A Musical Interlude

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 21st August 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

This blog post celebrates a remarkable Danish soprano, who championed Yiddish culture, stood up to anti-Semitism in 1930s Germany and lived until she was 96!

Did you know that the Ben Uri also has a strong musical tradition? At one time after World War II, there was a Ben Uri orchestra, chamber group and an opera circle. However, this week I want to look at a 1931 Ben Uri recital by soprano named Engel Lund (known to her friends as ‘Gagga’).

Engel Lund was born in Iceland in 1900. She moved to Denmark as a child and trained as a singer of lieder (German) and French songs but was also a keen collector of folk songs. She was fluent in five languages and learned fifteen more in order to sing the songs in the original vernacular.

I can break down national prejudice by the beauty of the songs

Lund travelled all over Europe giving performances of folk songs from around the world including songs in Hebrew and Yiddish. This concert advert recently came to light as part of the project to catalogue the Ben Uri archives in time for its centenary next year. The flyer not only advertises the concert itself but recounts an extraordinary story. In 1930, when Lund was in Hamburg, anti-Semitism was already so prevalent that she was advised to drop Yiddish from her repertoire but she refused to do so declaring ‘I find … that I can break down national prejudice by the beauty of the songs’.

BU_events Recital Lund 1931
Flyer for Engel Lund Concert 1931. Ben Uri Archives. © Ben Uri Gallery The London Jewish Museum of Art.

Lund had sung on the radio in England in 1930 but it was a great coup for Ben Uri to have Lund perform under their auspices during this trip to London: ‘Ben Uri members and friends will be able not only to hear but to see her at the recital’. Although it was unusual to have a non Jewish performer the Committee unanimously felt that her ‘great contribution’ towards Jewish folklore justified her invitation. The concert was a great success, despite one reviewer complaining that she sung ‘Hava Nagilla’ at the wrong tempo.

Engel Lund folk songs 1936
Engel Lund’s Book of Folksongs 1936

In 1936, Lund and her longtime accompanist and collaborator Ferdinand Rauter published ‘Engel Lund’s Book of Folk Songs’ which included songs from 14 countries. It was recently re-recorded by Norbert Meyn at the Royal College of Music studios.

Lund and Rauter spent the war in England, Lund performed nearly 30 times at the popular lunch-time National Gallery concerts organised by Myra Hess, as well as on the radio.

After the war, Lund continued travelling and performing, eventually retiring to Iceland where she taught at the conservatoire until her 90th year. She died at the age of 96. An obituary published in the Independent newspaper described her as:

a large woman in all respects and had a corresponding voice. She liked a good glass of red wine, or two or three. She had opinions about most things, which were mostly sound, and liked to express them.

The obituary writer recalled one occasion, when Lund was invited to meet the novelist Iris Murdoch:

She hesitated a moment, no doubt to consult her diary and said: ‘Wednesday? No, I shall be teaching all day. But don’t worry; I have read all her books, and I don’t like them’.