On July 31. 2020, The Composer Walter Arlen Turns 100
The composer, former music critic and teacher, Walter Arlen is 100 years old and like any centenarian, he has many stories to tell. Unlike many centenarians, he has lived through more than a few, (to quote Lenin) “weeks when decades happen”. The German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, printed a three page interview with Walter, which offers a wonderful basis for telling his story. Nevertheless, there are many things the journalist didn’t ask, or Walter didn’t volunteer that I hope this centenary page can fill in. In fact, the various tributes to Walter Arlen have all focused on different aspects of his life and work. For the journalist at Die Zeit, it was his link to the incredible diaspora of German speaking genius that settled on the West Coast of America. Walter, however, was a generation younger than the colossal names associated with that particular time and place and arrived just as many were leaving or dying. Thomas Mann, Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht would soon return to Europe; Lion Feuchtwanger, Heinrich Mann, Erich Korngold and Arnold Schönberg died soon thereafter. Walter met them, but these were not deep and intimate friendships. They couldn’t have been, simply because of the age difference and the point at which he arrived on the West Coast. Others have focused on Walter the Viennese icon – his old-fashioned Viennese dialect full of words fallen out of use; the significance of his family before being purged from the city’s collective consciousness. Some have even seen him as a gay liberationist, focusing on his six decade relationship with Howard Meyers. Few have been able to focus on his music.
And yet, his music grew out of all of these things. Even Stephanus Domanig’s wonderful documentary film, which included large amounts of Arlen’s music, did not have the space or time to link output to life. The profiles of Arlen in the Financial Times and Die Zeit have focused on Walter Arlen the supreme survivor, who in immigration escaped the Nazis and put up two fingers to his former homeland. Yet, the last sentence in the German Die Zeit inteview has Walter confessing that he’s never loved a city as much as he loves Vienna. I hope that this tribute can somehow bring these various, equally important and fascinating elements together.
The Beginning: 1920 – 1933
Walter was born in Vienna as Walter Aptowitzer on July 31. 1920. The name change to Arlen came after arriving in Chicago in 1939. Despite suspicions that a well-meaning uncle suggested the name while thinking of Hal Arlen, composer of The Wizard of Oz, as Walter Arlen explains further down, the Aptowitzer to Arlen change was coincidental. It was typical of Jewish refugees trying to integrate painlessly into new surroundings, taking a plausibly anglicised name that at least started with the same letter as their former names.
The Vienna of 1920 was not the Vienna of 1900, but it was still a city that could boast of vast quantities of home-grown talent, even genius. It could only have been in Vienna where Walter’s grandfather, suspecting that Walter had musical talent, took him to Otto Erich Deutsch, the noted Schubert Scholar, for assessment, and where Walter’s best friend at school, could be someone like Paul Hamburger, who later in England, would become the noted pianist, accompanist and teacher of such greats as Janet Baker.
Other cross-cultural bridges were unique to Arlen/Aptowitzer. He was born into a family who in common with many Jewish merchants across Europe had opened department stores in working class districts of large cities. Many still exist today such as Wertheim in Germany, Gallery Lafayette in Paris, John Lewis in England, Saks in America – most were founded in the 1890s at exactly the same time that Leopold Dichter founded Kaufhaus Dichter and located it in Vienna’s working class district of Ottakring. Unlike the other famous names still with us, the Dichter department store was Aryanised and subsequently torn down, forgotten until relatively recently – a story in itself that we shall return to. The top floor of the Art Deco building, incidentally, the only such building in Vienna, was the luxurious apartment of the patriarch with further apartments for other family members, such as Dichter’s daughter, and her family.
This led to an upbringing that was secure, wealthy and cultivated at home, but leaving Walter speaking the ambient working class German of Ottakring. Even today, I’ve noticed certain Viennese raise an eyebrow at Walter’s German, never suspecting that English is now his first language, which he commands better than most native speakers. It’s not such an unusual situation: the daughter of the composer Misha Spoliansky, known as Spoli Mills was an actress in London who spoke impeccable stage English along with the Berlin German of the gutter when things didn’t go her way. Even Marion Thorpe, the former Countess of Harewood who was born Marion Stein, daughter of Benjamin Britten’s publisher and editor, the Viennese Schoenberg pupil, Erwin Stein surprised me once when I visited her sumptuous home off Green Park in central London. While she was showing me a selection of letters between her father and Benjamin Britten, I had to take a call from a colleague in Vienna whereupon she too slipped from the cut-crystal English of the aristocracy into quite ordinary Viennese: “Oh, Sie reden mit’m Werner! Lassen’S’ihn schön Grüßen von mir!”
New lives and new languages never quite remove the past and in the case of Walter Arlen, it is one aspect that makes him particularly fascinating. The young Walter loved and trusted the working people of Vienna. The store only took 3% profit of anything they sold. They kept merchandise inexpensive so that locals could afford to shop. They offered all the glamour of Vienna’s inner-city department stores, including 48 display windows, while Dichter’s was the first to offer piped music throughout. It ran with the help of over 80 employees. Walter also remembers buying poultry from the poultry butcher and buying vegetables from the market. The family was fully integrated into local life.
