Peter Ury estate

Encountering Peter Ury (1920–1976)

Authors: Natalia Bartos, Dorothea Gertler, Franziska Giesemann, Maya Krabbe and Jiaqian Wu. Editing: Dr. Regina Randhofer / Samuel Mund.

"When you help someone, you help them wake up." - When the news arrived that the extensive estate of German-Jewish composer Peter Ury was to be transferred to the European Centre for Jewish Music (ECJM) at the Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media at the request of his daughter Tanya, no one knew where to put it. The mail came from Cologne, where the city archive that had housed the composer's estate had collapsed. Many documents and memories testifying to the life and work of Peter Ury had been severely damaged in the collapse. In any case, Ury was almost unknown: There was hardly any publicly available sheet music or audio samples, and even on the Internet there was only scanty information about him. Due to Tanya Ury's request to take care of her father's estate, the ECJM was faced with the great task of preserving and publishing the materials in a befitting manner. The following article is an attempt to make Peter Ury's legacy audible and visible.

Biographical overview

Peter Ury was born in Ulm on November 3, 1920, the child of the Jewish pediatrician Sigmar Ury and his wife Hedwig. In the family's apartment, the corner room was equipped with a grand piano for small concerts for the musically gifted Peter. In March 1939, Peter Ury fled alone from Nazi Germany to England, where he worked, among other things, as a translator for the British Army. He also composed numerous songs and musical theater plays, which were performed in a wide variety of settings. In 1950 Peter Ury married Sylvia Unger, a German-Jewish immigrant, with whom he had three children: Nini, Tanya and David. An important theme for Peter Ury was the connection with his hometown, which he already tried to restore with a visit shortly after the war in 1945. In the same year he applied for re-naturalization, which after a long back and forth was granted only on October 31, 1966. Peter Urys' center of life thus remained permanently in London, where he died ten years later, on September 20, 1976.

Escape from Germany

When the National Socialists came to power, the climate for the Jewish population in Ulm also became visibly difficult. Sigmar Ury's name was soon on the list of Jews to be boycotted. Although Ury, as a former front-line fighter, was for the time being exempt from the occupational ban and the exclusion of doctors from the health insurance system, an appeal in an issue of the National Socialist propaganda pamphlet "Der Stürmer" in 1935 ensured that the Ury family was to be boycotted. Initial hopes for an improvement of the general situation for Jewish German citizens and residents faded in the following years and so the Ury family reluctantly decided to turn their backs on Germany. Father Sigmar Ury, however, was by then suffering from kidney cancer and was thus too weak to embark on an escape. His wife Hedwig wanted to stay with her husband to care for him. Son Peter, now 18, was again too old to leave Germany on a "Kindertransport" (child transport, a way for Jewish-German children to leave the country). But finally a couple from the Quaker religious community was able to help him immigrate to England. Peter Ury was never to see his parents again. He later wrote about his last encounter with his mother: "Oh, how it was, when I left Ulm on March 22, 1939, she looked after me with staring eyes, I who drove away from her so cruelly. So was that the last farewell?"

Life in London

Peter Ury's new home in England was initially to serve as a stopover until the war would end. He could not have known that he would spend the rest of his life there. So while Ury was now trying to find his way in England with a new job, he was also going through an identity crisis musically: in his lyrics as well as in his music he processed his escape from Germany as well as his religious origins. During this time, Peter Ury lived in a shared apartment with what would later become his most important friend and professional colleague, the theater director Peter Zadek. This resulted in many joint projects in which Ury concentrated on music and Zadek on dramaturgy. Ury met his future wife Sylvia in London, and their joint family foundation strengthened their bond with their new home.

Professional and social life

The acquaintance with Sylvia's family paved new paths and opportunities for the young Peter's professional career: While Sylvia's father Alfred H. Unger was a writer, playwright and senior dramatic adviser for the film company UFA, his brother Wilhelm Unger worked as an author, journalist and theater critic. Both provided important impulses for Ury's creative work as a musician and also as a journalist. After immigrating, the Unger brothers and Peter Ury worked for England's most popular broadcasting service, the BBC. Ury hoped it was only a matter of time before his work was discovered. The later-to-be famous German director and theater director Peter Zadek, mentioned above, became one of his most important professional partners and long-time friends, to him Ury bequeathed one of their most significant joint works, the opera Timothy. Zadek also mentions Ury in his biographical work My Way, where he talks about their time together in London.

Another important contact was the Cologne couple Lotte and Ernest Berk. With both of them - Lotte was a dancer, Ernest a composer and choreographer - Peter Ury did many joint performances. Ury composed several piano pieces for their choreographies. This music was recorded by Ernest Berk, but the recordings were irreparably damaged. The most outstanding work here is The Family Suite.

