Migrant Knowledge

Migrant Musical Knowledge in Latin America, 1935–1960

Scholars know little about the surprising, dramatic lives of the Europeans who fled Nazism for Latin America and helped shape the continent’s culture for generations. The stories of European classical musicians who participated in this migration are at the heart of my current book project, Music in Flight: Migration and Musical Politics in Latin America, 1935–1955.

One narrative cliché about these musical migrants involves the assumption that the Europeans came to Latin America and taught art music to the supposed provincials of the Global South. Knowledge transfer is indeed important to this book, but the actual story is far more interesting. Instead, this migration raises intriguing questions of multidirectional knowledge transfer. The refugees taught the European tradition, but what they learned from their Latin American context and interlocutors transformed their lives and work, as well.

Migrants in Wartime Latin America

European musicians in wartime Latin America were a complex group, ranging from those with global reputations and personal wealth to desperate players moonlighting in upscale pastelerías. Some arrived in 1935 after losing positions in Germany or Austria; some fled for their lives as late as 1941. Some self-identified as Jewish to varying degrees. Some converted to be allowed entry. Others were termed Jewish by the Nuremberg Laws: once safely out of Europe they declared themselves Catholic or Protestant on their entry documents. Some, especially the small population of Central Europeans in wartime Mexico, were politically left-leaning and joined Latin American anti-Nazi and antifascist organizations. Others were and remained politically unengaged. Meanwhile, many had been born in Europe’s ancient multiethnic empires but fled from new, relatively insecure successor states. The nationality on their passports often did not match the languages they spoke or their sense of themselves in the world. Terminologically, this means Music in Flight‘s protagonists were émigrés, migrants, and refugees; Jews, Christians, and the unaffiliated; monarchists, nationalists, and communists; and those who regarded themselves as ambassadors for a stateless, universalist notion of European culture as a moral good.

Their new homelands were equally complicated, and the timing of the Europeans’ arrival was unfortunate. Interwar Latin America had largely echoed the United States in enacting increasingly restrictive immigration policy, spurred by the growing influence of eugenics and racialist thought. As in the United States, Latin American political and cultural leaders understood Europe’s seeming decline to mark a new era for the Western Hemisphere: nationalist politics and cultural movements arose across the continent. Latin American Catholicism had long harbored latent antisemitism. And many Latin American countries were struggling with how best to integrate and modernize large Indigenous populations. Depending on where the refugees landed, they might be seen as problematically Jewish, usefully European, or a shifting, insecure combination of the two. Latin America’s uneven post-Great-War turn to nationalism meant that some countries welcomed the European musicians as representatives of a universalist civilizational legacy while others understood European culture and music as blinkered and decadent. The refugees themselves were the objects of racism even as they arrived with their European prejudices intact.

Yet the musical refugees’ stories involve considerable continuity. Latin America, notably dismissed by musicologist Emilio Ros-Fabregas as “the periphery of the periphery,” did not function that way for these migrants.1 In Latin America, as they had in Central Europe, refugees played in orchestras and salons, taught in conservatories, and founded and staffed private music schools. Their Latin American colleagues and interlocutors had often studied in European conservatories. There were of course differences in scale and the degree of state support. But Latin America was unique, not peripheral. The refugees not only taught: they learned, from and with composers and musicians in their new homelands.

This is not to say that their careers remained unchanged. Many of the European musical refugees had been trained in or worked to disseminate the era’s different strains of musical modernism. The spiky atonality of the Second Viennese School, Stravinskian neo-classicism, the romantic nationalism of Aaron Copland, the impressionistic shimmer of Debussy and Ravel, and Bartók’s or Chávez’s folk-inflected dissonance all vied for attention on stages and in salons. But on Latin American stages and in its schools, the refugees found themselves representing and playing the “German” art-music tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With few exceptions, Wagner, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Johann Strauss—and occasional stagings of contemporary late-romantics like Richard Strauss—became the refugees’ musical gift to Latin America while their local contemporaries voiced modernism’s avant-garde.

Meanwhile, some refugees participated in Latin America’s discourse of Indigenous aestheticism, or indigenismo. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Latin American composers echoed their European counterparts’ efforts to bring folk traditions into the art-music canon. In Mexico as well as in Andean countries like Peru and Bolivia, indigenistas glorified (and sometimes invented) ancient elite Inca, Maya, and Aztec instrumentation and melody. In music as in politics, indigenismo coexisted easily with the deprecation of actual Indigenous lived experience.2 The refugees’ indigenista exploration was a central element of their multidirectional knowledge transfer.

