Walter Arlen: a life set to song

Martin Cullingford
Thursday, April 5, 2012

I'm sitting at a cafe in a suburb of Vienna with an elderly American called Walter Arlen - except his name isn't really Arlen but Aptowitzer, and he was born not in the USA but in a Viennese suburb much like this where his parents owned and ran a department store. Until it was taken away from them in 1938.

It's a common enough story: the Aptowitzers were Jewish, in the wrong place at the wrong time. But what makes it of interest to musicians is that Walter Arlen, ne Aptowitzer was/is an intriguing footnote to the history of that generation of composers stifled, scattered or otherwise frustrated by the Third Reich. Although he has only been a composer on a small scale, with a modest output of work that hardly anyone knew about until recently, he is nonetheless one of the few surviving members of that lost generation. And at the age of 92 he has just witnessed the first ever CD release of his music: a collection of songs brought together under the title 'Es geht wohl anders' (in English, Things turn out differently) by the record producer, musicologist and one-time driving force behind Decca's celebrated Entartete Musik series, Michael Haas.

In the years since he left Decca, Haas has been working with the Jewish Museum in Vienna on projects to track down and publicise the legacy of those musicians deemed 'degenerate' by the Nazis – which is how he first made contact with Walter Arlen.

Born in 1920 into the middle-class prosperity that ownership of a department store provides, Walter had a comfortable childhood that accommodated an interest in music. His school-friends included Paul Hamburger, who would later build an international career as an accompanist. And he remembers starting to compose at the age of ten – driven to it, he says, by compulsion: 'I just felt it was something I had to do. It was in my blood'.

Parental contacts with the Schubert scholar Otto Erich Deutsch encouraged the idea that he had promise. But then, the day after he left school in 1938, the German army marched into Austria and the comfortable life of the owners of Warenhaus Dichter in the 16th district of Vienna abruptly ended. The store was 'Aryanised'. Walter's father was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. His mother had a breakdown (she would later take her own life). And after months of nightmarish tension, the family managed to obtain the necessary visas, affidavits and permissions to flee the country. Just in time, in 1939. (Article continues below)

Listen to 'Island' (from The Poet in Exile)

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