For Hans Helfritz (1902-1995), applying himself to only one field of study started causing problems for him early in life. He grew up in Greifswald and Berlin (the photo shows him with his parents and his sister Marlene). After his school-leaving examinations, and at the urging of his parents, he started vocational training in a bank.

“I dreamt only of numbers. It was nearly the death of me”, noted Hans Helfritz, 1990, in his autobiography Neugier trieb mich um die Welt (‘Curiosity drove me ’round the world’). He ended his training shortly thereafter and was allowed to start studying music in Berlin. Since his family was not wealthy, Helfritz was forced to support himself with various jobs in order to finance his studies.


From 1926 to 1929 Hans Helfritz studied contrabass and composition at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin, taught by Paul Hindemith, among others, and also studied comparative musicology with Professor Erich von Hornbostel.

Alongside his music studies, he also developed an active, multifaceted ability – as shown in his later life – to combine personal interests with work. He was an accompanist to silent films at the cinema and also earned his keep by working as an extra at the State Opera. It was his work as a répétiteur at the Vera Skoronel and Berte Trümpy Dance Studio that led to his first commissions to compose, like the music for the 1930 ballet Der Kreuzzug der Maschinen (The Crusade of the Machines), for which the score has been lost.

His first success was also in 1930, the premiere of the Concertino für Cembalo mit kleinem Orchester at the music festival in Bad Pyrmont. However, the first, great expedition to the Middle East in 1930 provided Helfritz’s life the first of its many, completely new leaves.


His return from the Middle East (1930) did nothing to extinguish Hans Helfritz’s new-found passion for travel. He brought back photographs and sound recordings and published his first book.

His most important expedition took place in South Arabia. On the suggestion of Professor von Hornbostel, Helfritz found himself on three occasions in Hadramaut and what was then the Kingdom of Yemen (1931-1935), where he was the first person to record the songs of the Bedouin peoples. He also managed to become the first European to set foot in the legendary and heavily guarded city of Shabwa, which brought him a measure of international acclaim. Along with books and photos, he also released two documentary films.

Between 1935 and 1939 Hans Helfritz was traveling almost constantly, visiting, among other locations, the Middle East and the American continent. He feared being denounced and persecuted in Nazi Germany due to his homosexuality and thus, with the outbreak of war, he found himself in Bolivia where he was researching for a new book. He did not to return to Germany, but instead went into exile in Chile.


Exile in Chile meant that Hans Helfritz had to first eke out a living as a postcard photographer. But it was not long before he started getting offers to participate in scientific expeditions as photographer and cameraman. He traveled through Chile, which is over 4,000 km long, into Antarctica and also landed on far away Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Several of his books were again published in Germany soon after the war.

In Santiago, especially during the Second World War, Hans Helfritz met many well-known musicians and conductors, among them the pianist Walter Gieseking and the conductor Hermann Scherchen. This marked the beginning of his second intensive creative period as a composer. But it was not until after he became a citizen of Chile in 1948 that Helfritz could take part in the national music competitions. On his first attempt, he achieved first place with his Konzert für Tenorsaxophon und Orchester.


Due to the changing political and economic situation in Chile, Hans Helfritz returned to Europe for good in 1959 and settled down on the Balearic Island of Ibiza.

Since he no longer had a strong connection to the German world of music, he put more focus on his traveling, books and lectures. During this time, he only occasionally composed music.

The 1960’s and 70’s were years of intensive traveling, whereby curiosity connected seamlessly with his work. He used his activity as a tour guide, which he began after the war, for book research. Travel guides about Indonesia, Mexico and Ethiopia were published. As he had made several journeys to Africa in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, he returned with impressive photos and a travel report (Schwarze Ritter. Zwischen Niger und Tschad / Black Knights. Between Niger and Chad, 1958).

Hans Helfritz continued to pursue his various interests into old age.

Old Age

After his autobiography, Neugier trieb mich um die Welt (Curiosity Drove Me Round the World) was published in 1990, in which he wrote down his anecdote-rich life story, three documentary films about Hans Helfritz were made, including one about him and the American writer and composer Paul Bowles (1910-1999). In 1991, Helfritz traveled to Morocco, where Bowles lived, to film. The following year, Helfritz also visited Guatemala, Chile and California.

Helfritz was unable to attend the 1995 celebration at Berlin’s Academy of the Arts, where the Hans Helfritz Archive was inaugurated, as he lay critically ill in a hospital in Duisburg. A mere day later, on October 21, 1995, the 93-year-old Helfritz died. The urn with his ashes was interred in Sant Agustí on Ibiza in February 1996.

“He who doesn’t remain inquisitive ends up failing much earlier in life, and ends up losing his love for life. One has to remain curious until the end.”