Jewish Music Identity and the Crisis of Exile: Part 3 “DAS HOHELIED” AND “THE SONG OF SONGS: A CASE STUDY

František Kupka: The Song of Songs, c. 1904

Previous entries on Jewish Music Identity and the Crisis of Exile presented two aspects of secular Jews turning to composition to express an identity they believe was foisted upon them. In part 1, Hitler Made us Jews, we saw how Jews tried to make the best out of a terrible situation. Today we would say, “they embraced” the negative identity with which the Nazis had branded them in a defiant show of cultural solidarity. In part 2, the Prodigal Son (and Daughter), Jewish composers, in some cases reluctantly, attempted to express a Jewish identity in universalist terms, as a means of inclusivity, and reaching across lines of religion and (as was then claimed), “race”. Music written to express Jewish worship, identity or even Zionist aspirations took on the language of “Everyman”. If Part 1 was about Jews embracing difference, Part 2 was about embracing equivalency. How difference and equivalency were expressed is the subject of Part 3. We take as a case study two composers of identical age and background, and look at how they expressed their sense of Jewish-self by musically setting one of the most characteristic books within the Hebrew Bible. The two composers represent either the embrace of “otherness” or “sameness” and do so by setting nearly identical texts, though in very different versions. Both composers were born in 1920 in Vienna and would have been in their late teens when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. They would have experienced hatred and exclusion personally at school and still have vivid memories of the officially sanctioned Nazi pogroms in November 1938.  

Walter Arlen, 1920- and Robert Fürstenthal, 1920-2017

Walter Arlen (né Aptowitzer 1920, Vienna) and Robert Fürstenthal (1920, Vienna – 2017, La Jolla, San Diego) provide contrasting portraits of Jewish return. Born within a month of each other and only a few miles apart, they both ended up in Southern California. Fürstenthal died in 2017 in San Diego before he could meet Walter Arlen, who turned 100 in July 2020. The stories are remarkable for many of their shared experiences but also for their shared reactions, manifested in very different ways, years after fleeing Vienna.

Salomon, Leopold and Isidor Dichter with Walter Aptowitzer (later, Arlen) as a child in the middle

Arlen was raised in proletarian Ottakring in Vienna’s sixteenth district. The family, however, was not struggling or poor. Arlen’s grandfather, Leopold Dichter, in common with other Jewish entrepreneurs across Europe in the 1890s, opened a department store in a working class neighbourhood, bringing bourgeois aspiration to people who could not afford the expensive shops in the city centre. They did this by taking only a three percent mark-up and innovating means of making shopping easier and more enjoyable. One of these innovations was piping music throughout the store. The young Walter Aptowitzer could reproduce the piped songs perfectly, alerting Leopold Dichter that his grandson may be gifted. The store had long become a focal point in the neighbourhood, located in Vienna’s only Art Deco building. Leopold Dichter and his extended family had grown very wealthy in a city that was not only Catholic and deeply anti-Semitic, but also resentful and susceptible to the propaganda that Jews had been instrumental in toppling the old order.

Vienna’s IX District, the Alsergrund with Alserstrasse shown on this postcard from the 1920s

Fürstenthal, on the other hand, was born and raised in middle-class Alsergrund, in Vienna’s ninth district, the first port of call for Jewish families who had grown successful enough to re-locate from the “Matzos-Island” second district. Alsergrund was not only the home of Sigmund Freud, but any number of successful Jewish doctors, lawyers and academics. Both Arlen and Fürstenthal intended studying music and both were exceptionally talented. Fürstenthal’s family would never allow him to make music his principal focus and insisted any music instruction he may have managed, following a successful audition at Vienna’s Academy or Conservatory, would need to be secondary to his university education. He was an accomplished pianist, composer and improviser while Arlen, who by his own admission was no pianist, aspired solely towards composition.

