A celebration of Walter Arlen’s life and music

Ra’anana Symphonette to perform ‘Song of Songs’ by 99-year-old Austrian-born composer

SCENES FROM ‘Walter Arlen’s First Century,’ which will be screened at the EPOS festival March 28  (photo credit: Courtesy)
SCENES FROM ‘Walter Arlen’s First Century,’ which will be screened at the EPOS festival March 28
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"I am a Jew, I always gravitated towards Judaism, it’s at the center of my sense of being,” said Walter Arlen, an Austrian-born composer, whose life and work will be celebrated at EPOS, the International Art Film Festival, which has partnered this year with the Felicja Blumental International Music Festival, and which will take place from March 27 to 30 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Arlen, who is 99 years old, had hoped to travel to Israel for the festival, but was not feeling up to it. However, he spoke in a wide-ranging phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. The Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra, along with a choir and singers, will perform “Song of Songs,” a work Arlen composed at 93, in a concert on March 29. On March 28, Stephanus Domanig’s very engaging documentary about Arlen, Walter Arlen’s First Century, will be shown at EPOS in the presence of the director.
“Song of Songs is a Jewish poem, the first of that sort in history,” he said. “It’s about the transition from polygamy into monogamy... that’s the crux of Song of Songs; it’s a very civilizing element that the Jews brought into the world, and the words tell the story.”
Arlen was born Walter Aptowitzer in Vienna in 1920 to a middle-class Jewish family that owned a department store, Dichter’s. He was drawn to music from a young age, and many of his earliest and most intense memories involve music.
Acknowledging that Schubert was one of his profoundest musical influences, he recalled how, “when I was seven years old, it was Schubert’s 230th birthday, I think, and of all people, in elementary school, they chose me to impersonate Schubert.”
He also reminisced about seeing the opera Tosca as a child. “I was so taken by this opera, the curtain opened and, because it was performed in German, I could hear and understand everything. I was so impressed, and I began to compose music afterwards. It’s silly when they don’t perform in the language of the place. No one can understand.”
As a teenager, he reveled in the rich music scene in Vienna, attending the opera in the standing-room area two or three times a week. But other aspects of life in Austria were no longer so positive. He remembers when the Nazis marched into Vienna and were embraced by much of the Austrian public in 1938. The next day, his family’s department store was “Aryanized” and taken away from them.
“Why did the Austrians become Nazis? Because they could take everything the Jews had and say, ‘That’s mine.’ And they did.”
Understandably, this period was a dark time for Arlen and his family. His mother became suicidal, and his father was sent to a concentration camp. Still a teenager, he had to try to find a hospital that would treat his mother, since most refused to take in Jewish patients. He witnessed the horror of Kristallnacht, which intensified his mother’s severe depression.
“Yes, it was terrifying,” he said.
Relatives in Chicago arranged for Arlen to travel to the US, and he worked at various jobs, and was eventually reunited with his father and sister, although his mother had taken her life.
After winning a competition, he went to study music with Roy Harris and moved to Los Angeles. Taking a course in music criticism, he was singled out by his professor, who got him a job as the music critic at the Los Angeles Times, an incredible achievement, given that he had just learned English a few years before.
While he worked as a critic, from the 1950s to the 1980s, Arlen stopped composing. “I thought if I am criticizing composers and also writing music, other composers will write in the newspaper and say what a lousy composer I am.... It was a silly idea.”
Returning to composing later in life, he has had the satisfaction of seeing his work draw worldwide acclaim. At age 92, his first CD was released. Its title translates in English to “Things Turn Out Differently.” His work was first publicly performed in a concert commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Anschluss in 2008.
Given the unusual trajectory of his career, perhaps his advice to young people who want to become composers is not surprising: “Stick with it. Don’t give up. If you feel you can compose, if you have the drive, keep going. But it takes time.”