Composer Walter Arlen celebrates his 100th birthday

On July 31st, composer Walter Arlen will celebrate his 100th birthday. Last year, the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra celebrated its 99th birthday, joined by three soloists and the Neve Shir women’s choir under the baton of the Keren Kagarlitzky to perform his oratorio The Song of Songs. At the concert held as part of the Felicja Blumenthal Festival 2019, a work by Arlen was performed for the first time in Israel.

We extend our greetings to Arlen, with an opportunity to reinstate his own words:

“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, who in 1890 founded Warenhaus Dichter, a department store that thrived from the start and grew into a commercial success, making money every day, in spite of depression or inflation. 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. Named Ephraim Moses Lilien, he was the first Zionist artist. Working in the art nouveau style, he established an art school in Israel.  

“My musicality showed itself early on.  At the age of five, I began singing songs I heard on the radio.  My grandfather took me to Otto Eric Deutsch, the famous Schubert scholar, for evaluation.  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 our relatives in Chicago, the Pritzker family, made it possible for us to emigrate to the United States. After arriving in Chicago, I entered some songs in a contest.  The prize was music studies with Roy Harris, the famous symphonic composer.  I lived with him for four years as his assistant. 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. After I retired from the newspaper in 1980, I resumed composing, writing chiefly songs and piano pieces.”

For many Americans, Walter Arlen is a prime example of an “exile composer”. Had he remained in Austria, he would not have composed in the same fashion. Yet his music has a closeness to the poetic line dominant in the works of distinctly American composers such as Barber or Copeland, but the choice of themes and lyrics and the way they are treated are very unique to him as an immigrant and not close to the positivist spirit of many American composers. His music is a work born out of a ‘transplant’ of patterns and syntheses of Central European insights wrapped in the American melodic spirit.

It was only in 2008 (when Arlen was 88) that his works were first performed in Vienna, in a special concert at the city’s Jewish Museum in the presence of politicians and as part of the 70th anniversary of the ‘Anschluss’, the occupation or annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany. As earlier mentioned, it was the premiere of his work in his homeland. Later on, six CDs containing his music were published and the rest, as is commonly said, is history.

Once again, congratulations to the centenarian Walter Arlen.

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