Peter Ury's music

The estate of Peter Ury contains both manuscripts and reprints of his compositions. The largest collection, entitled Kinderlieder (Children's Songs), contains 23 songs with piano accompaniment as well as a Piano Sonata in three movements and the Lullaby for Tanya. The songs take motifs from the Romantic period, such as the night, love, and longing for home. His daughter Tanya Ury describes his musical style as late romantic. The texts of his songs were written by well-known Jewish poets such as Erich Fried, Else Lasker-Schüler and Saul Tschernichowsky, as well as by Peter Ury himself. There are many compositions with religious themes, such as the Singspiel Der Judaskuss, the Judas Passion and 3 Songs for Shoshanah (music for a Jewish festival). Ury's incomplete Symphony No. 1, the ballet The Enchanted Apple, and a Serenade for Strings have also survived. With his friend Peter Zadek, he composed the opera Timothy, based on the story Heinzelmeier by Theodor Storm. Ury also wrote the music for the play The Brothers, which was produced by Zadek and performed several times at the Watergate Theatre in London.

Ury said in a 1960 article in the Kölner Stadtanzeiger about his music that he "does not want to be modern at all costs," and admits that there may be echoes of Mahler's music. But he insists on not being pigeonholed into a scheme and describes himself as stylistically flexible depending on the challenge.


Even though Peter Ury lived a life far away from the war with his family in London, he could not come to terms with the idea of staying there forever. The involuntary flight and the abrupt farewell to his parents occupied him until the end of his days, which is why he tried to return to Germany. This ended in an elaborate correspondence between him and the citizens' office in Cologne, which made his return even more difficult. At first, Ury only received a naturalization certificate, although he had already possessed German citizenship before the war. In a letter from 1967, Ury explained that in his case, however, it was a matter of regaining his citizenship, since he had already held it from birth until 1940, but it had been revoked from him under Nazi rule. What became of this request is not yet known.


Even though it appears that Peter Ury had a remarkable career, he had to endure numerous low blows. Many of his pieces were rejected by record companies, publishers and promoters because his music did not meet commercial requirements. This did not mean that the music was unusually weird, but on the contrary, it was not extroverted enough to be presented to the public among other compositions of his time. As a result, hardly anyone today remembers Peter Ury or his rare concerts. Consequently, Ury did not succeed in reaching an audience that could attribute to him the success that he actually deserved musically. It would seem that Ury was well respected for his many professional activities as a journalist, composer, interpreter, music teacher and music critic, but that his musical qualities were not heard.

Even though the collapse of the Cologne City Archives destroyed many heirlooms and original sources, the move of Peter Ury's estate to the ECJM in Hanover has given the impetus for a rediscovery initiative.

What Peter Urys leaves behind are largely unexplored pieces of music, which are of interest in that they mark a time when many artists* suffered great professional restrictions and difficulties due to their exile. Peter Urys' fate was that no one during his lifetime was willing to appreciate his music for what it is: a part of lively and vivid, but also tragic musical history.

Notes on the Peter Ury collection

Archival notes:

Extent: approx. 192 archive cartons
Time period: ca. 1940s to 1960s
Languages: German, English, Hebrew
Author: Peter Ury

Contents of the collection

The estate of the German-Jewish composer Peter Ury includes his handwritten and printed works as well as notes and sketches relating to them. Also included are: Correspondence to and from Peter Ury, private and professional life documents, photographs, books, journals, sound recordings, other musical material, as well as objects and documents not further classified. In addition to the holdings that the ECJM took over from the Cologne City Archives, the collection also includes three boxes that were transferred to the ECJM from the Wiener Holocaust Library in London. These also contain correspondence to Peter Ury, concert programs, notes and manuscripts, some scores of his works, musical exercises, press clippings, and various membership and personal cards of Alfred and Ernina Unger (the parents of Peter Ury's wife Sylvia). The London holdings cover the years 1927 to 1960.

An overview of the "Cologne" holdings as well as the "London" component of the collection can be viewed here.

Timothy, Act 1, Sc. 1: Mother "On the sixth day of creation"; Composer: Peter Ury; Libretto: Peter Zadek (after: Hinzelmeier b. Theodor Storm, 1852); Mother (Alto); Pamela Bowden (?), 1957; digit.: 2022. © Ury family, EZJM

On the journeys of the Peter Ury collection

After the death of Peter Ury's wife Sylvia, née Unger (1926-1998), the children Tanya, Nini and David decided in 1999 to hand over their family's extensive archive to the Cologne City Archive. In addition to a few documents and objects relating to members of the Unger family in Cologne, the family archive primarily included the estate of the Ulm-born composer and journalist Peter Ury.