Walter Aptowitzer/Arlen as Franz Schubert in a school play, 1928

During the 1920s, Vienna was still a city of musical riches. Arlen was assessed at the age of five by the Schubert scholar Otto Erich Deutsch who concluded that the little boy had perfect pitch and the makings of a musician.  As a teenager, Arlen/Aptowitzer’s best friend was the pianist Paul Hamburger, later to become a prominent teacher, accompanist and mentor in the UK to the singers Dame Janet Baker, Elisabeth Søderstrøm and Heather Harper. The young Fürstenthal loved accompanying singers, one of whom was the father of his future wife Françoise Farron (née Franziska Trinczer). Nether Arlen nor Fürstenthal could finish their “Matura”, the exams that would allow them to go to university. Neither could consider auditioning for the Music Academy where they might have studied with Joseph Marx, Franz Schmidt or Richard Stöhr, the latter, as a Jew, also having to flee Nazi Austria.

Image of the Dichter Department Store in Ottakring, Vienna

Fürstenthal was raised in a family that had left the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, or Vienna’s Jewish Community. He was not raised Jewish and according to his wife, had no sense of personal identification as a Jew. Arlen, on the other hand, was raised in a family of Jewish, non-orthodox, traditionalists, only observing the most central high holidays and rituals. Arlen’s mother, for example, worked in the Leather Goods Department on Saturdays. For both, being Jewish was a question of religious confession, not identity. Inevitably, both lost family members and friends, while surviving relatives and friends were scattered to the four corners of the globe. (Fürstenthal’s future wife and former Viennese girlfriend, found refuge in Geneva where she married and became a microbiologist) Arlen’s losses were close enough to leave lasting psychological damage. His grandmother was murdered in Treblinka, while the long arm of the Third Reich resulted in his mother and other relatives and close friends committing suicide years later, unable to cope with a new life they never wanted.

Walter Arlen with his grandfather, Leopold Dichter 1940 in America

Arlen arrived in America in 1939 and after the war-years spent working in a chemical factory, finally managed to study composition with Leo Sowerby, ultimately winning a competition to live with the composer known as “the father of the American symphony”, Roy Harris and his wife, the Canadian pianist Johana. Arlen became the amanuensis of Roy Harris and musical assistant to the family over the next four years. After his MA at UCLA, he became a music critic at the Los Angeles Times. Along the way, he also studied composition more formerly with his younger friend, Lukas Foss.

Naval Base in San Diego

Fürstenthal, like Arlen made it to America, though Fürstenthal’s route took him to England first. In America, he served in the army as a translator and afterwards, he studied accountancy. He married and was eventually appointed chief auditor of the American Navy in San Diego. Music did not return into his life until 1974 when he and his first love, Franziska, now Françoise, were able to reunite following the failure of their respective first marriages. Fürstenthal had none of the gold-plated music instruction that Arlen received. He was, however, inordinately talented and resourceful. Emboldened by marriage with Françoise, the only woman he claimed to have ever loved, he decided he would return to composition by teaching himself using the works of composers he admired. He purchased piles of scores by Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler and stylistically copied them before slowly developing his own musical variant. Ultimately, he became so skilled that his best works appeared to many as the equal of any of Vienna’s fin de siècle composers.

Reiselied – Song of Travel Rafael Fingerlos, Baritone; Sascha El Mouissi piano: Toccata Classics

As his compositions were solely for the pleasure of himself, his wife and their circle of friends, he was not remotely bothered that his creative voice remained in the period of music he loved most. At the time of his death, he had composed over five hundred songs, nearly all of which were in German. He also composed copious quantities of chamber music, performed by friends with himself on the piano.

Piano Trio Op. 65 (first movement): John Lenehan, piano; Sarah Trickey, Violin; Timothy Lowe, Cello; Toccata Classics

It was becoming increasingly clear that Fürstenthal’s works were more than mere epigones of a foregone age. These were works ingrained with timeless individuality. Their quality was such that with the release of CDs on the Toccata Classics label, few critics even mentioned their “inappropriate” adherence to an out-dated compositional language. In any case, Fürstenthal was writing for himself, his wife and his friends and had no inkling that his music might be heard beyond these limited circles. As he told me in an interview, “wenn ich komponiere, bin ich wieder in Wien“– “When I compose, I find myself back in Vienna”.