The store was a success and even a landmark of Vienna in its day. Outside, the local market flourished while inside you could buy everything from tailored clothing, leather goods, cosmetics, to toys and kitchen supplies.
The family owned a large Villa on the Hungarian border surrounded by cherry and apricot orchards. Walter’s fondest memories are of summers spent playing with local children and enjoying the beauty of Eastern Austria – a very different landscape from what most people think of when they think of Austria. It wasn’t alpine, it was the start of the Pannonian Plain, better known as the Hungarian Plain. It was a region that until 1919 was the German-speaking province of Hungary where Franz Liszt was born. Upon reordering the new nations of the former Habsburg Empire after the First World War, it was conceded to Austria, just as Austrian South Tyrol went to Italy. By the year of Walter’s birth, the instability of lost empire threatened revolution everywhere. Walter told me of his nanny having to escape the forces of the Hungarian communist Béla Kun, from their home in Bad-Sauerbrunn shortly after Walter’s birth. By the mid-1920s until 1933, peace and relative stability meant summers in Bad-Sauerbrunn were the highlight of the year.
They were visited by the Pritzker family who were relatives in America and whose affidavits would save the lives of Walter and most of his family. After Austria’s annexation by Germany, the Dichter villa was taken over by the local Nazi party. It was set on fire when Soviet forces invaded so that files and records could not be used against them later. After the war, the local Bad Sauerbrunn council advised the Aptowitzer/Arlens that they were responsible for clearing the burnt rubble left by the former Nazi occupants. If they didn’t clear the site within a stated period of time, the local council would requisition it. With Walter and his family helpless in America and unable to contest the injustice, they could only watch as the council not only took possession, but then applied to the Marshall plan for funding to build an apartment block on the former grounds of the Dichter Villa. Walter’s best friend from these holiday summers was a German speaking Hungarian boy name Fülöp Lorant, known as “Lumpi”, who vanished without trace during the Second World War. To this day, Arlen goes through archives and files in the hope of finding out what may have happened to him.
THE TURBULENT YEARS 1933 – 1945
The years of Austro-Fascism (1933-1938) under Engelbert Dollfuß and Kurt Schuschnigg aren’t mentioned in conversations with Walter Arlen. He admits that he was one of three Jews at his “Gymnasium”, the high school in Vienna that educated academic pupils towards university or college. He also recalls the anti-Semitism he experienced from other pupils and one particularly nasty teacher, who lost no opportunity in letting Walter know that Jews were sub-human. But taken as a whole, Walter Aptowitzer was only thirteen when Austria’s democracy came crashing and seventeen when the Nazis marched in. Politics probably didn’t feature in his day-to-day dealings. He went to standing room at the opera with Paul Hamburger, they explored music together with Hamburger being able to play anything on the piano.
He enjoyed Summers in the family villa in the spa town of Bad-Sauerbrunn. The family was wealthy, respected and their department store the centre-point of one of Vienna’s largest working class districts. As he relates in his interview with Die Zeit, “where should we meet? In front of Dichters at the Brunnen Market” was an expression in daily life for most people in Vienna’s 16th District.
As already mentioned, Walter’s grandfather was one of the first people to introduce music played over speakers throughout the department store. In those days of four minute 78s, (called “Schellackplatten” in German) a girl or boy sat in a room and changed the records as required. They played popular songs. The department store employees would take the four or five year old Walter, put him on the counter and ask him to sing along. His ability to match the songs note for note, pitch for pitch, even when the piped-music wasn’t playing, impressed his grandfather who took him to Otto Erich Deutsch for assessment. He discovered that Walter had perfect pitch and advised that he should receive piano lessons. The piano teacher chosen by his grandfather was an old-school dragon who slammed knuckles and believed in pointless exercises, apparently unaware of her talented pupil. It turned Walter away from the piano as anything other than a sounding board for what he heard in his inner-ear. Music, however, was not a career option in the family of Leopold Dichter. He was welcomed to aspire to composition, but he needed to pass his university entrance examinations. Walter’s cousin, another inhabitant in the family complex, was the future advertising guru Ernest Dichter, famous for such concepts as “put a tiger in your tank” and later in America, considered “the father of motivational research”. Walter recalls him being the person who was in charge of the many window displays, a sullen older cousin, some thirteen years senior to Walter. Arlen recalled him eating a sandwich in the kitchen at lunchtime while studying and reading, unimpressed by his younger cousin.
Walter’s little sister Edith was accepted by the State Opera Ballet School where she studied with Grete Wiesenthal and in 1934, danced with Richard Tauber in the world premiere of Franz Lehár’s Guiditta. Pre-Nazi Vienna, even after the loss of Empire, was a city that was either full of talent, or at the very least, conducive to its creation.
