOME OF the Hitlerfluchtlinge who took refuge in Britain from the Nazis' murderous enthusiasms changed their adoptive country for ever. Yet the welcome of the British musical establishment was grudging and often suspicious, so it is small wonder that with the cessation of hostilities some were happy to return to the war- shattered Continent. The committed Communists, moreover, partly with an eye on former Nazis still in positions of influence in West Germany, felt a duty to reinforce the institutions being erected in the eastern part of the country. One such was the musicologist Georg Knepler.
Knepler was born in Vienna in 1906 and grew up in a modest but cultured family: his father, Paul Knepler (a bookseller), would take his son along to the subscription concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic. But young Georg, who was used to playing chamber music at home, found the experience distant, impersonal; he far preferred to go to hear Mozart at the Staatsoper - and his sense of the theatrical, of the importance of direct communication, stayed with him all his life. His undergraduate musical training shaped him as an all-rounder: theory with Guido Adler, piano with Eduard Steuermann and conducting with the composer Hans Gal.
He first made his name as the accompanist, for almost three years from 1928, of the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus. From 1929, too, he was active as repetiteur and conductor at the Volksoper and Stadtheater in Vienna, working also in Wiesbaden (1930-31) and Mannheim (1933). In Wiesbaden, where he was employed by Karl Rankl (later also a refugee in Britain and post-war conductor of the Royal Opera House), he helped prepare the premiere of Hanns Eisler's oratorio Die Massnahme ("Taking Measure"), which had a Communist text by Bertolt Brecht.
In 1931 Knepler gained his PhD from the University of Vienna with a thesis on Brahms and then headed off to Berlin, to work in the theatre with Brecht, Brecht's wife Helene Weigel, and Eisler. With Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, Knepler - as Jew and Communist doubly in danger - returned to Vienna. There he joined the outlawed Communist Party, which earned him a few weeks in prison when he was caught distributing copies of its newspaper, The Red Flag.
In 1934 Knepler and his wife began their British exile, followed soon by his parents. To begin with, he conducted a number of amateur choirs and involved himself in workers' music groups, and then, when the Anschluss triggered a wave of Austrian immigration, he helped run the musical activities of the Austrian Centre, a self-help social club.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, with the BBC presenting no operatic performances, Knepler and the composer Ernst Schoen decided to organise their own opera group, first with piano, and then with Knepler conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in broadcasts for the BBC. …