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14 May 2020

Ernst Roth and the ‘Business of Music’

Ernst Roth (1896–1971) might never have worked for Boosey & Hawkes, nor even have lived in Britain at all, had it not been for the foresight of Leslie Boosey and Ralph Hawkes amid the falling darkness of the late 1930s.  Papers in the Boosey & Hawkes archive (MS Mus. 1813) record the tale.

Roth had studied law, philosophy and music in his home city of Prague, and after earning his doctorate he moved to Vienna in 1922, joining the publishers Universal Edition.  Here, having found his vocation as a music publisher, he might have expected to spend his whole career.  But then came the Nazi Anschluss of 1938.  On March 12th that year, Austria was annexed and subjugated by Hitler’s regime.  With breathtaking speed a ‘commissar’ was appointed to ‘control’ Universal Edition: that is, to Nazify it. [1] Roth, along with his colleagues Alfred Kalmus and Erwin Stein, being Jewish, were immediate targets.  Not three weeks later, on March 31st, he was, in his own matter-of-fact words, ‘discharged on account of my non-arian origin’. [2]

Typescript extract from Dr. Ernst Roth’s Curriculum Vitae
Extract from Dr. Ernst Roth’s Curriculum Vitae, 1938. (Temporary reference MS Mus. 1813, box BA23, file 69.3.). © Boosey & Hawkes. Reproduced with permission.

In London, Ralph Hawkes and Leslie Boosey were already swinging into action, planning a piece of shrewd businessmanship that also served as a bold rescue operation.  Boosey went to Vienna and, with the blessing of Jella Hertzka, the widow of the founder of Universal Edition, secured the services of Roth and Stein for Universal Edition's London branch (which Kalmus had already established in 1936).  Boosey also bought up all the shares in that subsidiary firm and obtained rights for most of Universal Edition’s catalogue.  Roth, Stein and Kalmus were given permission to take up residence in Britain, and in September started work in their new positions: Nazi Vienna’s loss was London’s gain.

Handwritten letter by Ernst Roth
‘It is urgent to get out from here!’ Letter of 13 August 1940 from Ernst Roth, interned in Prees Heath Camp, Shropshire, to Leslie Boosey. (MS Mus. 1813/2/1/279/1). © Boosey & Hawkes. Reproduced with permission.

Even on British soil their troubles were not over, however.  In July 1941, in common with many other overseas nationals, the three men found themselves interned as ‘Enemy Aliens’, being separated from their families and sent to camps in Shropshire or on the Isle of Man.  Letters in the archive tell of the lengths to which the firm – Leslie Boosey in particular – had to go in order to have them released.  At one point Boosey even asked the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams for help in pleading Roth’s case with the Home Office. [3]  All three were eventually released after nearly six months’ internment.

Copy letter from Leslie Boosey to Ralph Vaughan Williams
Copy letter of 11 October 1940 from Leslie Boosey to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams was heavily involved in efforts to release foreign musicians who had been interned as ‘Enemy Aliens’. (MS Mus. 1813/2/1/281/6). © Boosey & Hawkes. Reproduced with permission.

Once settled, though, Roth committed the rest of his career to Boosey & Hawkes, remaining in continuous service until his retirement in 1964.  Rising to the position of Managing Director, he took charge of correspondence with composers and members of the public, scanned the horizon for infringements of copyright, and superintended the Music Department’s various divisions with a hawk’s eye.  Helen Wallace, in her history of Boosey & Hawkes, describes a ‘ruthlessly commercial’ man with ‘a razor sharp mind and the old-world charm to bring the grandest composers to heel’. [4] With Rufina Ampenoff (originally his assistant and later head of the Symphonic and Operatic department) he formed a formidable double-act.

Photograph of Ernst Roth
Dr. Ernst Roth in the late 1950s or early 1960s. (Mus. Dep. 2017/19). ©Fayer

Without fear or favour he defended his company’s interests in the world of music. ‘I am afraid copyright is a matter which does not admit sentimental considerations’, he wrote to the organisers of the Edinburgh Festival in May 1960, informing them that the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra’s own instrumental parts, being unauthorised, could not be used during their forthcoming appearance in Britain: ‘Even Russian visitors owe obedience to the law in this country’. [5] He was keenly aware of the commercial value of music and its fickle fluctuations: in the 1960s Benjamin Lees was told that there was ‘very little that can be done’ with string quartets, regardless of their quality.  And within the company, too, Roth ran a tight ship: ‘In the last few months the general discipline has markedly declined’, reads an internal memorandum from September 1961; ‘[…] I like to believe that discipline among adults is a matter of self-respect and need not be enforced. However, I would have no alternative but to enforce it if this request […] remains without the expected response’. [6]

Typescript circular to the Music Department of Boosey & Hawkes
Circular to the Music Department of Boosey & Hawkes, 21 September 1961 (MS Mus. 1813/2/1/164/10.). ©Boosey & Hawkes. Reproduced with permission.

Outwardly, the man himself may have appeared no more inclined to ‘admit sentimental considerations’ than the principles of copyright.  But he was no philistine, and he knew his own mind when it came to musical judgement.  He placed Britten’s War Requiem ‘among the most outstanding works ever written at any time’, [7] and his memoirs, published after his retirement in 1964, reveal that his long years in ‘The Business of Music’ had not extinguished his love of music for its own sake, nor his belief in its value to humanity:  ‘Although I am at home in serious music I have a deep respect for music as a harbinger of joy. Let no one rob it of this precious gift!’ [8]

Dominic Newman

Manuscripts Cataloguer


[1] MS Mus. 1813/2/1/215/3.

[2] Business Affairs series (currently uncatalogued). Temporary reference MS Mus. 1813, box BA23, file 69.3.

[3] MS Mus. 1813/2/1/281/6.

[4] Wallace, Helen, Boosey & Hawkes: the publishing story (London: Boosey & Hawkes, 2007), p. 20.

[5] MS Mus. 1813/2/1/121/8.

[6] MS Mus. 1813/2/1/164/10.

[7] MS Mus. 1813/2/2/6/4.

[8] Roth, Ernst. The Business of Music (London: Cassel, 1969), p. 244.


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