Just as Austria was changed overnight from November 11th to November 12th 1918 when it lost its empire and became a republic, everything changed for Vienna’s Jews overnight from March 11th to 12th, 1938. Or to be more specific, over the weekend and week following from March 11th to 15th, 1938. Walter recalls the family had settled down for the Shabbat Friday evening supper. Walter was on the brink of sitting his final exams, yet couldn’t know that this particular Friday would be his last day at school. Though the candles were lit, Walter relates that the family while keeping Kosher, wasn’t religious and certainly not Orthodox. “Can you imagine how it hit the Jews in Austria in the middle of the Shabbat supper, hearing Schuschnigg announce over the radio that Austria was no more and that he was just allowing the Germans to march in and take over in order to avoid ‘shedding German blood’? His last words were ‘God save Austria’” The next day, as usual, Saturday morning, Walter’s mother went downstairs to help out in the leather goods’ department, only to be informed by the principal sales’ clerk, Frau Frank, that she “no longer had any right to be in the store”. Walter’s mother went back upstairs devastated that employees whom she enjoyed as friends had suddenly turned on her. Walter remembers her weeping inconsolably at the kitchen table.
He also recalled the prevalence of Nazi party members during the years when party membership was still illegal in Austria. He remembered going on a skiing holiday during the 1937 Christmas break with his Aunt Gretl. After the train pulled out of the station, everyone else in the compartment turned over their lapels to reveal Nazi stickpins. “Thankfully, nobody seemed to notice that we were Jews”.
The same Frau Frank from Leather Goods had slipped her SS friends the keys to the Dichter apartments upstairs. Walter can still recall the banging with rifle butts on the door at 2:00 AM. Nazi thugs burst in, pocketed the money and jewellery they found; beat up his father, stole his valuable stamp collection, (presumably the main reason for breaking in) and knocked Walter about before deciding to leave “the little Jew” alone, while they carted off Walter’s father to Gestapo headquarters in Vienna’s Karajan Street. The same weekend, Walter recalls walking down the Josephstädterstraße (a main artery in Vienna’s Eighth District) when he noticed crowds gathering at various intervals. When he got close, he saw that Jews had been forced into their finest clothes and made to scrub the pavement with toothbrushes. To his horror, one of the women on her knees was his Aunt Gretl.
On the following Monday, crowds gathered outside of the department store and shouted anti-Semitic obscenities. The family was still besieged in their apartment when a man arrived named Edmund Topolansky. He informed the family that he was the new Aryan owner of the store. No official purchase was necessary and the family was soon forced to relocate to a nearby pension with two rooms. Walter shared with his grandfather and Edith with their mother. The 450,000 Reich Marks in their bank account were taken over by Topolanky’s private bank. Documentation has now come to light that Topolansky and Adolf Eichmann had jointly planned the take-over of the department store and the family’s assets.
With Walter’s father now in Dachau, the family displaced, his mother had a total nervous breakdown. Whenever she was left unattended, she marched to the top of the stairwell with the intention of throwing herself over the railings. To get money out of their bank account held by Topolanksy, Walter had to meet Topolansky in the office of his private bank in the centre of Vienna and beg. Walking through the door, he recalls every visit being greeted with the remark, “And what does the little Jew boy want today?” Walter then had to request that enough of the family’s money was made available to purchase food and pay for the pension.
With his mother’s condition deteriorating, he spent his days walking around Vienna trying to find a sanatorium that took Jews. Eventually he found the Sanatorium Helia where his mother remained for the next five weeks. In the meantime, it was necessary to get the family out of Austria. He managed to visit his father in prison once before his deportation to Dachau and described the conditions as subhuman: prison cells so crowded it was impossible to sit or lie down; nor were there bathing or sanitary facilities. When his father saw him, he burst into tears. Weeks later, one of Walter’s aunts found the funds to pay for his release from Dachau. As so often the case under such circumstances, he had hardly returned to Vienna, when he was rounded up by one of the frequent “Jew hunting” raids that took place, and sent to Buchenwald.
Walter Aptowitzer/Arlen recalled the November pogroms in 1938: “For some reason, on the night of November 9, 1938, I left our lodgings in the Brunnengasse, walked to Thaliastrasse, turned right, continued to the end of Thaliastrasse, turned left, and went up to the top of the hill to Steinhof, with its view over the city. I saw red areas reflected on the clouds in the sky. I had no idea what was burning. It was below freezing. During a three hour walk, I did not see one person. I felt something was happening, but I did not know what it was. I did not know more than 20 synagogues would be burned in the 21 districts of Vienna within two days. I did not know the Hubertempel, not far from our apartment on the third floor of the Dichter Department Store, had been destroyed. It was the only synagogue in the 16th district of Vienna, Ottakring, built on land donated by Baron Kuffner, founder and owner of the Ottakringer Brewery on Ottakringer Strasse. Kristallnacht, two Nocturnes originally played without pause, which I composed in memory of this atrocity, reflects my state of mind when looking back: apprehension, anxiety, quiet prayerfulness. In No. 2, wisps of Schubert songs drift through briefly, as though airborne. This, in Vienna, the city of Schubert!”
The Pritzker family, though not blood relatives, had spent many a happy summer holiday with the Dichter/Aptowitzer families in their villa in the Spa town of Bad Sauerbrunn. Though not yet the phenomenally wealthy family they were to become after the war, they still had the funds to provide affidavits.