Society photo with Walter Arlen top left behind the sofa: also present Roger Wagner, Ernest Kanitz, Miklós Rózsa, Lillian Stueber, Hector Villa-Lobos; hostess Mina Coe with society ladies of Los Angeles Nan Merriman and Vera Jean Vary

Arlen’s life took a very different turn. As a respected music critic, he was known to everyone in the Los Angeles music scene. He was one of the few to attend Arnold Schönberg’s funeral, and was friendly with Igor Stravinsky. Other friends included Darius Milhaud and Mario Castelnouvo-Tedesco, who composed a Quartettsatz based on Arlen’s name. Not only was Arlen a prominent journalist, he was the last Central European to be accepted by the diaspora of writers, musicians and artists who fled Hitler and settled in Los Angeles. He moved in elite circles of German speakers who included Alma Mahler-Werfel and her daughter Anne, Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger, the Schönbergs, the Korngolds, the Zeisls, the Manns and Ernst Krenek.

Incantation from Arlen’s Czesław Miłosz cycle ‘Poet in Exile’ Christian Immler, Baritone; Danny Driver, Piano; Gramola Recording

Specifically mentioning Krenek brings up the reason Arlen did not let anyone know that he spent his free evenings composing. Arlen claimed that Krenek, and indeed, every other composer in town would question Arlen’s objectivity. Arlen went on to establish and to head the music department at Loyola Marymount, a Jesuit University in Los Angeles, but found even the prestige of this position a challenge when combined with the many demons he was still fighting. Arlen’s lost sense of aesthetic entitlement motivated him to set texts that no American composer of his generation would consider, writing in a style that no Austrian composer of his generation could manage. Arlen was writing quintessential works of exile, contrasting sharply with Fürstenthal’s works of return.

Fürstenthal’s Kuss mich mit Küssen, the opening song from ‘Das Hohelied’. live recording of poor quality with Fürstenthal on the piano and Brigitta Friboe, mezzo-soprano; Private recording belonging to Françoise Farron

As Fürstenthal did not consider himself Jewish, his treatments taken from the Old Testament seem all the more surprising. His song cycle Die Geschichten Jakobs, composed “in grateful memory of Thomas Mann”; his settings of the Psalms 1, 13, 57 and 61 and Die ersten sieben Tage, set to words by Hans W. Kopp suggest more than a passive interest historic Judaism. Françoise Fürstenthal’s told the author that his setting of religious texts were motivated by elements outside of religion. She also went on to add: “Looking back over Robert’s life, I believe very strongly that Robert would have been better off, had he had a meaningful connection to the Jewish faith and community.” 

Walter Arlen on vacation with his Aunt Gretel and Uncle Walter Silberstein and his Aunt Rosa
Nepenthe from Walter Arlen’s piano cycle ‘Mementos’; Pianist, Daniel Vnukovski, Gramola Recordings

Arlen’s choice of texts suggests displacement and alienation, none more so than his setting of Czesław Miłosz’s cycle Poet in Exile. Piano works recall places he visited with his Austrian family, or later with his companion Howard Myers. The works are inward and often brooding; on occasion, even meandering. These were not works meant for publication or public performance. Few were performed at all with only Marni Nixon, the former wife of fellow Viennese composer Ernest Gold surprising Arlen by including some of his songs in recitals. Arlen’s music was etched into his creative memory, and later during recordings, he could recall every note though he was too blind to follow the scores. Interestingly, and as an indication that this was music meant as a form of self-therapy, there were no performance, tempo, dynamic or interpretive indications. Arlen’s scores were notes on bar-lines meant for his inner-ear only. The same was largely true of Fürstenthal’s works, but this was down to the more practical fact that it had not occurred to him that anyone, other than himself, would perform them. As the accompanying pianist, he could give the necessary indications to singers and fellow instrumentalists as required.