The Historical Archive of the City of Cologne is "one of the most important municipal archives in Europe". As such, it is not only the written image of "Cologne's city memory," but also houses the estates and collections of important personalities from the region, such as Alfred H. Unger, the German writer, playwright, former senior dramatic adviser of UFA Berlin, and grandfather of Tanya, Nini, and David Ury. Thus, by the end of the 1990s, partial bequests of the Unger family were already in the holdings of the Cologne Archive. In addition to this circumstance, the relocation of the performance artist Tanya Ury (*1951) from London to Cologne in 1993 also contributed to the decision to give the collection to the Cologne Archive. The reason for Tanya Ury's move was her desire to work through her family history in connection with the Shoah. The bequest at the Cologne City Archive included not only documents of the Jewish Unger family connected to Cologne and the Peter Ury collection, but rather authentic testimonies of German-Jewish cultural exiles who had left their German homeland under duress.

On March 3, 2009, the Cologne City Archive collapsed. Almost the entire holdings from over 1,200 years of city, regional and church history slid into a huge crater created by poorly executed construction work for a new subway line. As a result, only a fraction of the "Ury Collection" could be saved and painstakingly restored. In 2014, about 75% of it had been successfully restored. What "archive" and "archiving" actually mean only became fully apparent to Tanya Ury, who has since been working with great commitment to preserve her family's legacy, after the collapse and in view of the partial loss of important family papers. For in the boxes and folders not only documents are archived, but also memories and emotions, partly also with traumatic experiences as a result of the Shoah - a circumstance that future users who will work with the Ury Collection at the ECJM should be aware of. Against this background, it is understandable that in 2012 David Ury also gave several boxes of documents relating to Peter Ury's life and work to the Vienna Holocaust Library in London, one of the world's leading and most extensive archival and library collections documenting the persecution of Jews under the Nazis and a major center of Holocaust research.

In January 2018, the Cologne Archive informed the heirs that the remains of Peter Ury's estate would no longer be part of the Cologne Archive's holdings. However, the Cologne Archive wished to continue to retain the estate of his maternal grandfather, Alfred H. Unger. In the summer of 2018, Prof. Dr. Sarah Ross and her team met Tanya Ury by chance at a conference in London and got into conversation with her. Already in the fall of the same year, Tanya Ury visited the ECJM and initial discussions took place regarding the acquisition of the collections. After a few years of exploring the possibilities, formulating contracts, and generating adequate housing options, the Peter Ury Collection finally reached ECJM in early summer 2021. Additional bequests from the Wiener Library in London followed in the fall of 2021.

Selected works: Three Songs For Shoshanna

Among Peter Ury's compositions included in the estate is a work he titled Three Songs for Shoshanna. The existing sheet music shows no date or other indication of exactly when the songs were written. Ury dedicated the songs to his wife, Sylvia Ury. The Hebrew song texts are underlaid with Klezmer-like musical elements. Peter Ury did not see himself as a pronounced "Jewish composer," yet his work features selective filigree explorations of Jewish culture and religion.

The work is divided into three short songs, entitled "Shoshanna (The Rose)," "Shoshanna II (Of all Flowers in the Garden it is the Rose I love)," and "R'itiha (I saw her ...)." Each song has, in addition to the Hebrew lyrics by Saul Chernichovsky (an important and influential Hebrew lyricist of the 20th century), an English translation written by Sylvia Ury herself.

A rose with charm divinely blessed
for every man doth bloom
some spend their lives upon their quest
but some do find her soon

We wander each upon our path
until our last repose
and yet each flower we meet we ask
„are you my rose?"

Oh, happy he that finds his rose
And plucks her while he may
But woe to him, who as he goes
Passes her on his way.

Of all flowers blossoming in the garden
It is for the rose I long
And of all blossoms
It is but the rose I love

Every morn at daybreak
I go out into the garden
And of all the flowers covered with dew
It is to the rose I go.

I saw her as she went to the well to fetch water:
I embraced her as she went to the well to fetch water.
I kissed her as she went to the well to fetch water.

The first piece, "Shoshanna" begins with simple arpeggio harmonies that wander through the left and right hands of the piano. F major, G-flat major and E-flat major alternate - although the piece is apparently written in D-flat major, even the beginning seems blurred, with no key signature. After three measures of arpeggios, the vocal part enters with matching repeated notes, forming the first movement of Chernichovsky's poem.

The measures alternate steadily between three-fourths and four-fourths metrum, so there is a constant shifting of emphasis, creating an urgent, ambiguous style. After the first vocal phrase fades away, the melody is imitated in the right hand with octave parallels. As soon as the last note is heard there, the form changes. In the left hand of the piano, the broken chords are still figured at first, but with the upbeat of the vocal part, sustained harmonies now sound on which the voice moves almost capriccioso or cadenza-like.