Visas were issued, but Walter’s father remained in Buchenwald and his mother, grandparents and sister were reluctant to leave without him. The decision was taken that Walter should leave before his visa expired. On the 14. of March, 1939, the day before his visa was to expire, he boarded a train for Trieste where he sailed over the next two weeks on the Vulcania to New York. He didn’t know if he would ever see his family again and wept as the train pulled out of Vienna’s South Station.
Arlen remembers having to obtain the necessary documentation in order to leave the country. The former Rothschild palace had been turned into a centre where all Jews trying to flee had to go for clearance. As Austria no longer existed, Walter needed to obtain a German passport in order to leave the country. Because of the crowds, Walter went the night before his appointment. It snowed and when day broke, an SS man walked down the line of people singling out elderly, frail orthodox Jews. He gave them snow shovels and told them to get to work. Walter Arlen recalls. “One old man couldn’t or wouldn’t and simply leaned on his shovel. The SS man shouted abuse, and when he didn’t respond, the SS man hit him with the butt of his rifle. Blood went everywhere. Once the old man lay unconscious on the ground, the SS guard cocked his rifle and shot him.” Walter, only 18 years old at this point, remembers the horror of a bright blue winter sky, the white snow and the red blood. These traumas would follow him throughout his life.
Leopold Dichter’s niece, Fanny, had married the Chicago based Abram Nicolas Pritzker. Upon arrival in New York, Walter travelled by bus to Chicago where he was met by relatives. As Arlen himself explained:
“As soon as I arrived in Chicago, Fanny, who was extremely concerned and supportive of us, her close relatives, whisked me off to Walzer and Company, her furrier on Michigan Avenue, and told them to give me a job. I worked for $12 a week until the war with Japan broke out in December, 1941. I was then assigned to a ‘War-Effort’ job. Like many refugees, I agreed without question when told to ‘Americanize’ my name. In my “Chicago” family, psychoanalyst Dr. Erwin O. Krausz, the guru familias, (already living in Chicago) made something of a hobby of ‘Anglicizing’ names. Silberstein became Silton. Aptowitzer became Arlen. Neither of us had heard of Harold Arlen, who was born Hyman Arluck, in 1905 in Buffalo, to parents who had emigrated from Lithuania. Harold took the first part of Arluck and the end sound (more or less) of his mother’s maiden name, Orlin, to get Arlen. Harold Arlen composed Over the Rainbow, Stormy Weather and 500 other songs.”
As Arlen explains above, he was given a job for $12 a week at Walzer, cleaning, hanging and packing fur coats. With America’s entry into the war in 1941, he was placed in a chemical factory, but the stress was so debilitating he suffered physical symptoms, losing hair and falling into a dangerous depression. It was a job he wasn’t suited to, working in a language he was still having to master and not knowing the fate or whereabout of his family.
Unknown to Walter, his father had managed to get out of Buchenwald and together with his mother, her father and Walter’s sister Edith, they escaped to London, where Paul Hamburger was able to help them find accommodation. Upon arrival in the UK, Walter’s father was interned on the Isle of Man. His grandmother was less lucky, murdered in Treblinka by the Nazis in 1942. The Dichter/Aptowitzer family was bombed out of their home three times and spent nights in London Underground stations.
All of these things were unknown to Walter until after the war. In the meantime, a colleague of Walter’s in the chemical factory, only referred to as Bill and “a man with a heart of gold” had a sister who managed to place Arlen with a German-speaking psychiatrist named Dr. König. Arlen continued therapy for a further three years, concluding that he needed to study music if there was any hope of preserving his sanity. Somehow, he managed private lessons with Leo Sowerby, possibly America’s most famous church musician and today remembered as the first organist of Washington’s National Cathedral. He notably premiered Schoenberg’s organ works in America and his best known pupil was the American composer Ned Rorem.
FROM REFUGEE TO IMMIGRANT TO AMERICAN
Arlen’s luck was changing. The end of the war and his family’s arrival in the United States meant he could take the opportunity of living and working with the American composer Roy Harris and his pianist wife Johana. Arlen had won a competition leading to this unique placement. The next four years were spent travelling the United States with Roy and Johana Harris and bringing Arlen in contact with all of the people who mattered in American music. He became Harris’s amanuensis, transcribing manuscripts in his impeccable notation. The score of Harris’s most famous work, the Symphony no. 3, lodged at the Library of Congress, is in Arlen’s hand.
Walter Arlen on Song of Songs:
“Although numerous studies have been devoted to the Song of Songs, no single view of it, no one interpretation, has received general acceptance. Nor has any interpretation thus far proposed dealt adequately with its entire contents, for virtually all accounts have required either that certain features be left out or that other features be assumed. Disregarding the several interpretations which have variously been attached to the poem, Jewish religious leaders began the transformation by seeing in the maiden the symbol of Israel and by taking Solomon to mean God; the Christians provided the classic form of the allegory by changing God and Israel to Christ and the Church. Leroy Waterman [1875-1972] went back to the oldest available source material and came up with a new translation, based on extensive linguistic and historical research. Waterman’s translation is notable not only for poetic beauty and for historical and linguistic accuracy, but also, in contrast to the version in the Bible, for its coherent meaning. This coherence of meaning is forceful enough to enable him to refer to his translation as a Dramatic Poem. The immediate appeal of Waterman’s poem, to the ear and to the senses, facilitated the composition of the work by providing me with spontaneous musical responses which only remained to be worked out and reconciled with the dictates of the textual and musical form. What emerged was a composition that warranted the subtitle ‘Lyric Cantata’ denoting both the character and the form of the work.”