St John of the Cross
Oh living Flame of Love – from Walter Arlen’s Song Cycle ‘Songs of Love and Yearning’: Rebecca Nelsen Soprano; Danny Driver, Piano; Gromola Recordings

Other than his a-cappella Dead Sea Fragments from 1989, the closest Arlen came to admitting to a Jewish setting was his cycle Songs of Love and Yearning, poems written by St. John of the Cross. As Arlen explained in an interview for the Irish broadcaster, RTÉ:

I’m Jewish and St John of the Cross was really a Jew. His parents were Marranos. The Marranos were Jews in Spain in 1492 when the Jews were being exterminated. [As the Catholic rulers of Spain] tried to get rid of all of the Jews […] they went into hiding, underground and they were called Marranos which means “the pigs” because they agreed to pretend to be non-Jews, […]. So, these songs I found extremely attractive and moving and St. John of the Cross was a son of this Jewish family that went into hiding. And he actually fell in love with Jesus, and he went underground in Toledo in some cell that was just big enough to hold his body. [There] he fasted and [placed] a mask on his face, he had a mask made that made him look like the character he wanted to become, which was actually a woman’s mask, […] and he was there on penance, and really it’s a very moving story and he fell in love with Jesus in a way, that when he put on this woman’s mask he imagined himself to have relations with Jesus as a woman. That was his inner religious attitude. I’m fascinated by the story and chose to use those words, which I called Songs of Love and Yearning.

As can be surmised from this and the statements made by Robert Fürstenthal’s wife, neither composer felt sufficiently motivated to write a work that was conspicuously “Jewish”. Their Jewish identity was cloaked in code and steeped in literature. Subjects in Arlen’s music such as “exile” and “loss” are referentially Jewish, but not exclusively so. Nor was the setting of Psalms by any means uniquely Jewish. Though Toch described his Second Symphony as Jacob and the Angel, as did Mahler in discussing his Second Symphony, Fürstenthal makes it clear that his “Jakob” triptych was inspired by Thomas Mann’s novel based on the Old Testament account of Josef und seine Brüder.

Illumination of Das Hohelied

It is all the more intriguing therefore, that both composers at different points in their creative lives turned to The Song of Songs, or Das Hohelied. Arlen took a translation from Leroy Waterman’s Song of Songs, whereas Fürstenthal used a treatment of the biblical texts by the Austrian poet Josef Weinheber written in 1916. Françoise Fürstenthal believes that her husband was attracted to the eroticism of the text rather than any particular Jewish references. Arlen in the same RTÉ interview quoted earlier says the following:

Basically I found something that in some way gave me a sense of belonging, that I’m not a Dreckjud’, Saujud’ but that I belong to a people that have created the Ten Commandants, and whose religion is based on the Ten Commandants that eventually  went into Catholicism and the New Testament. The subject itself influenced me, it interested me because I recognised then that it was the first example of poetry in the history of mankind. […] This was poetry that was the beginning of intellectual and an emotional attitude expressed in language; it was the first of something that’s still valid today. We write poetry, and throughout history, people wrote poetry […]. I looked at it as the example of progress from polygamy, [a harem is mentioned in the Song of Songs], Solomon hat 800 wives or concubines and there is this girl who’s in love with a boy and there’s this boy who’s in love with a girl and she doesn’t want to be part of the harem. She wants to have the kind of love that now is accepted as a way of life, you marry, you have one husband, you have one wife. It’s an evolution from polygamy to monogamy. Because she refuses to go, she cries […] and she has this lover, his name is Dodai, and she’s fantasising about him and he’s fantasising about her. And she sees him bounding over the mountain like a gazelle. Very poetic language and she sings in her words, her love for him – “as an apple tree among the wood, so is my beloved.” It’s very beautiful. And it’s also fresh and so new. It’s unique it’s not based on anything. It’s the first time poetry like that was written in the history of mankind.

