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Walter Arlen: Exiled Composer's Personal Works Are Rediscovered

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Walter Arlen with his first car (an Oldsmobile) in 1951 in Los Angeles.

In partnership with The Colburn School: Located in downtown Los Angeles, the institute provides the highest quality performing arts education at all levels of development in an optimal learning environment.

When asked how to define an 'exile composer,' I usually offer the example of Walter Arlen: a composer who wrote music that would not have been composed had he remained in his native Austria. Yet, he is now a composer who can be grouped with fellow American composers of a similar generation. His musical ethos may resemble the lyricism of Barber or Copland, but his choice of texts and his treatment of subjects dealing with identity and isolation are very far from the Positivism of many American composers. His work is the product of transplantation and forms a synthesis of Central European introspection and American generosity of melody. Neither his native Austria nor his adapted American homeland can lay exclusive claim to him.

Arlen was born as Walter Aptowitzer into a family of wealthy and successful merchants in Vienna in 1920. His grandparents, Leopold and Regine Dichter, had, in common with other Jewish entrepreneurs in Berlin, Liverpool, London and Paris, opened a department store in a working class district, thereby offering people of lower incomes the opportunities of choice, hitherto only available to the affluent middle classes. Rather than living in a fancy villa in leafy suburbs, the Dichters lived in apartments on the top floor of the store. They were never far from their working class customers and nearly always aware of their needs. Though the department stores Wertheim in Germany, Gallery Lafayette in France, Marks and Spencer's and John Lewis in Great Britain still exist, Dichters' Department Store disappeared after it was 'aryanized' by an emissary of Adolf Eichmann in 1938, resold and shut-down post-war before making any attempt to restore it to the original founding family.

Walter and his sister Edith as children outside their summer house in Burgenland.
Walter and his sister Edith as children outside their summer house in Burgenland.

The paterfamilias was Leopold Dichter (1869-1962), and Walter, with his sister Edith, were Leopold's grandchildren. By 1923, Leopold had installed a gramophone with speakers throughout the store offering prototype 'Muzak', with an employee, hidden in a small room, changing 78 rpm records every four and a half minutes. The recordings were selections of local hit songs from the 1920s, in a style that sat somewhere between American jazz and waltzes from a Viennese wine garden. It soon became obvious that the five-year-old Walter could sing any song he wanted in the correct key. Leopold was prescient enough to take Walter to Otto Erich Deutsch, the renowned Schubert scholar, for assessment. Deutsch identified absolute pitch in the youngster and suggested piano lessons.

Aptowitzer/Arlen was already determined to become a composer from a very young age. His closest school friend was the accomplished pianist Paul Hamburger, who later in Great Britain would become the teacher and accompanist to a generation of English singers such as Dame Janet Baker and Thomas Allen. Arlen was guided through the classical repertoire by his musically precocious friend and began to compose. His mother said musical studies could only be considered following the 'Matura' or Austria's high school diploma. He would have passed with the highest marks had the Nazis not annexed Austria only three months before the final examinations.

Walter Arlen hiking in the woods near Sauerbrunn, Austria, in 1935. From left, sister Edith Aptowitzer (changed later to Arlen); cousin Peter Silberstein; grandfather Leopold Dichter, founder of Warenhaus Dichter in Vienna; Walter (Aptowitzer) Arlen.
Walter Arlen hiking in the woods near Sauerbrunn, Austria, in 1935. From left, sister Edith Aptowitzer (changed later to Arlen); cousin Peter Silberstein; grandfather Leopold Dichter, founder of Warenhaus Dichter in Vienna; Walter (Aptowitzer) Arlen.

A description of the chaos and tragedy that followed would be an article in itself. After he completed exit plans for his parents and sister, Walter had to leave alone to the United States. This was made possible by an affidavit provided by his relatives, the Pritzker family, in Chicago. Months later, his father was released from a concentration camp, so both parents along with 11-year-old sister Edith could leave immediately for London, where they endured the war years. When Walter arrived in America, he was promptly informed that a name change was in order and 'Aptowitzer' became 'Arlen.'