Following from his time with Roy Harris, Arlen decided to become a music critic and registered for a course taught at UCLA by Albert Goldberg, critic at the Los Angeles Times. It would be the beginning of Arlen’s career as a music journalist. Goldberg announced one day in class that Stravinsky was premiering a new work and he didn’t want to review it. Goldberg was not a notable fan of what then passed for “new music”. He handed the review to Arlen who objected that he was still uncomfortable writing in English. Goldberg’s response was “You’ll do fine”.
From that point, Arlen reviewed contemporary music concerts, which in Los Angeles during these years were surprisingly frequent with various initiatives across the city. This was a time when Schoenberg and Stravinsky carried on a strained co-existence. They were only two among a diaspora of European exiles, all in varying degrees of bitter conflict and friendship with one another. As a generation younger than most of the established writers and musicians, it would be fanciful to say that Walter was a “friend” of people such as Thomas Mann, Erich Korngold or Arnold Schoenberg. On the other hand, he did know them, and they knew him and knew he wrote for the LA Times . Through Anne Mahler, the daughter of Alma and Gustav, he was further integrated into the circle of Central Europeans living on the Pacific coast.
Perhaps understandably, this is the aspect of Walter’s life that fascinates German journalists. He is a link who connects today’s generation with these historic names from the past. Regardless of age differences or degrees of friendships, he nevertheless, still managed to know and be invited into the homes of the Feuchtwangers, the Tochs, the Manns, the Korngolds, Bruno Walter, Erich Zeisl and of course Stravinsky. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote what can only be thought of as a love letter to Walter called Quartettsatz auf den Namen Walter Arlen. It’s a wonderful, lyrical work that Arlen found one day pushed through his letterbox. The official reason offered by Arlen is the Quartettsatz was composed in gratitude for a favourable biography entry he had written for an American music dictionary. The un-official explanation hardly needs elaborating. It’s clear from the opening bars.
It was around this time that a cycle of songs by Walter was performed at a meeting of the National Association of American Composers and Conductors. Walter, in his interview in die Zeit mentions: “it was on the 11th of May, 1958, soon to be the best day of my life.” Howard Myers, who would become Arlen’s life-long companion, had come along as the guest of another composer and after the performance, told Arlen how much he loved his songs. Arlen asked if he wanted to accompany him to the concerts he reviewed. News-copy had to be filed before midnight, meaning he needed to start writing immediately after the performance if a review was to appear the following day. He needed someone who could drive him to the LA Times’ offices while he was still writing.
At the time, such same-sex relationships were dangerous and professionally precarious, even in places as artistic and liberal as Los Angeles. Nevertheless, the relationship must have been an open secret. From what I’ve gathered, Walter included Howard when attending official functions, concerts, invitations and events. Howard was tacitly acknowledged and accepted as Walter’s partner.
Walter Arlen on the cycle “Songs of Love and Yearning”
“The Five Songs of Love and Yearning hold a special place in my life. I composed from the time I was about ten years old. Early on in my career as music critic for the Los Angeles Times, around 1952, I resolved to give up composing. When I came close to retirement and took a sabbatical in 1986 [aged 66], I happened to read these five poems by St John of the Cross [1542-1591], as sensitively translated from the Spanish by Howard Myers [1932- ]. They changed my life. Immediately I started sketching the first song (Ah, Who Can Cure Me). I completed it within a few days and went on to set the other four poems. I remember to this day how easy and spontaneous it all was. ‘Five Songs of Love and Yearning’ is my title. Some have thought it curious that I, a Jew, composed music to poems written by a Catholic saint. Surprise! I learned the parents of St John of the Cross were Jews who converted to Christianity during the Inquisition to escape being burned at the stake.” Walter has since explained that these were songs that brought him back to composing after a long hiatus while writing reviews. Howard Myers suggested the texts to Arlen, having made a new translation, in the hope of bringing him back to composition. He added the intriguing information that St. John of the Cross wore a woman’s mask when writing what can only be described as love songs to Jesus, underlining the subtle beauty of a love two men can have for one another.
The Viennese Lester family were Roman Catholic but had converted from Judaism. They were wealthy philanthropists and art collectors and well known in Los Angeles. They, like Walter Arlen, had fled the Nazi terror. Despite conversion to Christianity by Conrad Lester’s parents, they were still vulnerable to the inflexible Nuremberg “race” laws. Conrad Lester was a music lover and donated towards building a department of music at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He had long decided this was a project for his friend Walter Arlen. Out of nothing, but the financial support of Conrad Lester, Walter established a credible music department with a performance venue.