Walter Arlen’s Song of Songs – opening: Vienna Symphony Orchestra; Conductor Christian Schulz; Damen der Wiener Singakademie; Anna Huntley, Mezzo Soprano; Daniel Johannsen, Tenor; Damian Thantrey, Baritone – Live recording at the Vienna Konzerthaus
first three pages of Arlen’s ‘Song of Songs’

Arlen’s Song of Songs is the only work he intended for performance; it is also the only work he orchestrated, written in 1950/51 when he was still nominally studying composition. It demonstrates a narrative skill by condensing the work to its essence. It is orchestrated for double winds (incl. piccolo, alto flute, English horn and bass clarinet), two trumpets, two horns, percussion (side drum, triangle, glockenspiel, woodblock); harp; Strings, women’s chorus and vocal soloists: mezzo soprano, baritone and tenor. Arlen compresses the work into the story he relates in his RTÉ interview, with the women’s chorus (“Daughters of Jerusalem”) both carrying the narrative forward and echoing the women of the harem. Solomon sings the baritone’s seductive music, attempting to woo the Shepherdess, while Arlen has the tenor sing her lover, Dodai.  Arlen ends the work with the Shepherdess and Dodai united in love. In an email to the author Arlen adds the following:

Secular Jewishness and Jewish history had become a natural interest, part of my psyche, part of my being.  The Song of Songs, when it first entered my consciousness, represented Judaism in its nascent beginnings, predating Christ by 900 years, representing Judaism in its original state.  That meant it was in a sound world before the word Ashkenazy had come into being.  My music had to be Sephardic, with a sound that had nothing to do with Europe, Chassidism, Klezmer, European instruments, or European melos.  A tall order, if it had been conscious.  But it was a subconscious mindset that allowed the emergence of this music, representing ancient times and at the same time the unfathomable “modernity” of The Song of Songs. What other culture, 900 years before Christ, produced a “libretto” of such forward looking sophistication?   Who else fashioned a path, in a time of harems, that led to monogamy, a Jewish achievement, defying Solomon, the king of kings?

The works lasts just over twenty-five minutes and employs, as related above, a number of ethnic colouristic features such as a tribal trill in the sopranos:

And melisma:

The effect is a tight narrative, organic and well structured, employing a sound world that highlights the so-called “oriental” and exotic with mid-twentieth century tonality.

It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast to Robert Fürstenthal’s setting of the same material. If the focus on Arlen’s setting is the love between the Shepherdess and Dodai, Fürstenthal takes the love poetry of Solomon for Sulamith (the Shepherdess from Sulam) as his basis. The original poem is so ambiguous that where Arlen sees monogamous love for Dodai, Fürstenthal places the love interest between Solomon and Sulamith. In fact, “Dodai” is a transliteration from any number of Semitic languages, such as “Dâdû”, “Dido”, “Dudu” and even “David” for “[my]beloved”. Who this “beloved” is remains a mystery that has been debated for millennia. In Fürstenthal’s treatment, Sulamith is very happy to be ravished by Solomon, though there are passages where it is implied that Sulimith actually misses and yearns for someone else, merely referred to as “my beloved” or simply, “beloved”. “Des Nachts in meinem Bette, suchte ich ihn…” the “ihn” (him) is not a clear reference to Solomon and the idea of another “Geliebter” is suggested. Below are settings of the same text by Fürstenthal and Arlen.

Robert Fürstenthal, from his ‘Das Hohelied’, Des Nachts am meinen Bette, Brigitte Friboe Mezzo Soprano and Robert Fürstenthal, Piano – private recording of poor quality, property of Françoise Farron
Walter Arlen from ‘Song of Songs’, Upon my Bed by Night, Vienna Symphony Orchestra; Conductor Christian Schulz; Damen der Wiener Singakademie; Anna Huntley, Mezzo Soprano; Daniel Johannsen, Tenor; Damian Thantrey, Baritone – Live recording at the Vienna Konzerthaus

 The Sulamith in Fürstenthal’s setting is therefore far more complex: she clearly enjoys her passionate encounters with Solomon, while appearing to be yearning for someone else. Fürstenthal’s version is in twenty-seven individual songs, enough for an entire evening’s recital, and is spun as a love-poem dialogue. Fürstenthal performed a selection of just under half of the songs. Françoise Fürstenthal offers the following account of its provenance.