Rudolf Holzmann in Peru

Rudolf/Rodolfo Holzmann’s Latin American career can illustrate these migrants’ use of their European musical training, as well as their complex engagement with their new homelands. The creation of Peru’s national symphony orchestra involved a small group of European refugees and émigrés, among them Holzmann, who went on to leave a lasting imprint on twentieth-century Peruvian music. Born in Breslau, now the Polish city of Wroclaw, Holzmann arrived in Lima in 1938. He was only 28 years old but immediately demonstrated a wide musical range and curiosity.3 He played violin and served as assistant director in the newly formed Peruvian national symphony orchestra. At the National Conservatory, he taught oboe and composition and headed the library and archive through the 1940s.4

Holzmann’s arrival in Peru coincided with a burst of aesthetic interest in Andean Indigenous cultures, both nationally and regionally, building on political discourses on indigenismo, mestizaje, and Peruanidad. The best-known Peruvian articulations of indigenismo emerged in the work of José Carlos Mariátegui and Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre. Profoundly influenced by José Vasconcelos’s 1925 La Raza Cósmica, both thinkers viewed Peru’s Indigenous population as requiring cultural elevation, whether through industrial proletarianization (as a stage of evolution toward socialism), or through creating a “collectivized peasant [class].”5

Holzmann immediately engaged with Peruvian composers and Indigenous or folk musical themes but in a complex manner that echoed indigenismo‘s central irony: interest in indigenista themes and instrumentation went hand in hand with deprecation of actual indigenista work and composers. US composer and collector Nicholas Slonimsky, who visited Peru in 1941, wrote of Holzmann: “The most curious circumstance here is that none of the Peruvians can orchestrate and all orchestrations are done by a very talented Austrian refugee, a first-class composer himself.”6 Slonimsky was repeating Holzmann’s own problematic assertions, which were undercut by Holzmann’s critique of indigenista composers’ orchestrations.7 Yet Holzmann (re-)orchestrated indigenista work by composers Teodoro Valcárcel and Daniel Alomías Robles.8 Holzmann also began cataloguing work by Peruvian composers in the mid-1940s.9

Excerpt of a song from a collection that Rodolfo Holzmann edited, Cánticos y Danzas de Navidad y Año Nuevo en el Perú: 24 villancicos, ed. Ministerio de educación pública and Escuela Nacional de Música y Danzas Folkóricas (Lima: Casa Mozart, 1967).

Meanwhile, he wrestled with whether to place indigenista work in the global art-music canon.10 Holzmann wrote, “it is a fact that vernacular music deserves … everyone’s attention…” But, he cautioned, after hearing a performance of a Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven symphony, audiences should not be asked to hear music “imperfect from a technical, formal, or aesthetic point of view.” All in all, he concluded, “one cannot speak of Peruvian music and exclude the use of constructive elements borrowed from European music, or that which is called ‘universal music.'”11

Holzmann’s compositional oeuvre maintained this dualism, shifting between European musical idioms and what we might term ethnomusicological work, only rarely uniting the two. After ending his work with the orchestra and conservatory in the late 1940s, he embarked on the second phase of his life in Peru, serving briefly as the Secretary General of the Peruvian Casa de Cultura, then the head of the Musicological Section of the National School of Music and Folkloric Dance before leaving Lima for the small Andean town of Huánuco, where he taught at and eventually directed the Daniel Alomía Robles Regional Music School.

From the late 1950s, Holzmann followed two tracks in the compositional and pedagogical work he published. As he explored mid-century European modernist idioms like neoclassicism and twelve-tone composition, he also published on Andean choral work, melodic structure, and folk song. His Third World and Huánuco symphonies, as well as twelve-tone pieces like “Varifórmulas: diez piezas breves sobre una serie dodecafónica,” stand alongside choral scores of songs from the Huánuco region of the Andes and an ethnomusicology textbook published in Lima. Holzmann died in Huánuco in 1992, his art-music compositions only rarely performed.12


Holzmann is only one of thousands of Europeans who came to Latin America as a result of the Second World War. His story, far richer than I have space to detail here, highlights the multidirectional nature of wartime Latin American musical knowledge transfer and its manifestations.

Holzmann’s Peruvian career began in Peru’s new national symphony orchestra and conservatory, both focused on European art-music traditions. In neither did he teach, play, or program the European modernist avant-garde. Rather, the orchestra played and the conservatory taught the “classical” European symphonic traditions. In Peru as elsewhere, the refugees from Nazism introduced eighteenth- and nineteenth-century repertoire from the German-speaking world.