From 1986, Walter and Howard lived a quiet life, friendly with the great and good of Los Angeles, living in Santa Monica, down the block from the architect Frank Gehry. He continued composing, but as he admitted, composition was more self-therapy than something he intended as a lasting legacy. As he humorously pointed out to me in conversation, “I was a gay Jew teaching music in a Roman Catholic university. I needed to compose to help me come to terms with things.”
But it wasn’t just issues of work and sexuality, it was the loss of family members, friends, the inevitable suicide of his mother, which he tried un-successively to prevent. It was the long reach of Nazi evil that resulted in the suicide of countless others who couldn’t cope with new lives in new surroundings, such as his cousin Michi/Micky. But of course, there were many others. Suicide was rife with the annexation of Austria in March 1938, but it didn’t completely cease as an option after immigration. Just the perils and stresses of living in a strange country killed. The composer Ernst Toch lost relatives who were merely trying to cross the wide streets of Los Angeles. He also had nightmares of having to explain how dangerous life was to his Vienna rabbi. (Toch kept a dream notebook while undergoing therapy in America). By this time, Walter Arlen spoke English without an accent; he wrote as fluently as any native and outwardly, he seemed the model of the well-adjusted émigré turned citizen. Inwardly, many of his compositions give us another story altogether.
A MUSICAL LEGACY Legacy: 2007 – 2020
This is where I, unwittingly, entered the picture. As music curator at Vienna’s Jewish Museum, I had decided to mount exhibitions on a number of Viennese “Hollywood” composers, including Eric Zeisl, Ernst Toch, Hanns Eisler and Erich Korngold. Each exhibition inevitably led to trips to Los Angeles where generously, Randy Schoenberg had occasionally been able to offer temporary accommodation in his family’s guesthouse. I already knew the Schoenberg family from my time at Decca Records when as initiator, director and producer of the series “Entartete Musik”, I recorded Zeisl’s Requiem Ebraico. But that’s another story.
It was during one such visit in 2007 when I was invited to dinner to the private home of Bernard Faustenhammer, a member of the Austrian consulate in Los Angeles. It was there I met Walter Arlen and his sister, Edith Wachtel, though at the time, I didn’t realise they were brother and sister and assumed they were an elderly married couple. The next evening, I was invited to dinner by Barbara Zeisl-Schoenberg where she had assembled a collection of former refugee Viennese, including Maria Altmann, who was in the process of having her Klimt paintings returned by the Austrian government and Anni Lampi, a Jewish swimmer who refused to participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics because of the Nuremberg Laws. Also present was Walter Arlen and this time, he was accompanied by Howard Meyers. I was living in Randy Schoenberg’s guesthouse and staying for the better part of a month. Walter and Howard instantly offered their connections, services and help in getting into all the archives I needed and meeting the people who could assist my research.
Towards the end of my visit, Howard approached me without Walter. This was unusual since the two were inseparable. Howard had deposited Walter somewhere and sped over to speak to me in private. He explained that Walter composed but had specifically instructed Howard not to tell me. Howard, however, felt strongly that Walter should not be worried about the quality of his work and he asked if I could pop by to look at some compositions and offer an opinion. Even this was tricky, so another ruse had to be created to get Walter out of the house long enough for Howard to organise things to show me. When I arrived, Howard had neatly stacked each work in separate piles on their dining room table. There were a lot of little piles, far too many for me to look at and assess “prima vista”, but I picked up one or two pieces and noticed that A) they were tonal and instantly lyrical; B) they were unusually well written by someone who understood their craft; C) they had few, if any markings of expression or tempo.
I was no longer a full time recording producer and certainly couldn’t promise anything, so kept my council, told Howard I thought the works were absolutely legitimate and I would see what, if anything, I could organise. I then telephoned the director of Vienna’s Jewish Museum, Dr. Karl Albrecht-Weinberger and told him the story of Walter Arlen, the department store, so forgotten that even the Jewish Museum didn’t know about it. I also explained that Walter Arlen composed. Dr. Albrecht-Weinberger told me that if I thought the music was strong enough, of course we could put on a mini-concert at the museum. This news delighted Howard, and of course, Walter as well, once he got past the surprise.
But stars were aligning in other places as well. The following summer, Edith, Walter and Howard came to Vienna. The questions surrounding restitution and the department store had, in Walter’s mind, never been satisfactorily resolved. In 1947, Topolansky was charged with various crimes and shot himself before having to appear in court. His widow’s lawyer wrote a letter to Walter and his family in California threatening to have them arrested if they so much as attempted to return to Austria and reclaim the department store. At the time, it was impossibly expensive to travel from California to Vienna, and having arrived, there was no guarantee that courts might have found in favour of Walter and his family. The property was sold to another notorious “aryaniser” named Oskar Seidenglanz who then sold it to developers. In any case, Walter was not particularly enthusiastic about running a department store and decided that his life was now in Los Angeles. Post-war Austria was poor, isolated and resentful in the early 1950s. Not everyone decided to return, and the trauma of loss, the hatefulness and mendacity of defeated Austrians and the inability to obtain any degree of justice, simply made it easier for Arlen to accept fate and remain in America.