Early years were difficult. In Chicago, Fanny Pritzker organized a job for Arlen at a shop that sold fur coats. There was no thought of music. From there the government assigned him to a factory job for the duration of the war. A co-worker, seeing his sadness, steered him to a psychiatrist who eventually told him he would need to find a way to compose, to relieve his depression and anxiety.

Walter Arlen on a Chicago street in 1940.
Walter Arlen on a Chicago street in 1940.

The composer Leo Sowerby took him as a pupil. In 1947, after Arlen won first prize in a song contest, the "father of the American Symphony," Roy Harris, asked Arlen to become his amanuensis. He lived with the Harris family as his assistant at three universities over a period of four years. If Harris taught Arlen little, Walter learned much through regular concerts for the radio and contact with all the important composers, conductors and soloists in the country. Arlen relocated to Los Angeles in 1951 for graduate studies in music at UCLA, which included a course in music criticism, taught by Albert Goldberg, music critic at the Los Angeles Times. Goldberg hired him out of the classroom as assistant music critic, a job he held for 30 years. In time, Arlen became the Times specialist in contemporary music. He regularly attended Monday Evening Concerts. Quite naturally, he became acquainted with the musical émigré circle: Toch, Korngold, Zeisl, Alma and Anna Mahler, Tedesco, Milhaud, the Schoenberg family. He attended every rehearsal, day or night, which involved Stravinsky.

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Established as a critic and leading voice in the Los Angeles music scene, Arlen stopped composing for decades. The avant-garde had developed into a very different direction from his own. How to review the atonal, dodecaphonic, or aleatoric works of others while writing in a more conventional style himself? He was aware he would be discredited as a composer writing in a style no longer within the modernist mainstream, while having to review modernist mainstream in order to earn a living.

His musical intelligence and integrity as a writer were widely recognized. In 1969, he was asked to found a music department at Loyola Marymount University. Arlen was now firmly anchored in local musical life and participated as critic, teacher, organizer of concerts and competitions. After retirement, he founded the Jose Iturbi Gold Medal Concert Series, which presented gifted young artists at the Cerritos Center for seven years.

From left, Walter Arlen, conductor Varujan Kojian and composer Aram Kachaturian at a private home in Beverly Hills in 1974.
From left, Walter Arlen, conductor Varujan Kojian and composer Aram Kachaturian at a private home in Beverly Hills in 1974.

It was his companion of many years, Howard Myers, who brought Arlen back to composition, when, in 1986 he presented Arlen with his own translation of poems by the Spanish Catholic mystic, St. John of the Cross. John was born to Jewish parents forced into conversion by the Spanish Inquisition. The poems resonated with Arlen on several meaningful levels. Suddenly, the way to composition reopened, as a way to express the pain and loss he had felt: Family members had been murdered in concentration camps; his mother, an uncle and a nephew had committed suicide in the United States, unable to come to terms with emotional pain and new lives in a strange country. All this, and loss of his homeland at an impressionable age, left him with his own inner wounds. His English, spoken and written with no trace of an accent, projected an image of complete adjustment and assimilation. Music again became a balm and Arlen resumed composing works, which he stashed away in a desk drawer with little thought of it ever being heard. On rare occasions, a friend such as Marni Nixon would sing some songs of his. He was encouraged by the admiration of Samuel Barber, Darius Milhaud, Carlos Chavez, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Luigi Dallapiccola, but made no effort to have his music performed.

Only in 2008, when a concert of Arlen works was performed in the Jewish Museum of Vienna, in front of Austrian politicians at a memorial event marking the 70th anniversary of the Nazi takeover of 1938 did the wider public become aware of Arlen as a composer. Six CDs of his music have subsequently been recorded, and the rest, much like Arlen's life, is history.

Special guest conductor James Conlon leads a celebration of Los Angeles composer Walter Arlen on October 28 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. The Poet In Exile features works by and dedicated to composer Walter Arlen, presented as part of the Colburn School's Ziering-Conlon Initiative, which preserves and celebrates the legacy of composers suppressed by the Nazi regime. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased from The Wallis or by calling 310-746-4000.

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