But Holzmann’s European training also supported his work on behalf of Peruvian art music and Andean-inflected ethnomusicology. Although his own compositions explored musical modernism until the end of his life, and despite his early deprecation of the rich 1930s indigenista compositional legacy, his most important contribution may have been to musical indigenismo—a genre his teachers from Breslau would hardly have recognized.

10/16/2015: NMSU history professor Andrea Orzoff (Photo by Darren Phillips)

Dr. Andrea Orzoff is an Associate Professor of History, Honors Faculty member, and Fellow Director of the Fellowships Office at New Mexico State University. Her research focuses on European and global history, the politics of culture, the mass media, migration, and nationalism. Her current book project Music in Flight tells the stories of German and Austrian classical musicians who fled Nazism for Latin America.

  1. Emilio Ros-Fábregas, “Historiografías de la música española y latinoamericana: algunos problemas comunes y perspectivas para el siglo XXI,” Boletín música 9 (2002), La Habana, Cuba, cited in Andrés Posada Saldarriaga, “La proyección de la nueva música de América Latina: globalización y periferia,” Artes La Revista 5, no. 9 (2005): 15–28, 19. ↩︎
  2. Indigenismo was also integrally related to Pan-Americanism and anti-imperialism. The literature is vast, but relevant here are Marisol de la Cadena, Indigenous Mestizos: The Politics of Race and Culture in Cuzco, Peru, 1919–2001 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 44–85; and Vera Wolkowicz, Inca Music Reimagined: Indigenist Discourses in Latin American Art Music 1910–1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022). ↩︎
  3. “Rodolfo Holzmann: Curriculum Vitae,” in Música tradicional del Perú, by Rodolfo Holzmann (Buenos Aires: Ricordi Americana S.A.E.C., 1967), 5. ↩︎
  4. Enrique Pinilla, “La música en el siglo XX,” in La Música en el Perú, ed. Bolaños, et.al., 16–168 (Lima: Patronato Popular y Porvenir Pro Musica Clasica, 1988), 168. ↩︎
  5. De la Cadena, Indigenous Mestizos, 141; Paulo Drinot, The Allure of Labor: Workers, Race, and the Making of the Peruvian State (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 46–50; María Elena García, Making Indigenous Citizens: Identity, Development, and Multicultural Activism in Peru (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 54. ↩︎
  6. Nicolas Slonimsky, Dear Dorothy: Letters from Nicolas Slonimsky to Dorothy Adlow, ed. Electra Slonimsky Yourke (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2012), 191. Slonimsky traveled to Latin America in 1941 at the behest of Edwin Fleishman, a wealthy Philadelphian philanthropist seeking new music for his Symphony Club. ↩︎
  7. Raúl R. Romero, “Nationalisms and Anti-Indigenismos: Rudolph Holzmann and His Contribution to a ‘Peruvian’ Music,” in Sound, Image, and National Imaginary in the Construction of Latin American Identities, ed. Héctor Fernández L'Hoeste and Pablo Vila, 91–105 (London: Lexington Books, 2018), 90–92. ↩︎
  8. Ibid., 101. ↩︎
  9. Armando Sánchez Málaga, Rodolfo Holzmann: Serie de Compositores Peruanos del Siglo XX (Lima: Centro de Estudios, Investigación y Difusión de la Música Latinoamericana, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 1999), 4. ↩︎
  10. Romero, “Nacionalismos y anti-indigenismos,” 280–83. ↩︎
  11. Holzmann, “Aporte para la emancipación de la música peruana: Es possible usar la escala pentáfona para la composición?” Revista de Estudios Musicales 1, no. 1 (1949): 61–80, 62–63, cited in Romero, “Nacionalismos y anti-indigenismos,” 283. ↩︎
  12. Holzmann, “De la trifonía a la heptafonía en la música tradicional peruana” (thesis, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima, Peru, 1968), 5; “Rodolfo Holzmann: Curriculum Vitae,” 5; Clara Petrozzi, “La música orquestal peruana de 1945 a 2005: identidades en la diversidad” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Helsinki, 2009), 95–96; Sánchez Málaga, Rodolfo Holzmann. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Andrea Orzoff, "Migrant Musical Knowledge in Latin America, 1935–1960," Migrant Knowledge, May 9, 2023, https://migrantknowledge.org/2023/05/09/migrant-musical-knowledge/.