The department store was re-sold for demolition to a property developer. Since demolition was not something that could simply take place from one day to the next, the new owner approached an artists’ community living in Ottakring and asked if they wished to use the building as an atelier location. The artist brothers, Roland and Richard Schütz along with the late Eva Brunner-Szabo had begun researching the building. Through their research, they discovered the families and the history behind it. Eva Brunner-Szabo contributed a chapter on the Dichter family in a book on the Jews who lived in Austria’s Burgenland. Eventually, they even managed to discovered the addresses of Walter Arlen and his sister Edith Wachtel in Los Angeles.
What is somewhat uncanny, was unknown to The Schütz brothers and Eva Brunner-Szabo, was the fact that Walter, Howard and Edith were actually in Vienna at this point. Walter had tried to find out what was happening to the department store and the entitlement issues surrounding it, and asked if I would join him in a visit to the 16th District. When we arrived to where the building stood, we only found a hole in the ground. The demolition had taken place and hopes of further claims by Walter and Edith were more or less closed down as developers began building a large apartment block on the site. Edith was philosophical, shrugged her shoulders and took the next flight back to Los Angeles. Once she arrived, she found a letter from the Schütz brothers and Eva Brunner-Szabo. They wanted to hold an arts’ festival in the area, which they would call the “Dichter-Herbst” or the “Dichter-Autumn Festival”. For the past three years, artists and musicians had used the shell of the Dichter department store as a vast complex of ateliers and studios, attracting artists and musicians from across the country to set up shop in Ottakring.
Just as the Jewish Museum was re-discovering the Dichter family in the person of Walter Arlen, the artists of Vienna’s 16th district had discovered the legacy of the family by taking over the abandoned Department Store as a massive installation venue. They held solemn ceremonies at its demolition and videoed its last minutes having filmed all the rooms inside first. A local councillor named Heinrich Schneider even helped create a plaza called the “Walter Arlen and Edith Wachtel Plaza” within the large Yppen Platz Square, in the heart of the Ottakring District.
Dr. Albrecht-Weinberger contacted me around this time and asked if I really considered the music strong, and if so, would it be justified to present it at a special ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Nazi annexation of Austria on March 13th 2008. The general public would not be invited: Only the great and good from Austria’s Parliament. I crossed my fingers and confirmed the story of Walter and his family combined with performances of his music would be a powerful event.
I immediately contacted my colleague and good friend Prof Gerold Gruber, a teacher of theory and music analysis, who also runs what is now the exil.arte Center, (where I, as co-founder of exil.arte, work as Senior Researcher) and asked if he could organise performers from the latest batch of young graduates. Scores were ordered and Performances were prepared. Walter was spectacularly unhappy with how things were going. He was unhappy with the young musicians trying their best to understand what he intended. There weren’t tempo or performance indications and even phrasing was left to the imagination. Walter simply snapped that “any good musicians should be able to sense what I meant”. In fact, it was obvious that Walter had composed without any intention of performance. This was music as personal therapy and it was painful for him to hear them in the open.
When it came to the concert, I was asked to interview him about his family, his life, his experience during the weekend of the annexation and his life afterwards. He clearly wanted to sink into the ground and pushed the microphone further and further away. His voice became increasingly quieter, and it was clear that everyone (except him) was waiting for the next piece of music. With each work, his head sank lower and his unhappiness was visible to everyone. He told me later he was sure the public was hyper-critical and taking the inadequacies of the performances as inadequacies in his composition. In truth, there were no inadequacies in either, and this became apparent at the end of the concert when he found himself enveloped by politicians of the centre left and the centre right. Walter Arlen as a composer, and the Dichter Family as a former Viennese dynasty had been re-discovered. The president of Austria’s Parliament, the late Barbara Prammer made sure that Walter’s talent and accomplishments would not go unrecognised in today’s Austria.
Gerold Gruber and I decided the music was strong enough to deserve recording, and incredibly, a young audio engineer had offered to record the concert without a fee on the basis of Walter’s interview on local radio. “When I heard his old-fashioned Viennese and listened to what Walter Arlen said, I could only hope to meet him and if there weren’t recording facilities available, I would offer mine for free” said Georg Burdicek. It was a stroke of luck, since this favour would be paid back with an assignment that would bring Burdicek the recognition and success his talent and generosity deserved. (But, that too, is a different story). Gerold Gruber scraped, borrowed, begged and somehow got the finances together. I approached some singers I knew who were young and willing to take the opportunity. The baritone Christian Immler asked if we could have Danny Driver as accompaniment. This was luxury pianistic casting and with Rebecca Nelsen as our pitch perfect soprano, we had a 2 CD project ready to record.
This article is already grown longer than any other on this site. It’s worth ending with the observation that “the rest is history”. Danny Driver wasn’t available for the subsequent four CDs of Arlen works, but the equally talented Daniel Wnukowski stepped in and understood Walter’s intentions perfectly. He went on to record Arlen’s piano works. Walter has lectured and been fêted across the globe. Conductor James Conlon has conducted his works; a wonderfully moving documentary film has been made by Stephanus Domanig called “Walter Arlen’s First Century”.