Robert Robert wrote ‘Das Hohelied,’ in 1981/82.  We had the great pleasure, in the summer of 1982, to have the visit of the superb Danish [mezzo-s]oprano, Brigitte Frieboe visiting La Jolla where she, together with the Baritone, Philip Larson, then Prof. at the UCSD Music Department, performed the “Hohelied” fresh off the presses, at the Women’s Clubhouse in La Jolla, to great applause.

If Arlen reaches for Sephardic modes, Fürstenthal remains squarely in fin de siècle Vienna and takes as a template Hugo Wolf’s Italian and Spanish Songbooks with songs divided alternatively between male and female singers. The Musical style is closer to Wolf’s language while structuring the songs as lovers’ in intimate dialogue with one another.

Walter Arlen, from his ‘Song of Songs’, Behold, you are Beautiful… Vienna Symphony Orchestra; Conductor Christian Schulz; Damian Thantrey, Baritone – Live recording at the Vienna Konzerthaus

Both Fürstenthal and Arlen were drawn to this quintessential point in the Hebrew Bible. Arlen admits in the interviews above, but also in conversation with the author that in the early 1950s, late 1940s, he strongly identified as a Jew and specifically looked for something that would affirm this self-identification without moving into the cantorial or liturgical.  Fürstenthal’s views have been expressed by his wife Françoise, who more than anyone was responsible for reviving his compositional gift. As she mentions above, she would have preferred if he had a closer connection with his culture and his religion. Robert Fürstenthal’s parents saw their non-confessional adherence as “enlightened”. Yet it arguably deprived him of who he felt himself to be once he was excluded from country and culture. Françoise had wanted to immigrate to Israel as a young girl fleeing Austria’s Nazi annexation. Though her family and the family of Robert Fürstenthal were related, her years of immigration were more firmly based in her Zionist identity. Robert appears to have been searching and perhaps tacitly, found these Old Testament accounts a non-confrontational means of expressing a cultural continuum. Even if the eroticism of the texts is what spoke to Fürstenthal, it is a specifically Jewish, Middle-Eastern eroticism. Of the world’s vast array of erotic poetry, he turned specifically to these biblical verses. His musical language is so out of time with the age in which he lived, that together with his observation that composition brought him spiritually back to Vienna, he was in fact returning to a Jewish Vienna that had existed before he was even born.  Through his music, Fürstenthal remained safe in a time and place over which his creative imagination had control.

Robert Fürstenthal’s ‘Das Hohelied’ Wie ein Siegel –Duet Finale, Robert Fürstenthal, Piano; Brigitta Friboe, Mezzo Soprano; Philip Larson, Baritone; private recording of poor quality, property of Françoise Farron

Arlen re-worked individual sections of his Song of Songs as Lieder – perhaps in a way, his own means of synthesising a Viennese genre with his new life in America’s West Coast:

Song arrangement from Arlen’s ‘Song of Songs’; As an Apple Tree Rebecca Nelsen, Soprano; Danny Driver, Piano, Gramola Recordings

In conclusion, secular Jewish refugee composers fell into several broad categories, often in parallel and occasionally intersecting. Composers such as Zeisl, Ben Haim, Chajes and others expressed their position in a post 1933-world by acquiescing to exclusion and embracing a Jewish musical identity that sought a synthesis of the diatonic and the modal. The vehemently secular composers commissioned by Rabbi Sonderling and David Putterman (see part 2) for new liturgical works offered a modernist, Universalist approach to the synagogue. They felt they had experienced religious hatred first hand and wanted the music of Jewish ritual to reach out. Others, such as Richard Fuchs and Robert Fürstenthal looked back to a European-Jewish heritage that was happily integrated. For them, the German and Jew were not mutually exclusive; rather they were complementary and had co-existed for centuries. As related in Part 2, the generation born in the 1920s appears to be the most traumatised of all, with few exceptions, avoiding all but commissioned works that referenced a Jewish experience of persecution. It is a generation that looked forward, still too frightened by memories of disruption in childhood and adolescence.