Walter Arlen Celebrates his 100 Birthday

On the 31st of July composer Walter Arlen will be 100 years old. Last year the Ra'anana Symphonette Orchestra celebrated Arlen's 99th birthday and performed – with four solo singers and the "Neve Shir Women Choir" under Keren Kagalitzky's baton – his Song of Songs. This concert – within the 2019 Felicja Blumental Festival – was the first time a work of Arlen has been performed in Israel.


While we are sending Arlen our greetings let's look at his biographical remarks: "I was born Walter Aptowitzer in Vienna, Austria, in 1920, into a Jewish family that had prominence on both sides.  On my mother’s side, there was Leopold Dichter, founder of Warenhaus Dichter, a successful department store.  On my father’s side, there was Avigdor Aptowitzer, rector of the Hebrew University in Vienna and a Hebrew scholar of significance.  On my mother’s side, there was also the nephew of her mother: the highly gifted artist Ephraim Moses Lilien.  


As for my musicality: At the age of five, I began singing songs I heard on the radio.  My grandfather took me to a famous Schubert scholar. He confirmed I had perfect pitch and said I should be given piano lessons. His advice was followed and made it possible for me to use the piano later for composing, starting about eleven years of age. My parents took me to the Vienna Opera for a performance of Tosca when I was eleven.  I was motivated to begin composing.  


The takeover of Austria by Hitler in 1938 totally destroyed Jewish life. Fortunately, we emigrated to the US. In Chicago my first stop I entered some songs in a contest.  The prize was music studies with the famous symphonic composer Roy Harris. I became his assistant for four years. In 1951, I enrolled in an advanced degree of music program at UCLA.  The Professor of Music Criticism at UCLA was the music critic for The Los Angeles Times. He took me from a class and made me a music critic for that newspaper, which had the largest circulation in the world.  I continued as a critic for the newspaper for more than thirty years.  While a critic, in 1969, I was asked by Loyola Marymount University to found a Department of Music and serve as its chairman.  I combined teaching at Loyola Marymount and writing reviews for the Los Angeles Times for over 30 years. I went back into composing only after  I retired from my work at the LA times.

To many Americans   Arlen is an 'exile composer':  a composer who wrote music that would not have been composed had he remained in his native Austria. Yet, his musical ethos may resemble the lyricism of Barber or Copland, but his choice of texts and his treatment of subjects dealing with identity and isolation are very far from the Positivism of many American composers. His work is the product of transplantation and forms a synthesis of Central European introspection and American generosity of melody.

Only in 2008, when a concert of Arlen works was performed in the Jewish Museum of Vienna, in front of Austrian politicians at a memorial event marking the 70th anniversary of the Nazi takeover of 1938 did the wider public become aware of Arlen as a composer. Six CDs of his music have subsequently been recorded, and the rest, much like Arlen's life, is history.