In measure 14, the right hand doubles the melody part, ending the first section of the song with a relatively simple downward line. In what follows, the next section begins, which seems like a supposed second verse of what was just played. The first phrase is also rendered similarly to the previous one, with simple note repetitions in the vocal part. However, this is not followed by a repetition of this short phrase in the piano as in the first verse; instead, the following part of the vocal part is anticipated and varied in its own capriccioso manner.

A kind of dialogue develops again, this time with the vocal part responding to the piano melismas. This section concludes similarly to the first verse, but again in somewhat ornamented form with additional glissandi in the vocal part and an upper voice in the right hand set in thirds.

Again, the next section begins with the arpeggios of F major, G flat major, and E flat major. But instead of a third verse, the climax of the song now builds: Already in the first vocal entry, titled forte, the drama is supported by an exposed octave leap. In the piano, fortissimo chord repetitions sound, creating a full sound on both sides. In measure 35, broken chords ease this tension slightly, ending on a piano fermata on b2. The next wave begins in the vocal part with "uv sha'ato kataph su." However, this is less intense than the previous one and is quickly resolved by rising arpeggios and a decrescendo in the piano. The octave leap that follows on "W' oi lo" has an even shorter swelling duration in dynamics and already reverts from sforzato to piano in measure 40 on the second count. The capricious figuration of the previous stanzas resounds again, with dynamic crescendo-decrescendo waves. But one can already hear that these waves are increasingly subsiding, and both parties are calming down. In measure 47, the downward movement of the voice, accompanied in the right hand, causes the phrase to fade out. The arpeggios once again sound decrescendoing in F major from the major F to the c4 and are then caught by a pure D flat major in the bass.

Although this first piece is ostensibly in D flat major, we are almost never directly in that key. Instead, dominant parallels are used, conveying a lack of key and thus creating the impression that these melodies are fragile. The text comes to the fore, and while there are always the harmony relations, there is never a clear key statement.

The second song of this cycle is titled "Shoshanna II" and is divided into two classical stanzas, connected by a repeat sign. In this small piece, which has the tempo marking "con moto" ♩ = 112, there is a canon that takes place not only between two, but even between three parties. This creates the impression of a small fugue. The main melody - led by a fifth and then a fifth leap - runs through all three lines of the respective systems. A walking bass, a melody voice in the left hand, and the upper voice in the chant continue the pattern. Unlike the previous song, the melody voice is not doubled; rather, the music-making partners are equal. In the bass, no clear statement of the key is made at first (similar to the first song). Empty fifths are held on D and A. The melody of the right hand sits on them and carefully figures its way to D minor through small suggestions before the descending eighth notes. Although the melody runs through all the voices and seems to have a lot going on, the song retains its simplicity, creating a folk-like listening impression.

The third and last song is also the shortest of the cycle and is titled "R'itiha" ("I saw her"). Initially, it seems to be the simplest of the three, especially since the beginning is played only in the right hand. In the tempo marking, however, three things stand out at once: The opening tempo is already marked ♩ = 144 and then, in addition to the instruction "joyful and quick," there is a third note that says "Accelerando encores - increasing in speed with every verse." Here the verses divide into two parts. The sung phrase is again presented by a kind of canon in the left and right hands as well as the vocal part. With each sentence in the poem, the person comes closer to the beloved: "I saw her as she went to the well to fetch water," "I embraced her as she went to the well to fetch water," and "I kissed her as she went to the well to fetch water." This is emphasized by the increasing tempo. Each statement ends on a fermata and is then resolved first by a piano-lento on "hayala," which then leads into a kind of musical laughter as an accelerando arises again, ending in a crescendo-decrescendo.

The last piece, through the stylistic means just described, seems like a kind of small intoxication, meant to reflect the lyrical I's infatuation. Although all three songs are kept very simple in their structure and notation, one gets the impression that they do not merely reflect something simple, but rather something tender. The pieces could be played by beginners as well as by advanced musicians. Perhaps the cycle was composed with this in mind, so that it could be played in the Ury family itself.

The following considerations are personal interpretations and ideas of the authors: a vocalist* would probably concentrate especially on the way of making music after having dealt with the Hebrew pronunciation and the word-for-word translation of the poems. It would also be conceivable to concentrate on the folkloric elements, so that the typical klezmer sounds would emerge. Since all three songs have an inherent positive message, an exploration of dynamics might be promising. However, the pieces could also lose their charm through an overly extroverted interpretation. Especially the figurations and melismas in the first song are expressed much more beautifully through a cadenza-like, light interpretation than when articulated quite clearly under the aspect of full vocal performance.


Last modified: 2023-02-14

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