Walter Arlen: a life set to song

Walter Arlen: a response to text that's sensitive, discerning, individualWalter Arlen: a response to text that's sensitive, discerning, individual

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)

Walter's father (who had somehow been extracted from Buchenwald) and sister got to London. Walter himself made it to Chicago with the equivalent of $5 in his pocket and sank into depression. He was young, attractive, clever, with a gift for languages that soon had him speaking English with no trace of a Germanic accent; but at the same time he had lost everything that gave his life stability. He felt adrift, alone and lost.

His therapy was writing music. And putting together some new scores with a batch of songs he'd carried from Vienna, he used the material to enter and win a competition – the prize being composition lessons with the leading American symphonist of the 1930s/40s, Roy Harris.

Things worked out so well with Harris that he and his wife invited the 19yr-old refugee to come and live with them – an arrangement that progressed as Walter (who by now had anglicised his name to Arlen) also became Harris's assistant.

But then came another shift in circumstances. He was offered a job as music critic on the Los Angeles Times which became his life from 1952 to 1980. And through all those years he wrote nothing except reviews.

'If I'd carried on composing', he now says, 'it would have ended up with a conflict of interest. I didn't feel like showing my wares while I was passing judgement on other people's, so there it was: for 30 years I wrote no music at all. The reviews became my creative output'.

Arlen's compositional silence came to an end in 1986 when he had retired from the Times, was teaching music at a West Coast Catholic university, and found himself drawn to the poetry of St John of the Cross – translated into English by an American who had become (and remains) his partner Howard Myers. The result was a group of songs that features on the new CD and stands out in Arlen's own assessment as the key that released his later work. 'I remember', he says, 'how easy and spontaneous it was'. From then on, through the 1990s, came a steady flow of other settings: Rilke, Shakespeare, Cafavy and others.

All the while, though, he was writing for himself and not for public hearing. There were no performances – as indeed there never had been of Arlen's music, except for the odd private concert back in the 1940s given by a Hollywood friend, Marni Nixon, who had been the singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Arlen's songs were diary statements. And significantly, even when the original texts were in his native German, he set them in English – which is accordingly the predominant language of the songs on this double-CD set.

Listening to the selection, which ranges from a teenaged Wiegenlied written in 1937 to a fragment from the biblical Song of Songs re-written in 1994, you hear development through time - it could hardly be otherwise - and a response to text that's sensitive, discerning, individual; but you also hear the coherence of an unequivocally single voice across those six decades. And though Arlen has his mannerisms - steady and deliberate pacing, touches of archaicism, and a tendency to take the singer soaring upwards on a final note - what really holds these songs together is their wistful eloquence, poised on a fault-line between the open-handed accessibility of mid-20th Americanism and the darker, more internalised processes of pre-war mittel-Europe.

Reticent with tender, understated beauty, they reward repeated hearing. And perhaps the most poignant of all is the song that gives this two-CD release its title. Written in 1938 in a room above the family department store, Es geht wohl anders sets a text by Eichendorff that painfully reflects the situation of the teenaged Walter Aptowitzer. His father had been rounded up by the Gestapo. His mother was on suicide watch in a mental hospital. No one knew what would happen. And things had most certainly turned out differently to whatever hopes Walter could have had for himself a few years before.

Now on the brink of an extremely late-in-life celebrity, he has been feted by the Austrian government: this visit to Vienna was to hear a concert of his music and to pick up an award. For which he’s not ungrateful. But with a wry smile, he tells me in our cafe lunch that medals come cheap.

‘I spent 12 years’, he says, ‘trying to process a claim under the Austrian system for compensation for the loss of Warenhaus Dichter, the family store. Finally, in 2007, they paid me US$20,000. Shortly afterwards the site was sold as simply bare ground, the store had been demolished long before. As bare ground it made €15million. You can see why they prefer to give me awards’.

Es geht wohl anders: the songs of Walter Arlen. Sung by Rebecca Nelsen and Christian Immler, accompanied by Danny Driver. Gramola 98946/7

 

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