His orchestral cantata Song of Songs has been performed in Vienna’s Konzerthaus with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and again in Israel. In his 99th year, he was approached by Wolfgang Brandstetter to compose the film score for the newly discovered print of the 1924 silent film Stadt ohne Juden – City Without Jews, based on the novel by Hugo Bettauer. Wolfgang Brandstetter’s film-composer son, Michael Brandstetter joined Walter in putting the sound track together. It will be premiered on July 31st, Walter Arlen’s 100th birthday.
Walter is the quintessential “Exile Composer”. No Austrian composer in Austria, or American composer of Walter Arlen’s generation could, or would have writtem works similar to those by Walter Arlen. With his unique selection of texts, these are works that could only have been written by an Austrian composer coming to terms with a difficult and awkward life in America.
He remains forever grateful to America for saving his life, while admitting that he never loved a city as much as he loved Vienna. In his three movement piano work called Arbeit macht frei, Arlen calls the second movement “Metronome” and instructs the pianist to set the metronome at increasing rates. No notes on the piano are heard, only the beat of the metronome. It soon becomes apparent that this is a representation of the heart beats of people in the gas chambers. It’s a realistic representation that only gradually dawns on the listener and is all the more chilling as a result. The third movement is called “Schlummerlied” – a lullaby – in memory of all the family members and friends he lost and continues to mourn as he enters his next century.
Michael – thank you for this brilliant biographical sketch and for all the music in the posting, to which I shall return often. As you know, I was born in Vienna and fled with my parents to Shanghai, thence Melbourne Australia, and in my case to New York. The descriptions of life in pre-war Vienna so closely mirror that of my family, though by no means were they as rich and famous. But they were well-off enough to enjoy the cultural delights of the city and imbue them in me – more so than in any of my contemporaries among the “refugee” families I knew growing up. I can also empathize with the descriptions of the post-war traumas the families experienced. So this was quite a trip down a kind of memory lane and the family pictures show the kinds of “ponims” I saw all around me in my youth in Shanghai and Australia. The pictures of Walter and Edith were particularly appealing and I knew I would get on well with them. It was gratifying to read that he has had such a long, happy and successful life and that finally the “city of his dreams” has made and is making serious amends.
I’ll close by wishing that you’d make a study of Vienna’s pre-war popular music esp. cabaret culture, which was so dominated by Jewish artists, who vanished “im Augenblick” after the Anschluss. Again, the works of some of them are making a come=back, as I noted when my wife and I visited Vienna as guests of the Jewish Friends of Vienna in 2014
More wonderful portraits please.
Just from a cursory reading of the photo captions, it’s Czesław Miłosz (not “Miklos) and Heitor Villa Lobos (not “Hektor”).
thanks for these corrections – actually, I’m not sure how these slipped me by, and I’m glad you spotted them. I probably wrote the photo captions more quickly than the text, for which I was more careful. I hope you return and read the whole article when you have time and interest.
thanks for the nice group photo with Dr. Miklos Rozsa
The photo “Walter Arlen in Chicago ca. 1939” is most probably not in Chicago. Behind him is the Queens Boulevard viaduct in Sunnyside, Queens, New York City where the IRT Flushing (#7) runs. I would say this Google Street View approximates this view.
Thanks for this – you’re the second person to make this observation – the first was when I first posted the picture on an earlier article. I went back to Walter and asked only for him to confirm that it was definitely Chicago. Nevertheless, the photo you’ve linked leaves little room for doubt. In that case, it could only have been taken immediately after he arrived in NY since he went straight to Chicago after his ship pulled into from Trieste. He didn’t return to NY for several years afterwards, when he would have been older.
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Thank you very much for this very moving article. I am sorry to find it too late to wish Mr Arlen a very happy birthday. My mother and her family were Viennese, my uncle was a promising young pianist when they were forced to leave. I have recently published a novel about the Vienna of that period. If appropriate, I would very much like to send it to you or to Mr. Arlen, or both. The name of the novel is “All That Lingers.”
My website might also be of interest as it has a great number of videos and audio recordings.
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Thanks for posting this article. I’ve just found some letters written to my mother from Walter Arlen during a few months in 1950, when she was an undergraduate in Nashville, Tennessee. I didn’t recognize his name, so I searched and found your article. My mother must have met Walter in May 1950 at a recital featuring his and Roy Harris’ compositions, according to the “Program of American Music” that she saved. His letters from the next few months were on hotel stationery and described a hectic touring schedule in the midwest, Chicago and New York. It was a pleasure to find his story on your blog and I’ll enjoy reading it to my mother, who is now 92.
What a wonderful bit of information. For some reason, Walter has never gone into great detail about the years with Roy Harris. Perhaps with your mother’s permission, you might scan the letters and send them to us in Vienna to place with the rest of our Walter Arlen collection. My email address is
He has told me these were hectic years, he was always on the road and he met EVERYONE who was ANYONE in American music, but he has never gone into further detail and we have no documentation from the period of his life. Thank you so much for getting in touch.