Es Geht Wohl Anders (Things Turn Out Differently): The Unexpected Life of Walter Arlen

A Critic is Made

Walter Arlen (born Aptowitzer in Vienna, 1920) did not grow up dreaming of life as a music critic; yet an invitation to cover a few concerts turned into a thirty-year relationship with the Los Angeles Times. From 1951-1981 Arlen had a front row seat from which to observe, comment on, and help shape the audience for Los Angeles' music scene as its reputation expanded beyond Hollywood film scores and live jazz, to an important center for new music, and the recording industry. With the opening of The Music Center in 1964, the city also became the site for world-class performances. Arlen's European background, his own composing experience, training in music education, and deep passions are reflected in his music reviews. This essay will explore a crucial period in the growth of Los Angeles' music scene from the perspective of a refined, young Jewish émigré with an educator's impulse.

Arlen arrived in the United States after enduring unfathomable tragedy and loss and struggled to rebuild his life in Chicago. He managed to find a wartime job with a furrier (where he learned English) and later the government assigned him to work at a chemical factory, but there was no time for music. Depressed, Arlen consulted a psychiatrist and at his suggestion began writing music to relieve his anxiety. He also became acquainted with important American musicians in Chicago, studying with composer Leo Sowerby and assisting composer Roy Harris. Soon, he earned a B.A. in music education and resettled in Los Angeles to continue his education in UCLA's Masters Program in Music. One of his first classes was in music criticism with Albert Goldberg, who himself had come from Chicago only a few years prior to serve as the first full-time music commentator for the Los Angeles Times. At the end of the quarter Goldberg invited Arlen to write for the paper as a stringer while he went on vacation, and the gig as assistant music critic under Goldberg and later Martin Bernheimer ran from 1951-1981. Arlen’s early reviews are signed only W.A.; but in a couple of years, his full name appears at the end, and eventually he is awarded a byline as staff writer.1

Owing to his linguistic abilities and his musical pedigree, many of Walter's earliest assignments were covering the émigré community which had been making a major impact on the L.A. music scene in the two decades before his arrival. Although by the time he started writing for the Times in the early 1950s, their popularity had somewhat declined, Arlen mixed and mingled with the classical luminaries who still remained, forging personal relationships with Ernst Toch, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Eric Zeisl, Alma and Anna Mahler, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Darius Milhaud, and Arnold Schoenberg’s family.2 His years writing about the artists of the émigré community helped Arlen to find his voice as a critic.

At first, Arlen kept composing as well. Goldberg reported in 1956 that Arlen received the W.W. Kimball Prize of $200 from the Chicago Singing Teacher’s Guild for his song, “Sonnet LX” and in 1959 that the Westside JCC’s Composer’s Workshop exhibited his work, and he spoke approvingly of Arlen’s “ability to capture mood and write fluently for the voice.”3 Yet, frustrated by the inability to fully complete his musical training and concerned that composing might be perceived as a conflict of interest, Arlen ceased composing for decades. Instead, Arlen created a music-oriented life with satisfactions of a different kind. In the 1960s Arlen taught music at Mount St. Mary’s College and California State University, Los Angeles. In 1969 he was invited to found the music department at what would become Loyola Marymount University. After retirement from Loyola, he organized concerts that presented gifted young artists at the Cerritos Center, through the Jose Iturbi Gold Medal Concert Series, of which he was a founder. 

After he retired from his job at the Times, Arlen resumed composing music as a form of therapy, writing music to deal with the pain of relatives murdered in concentration camps, the loss of his homeland, and personal tragedies. He remembers that when he first started composing again in 1986, he wrote five pieces in six days. Once in a while, a friend such as Marni Nixon would sing one of his songs for their circle, but Arlen did not make an effort to have the music performed.

In a surprising and gratifying denouement to his career, Arlen’s music was discovered in 2008 by Walter Haas, an Austrian music producer and musicologist researching Viennese émigrés. Arlen was able to attend a concert of his works performed that year 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. Since then, six CDs of his music have been recorded. In 2015, James Conlon conducted a concert dedicated to Arlen in Beverly Hills, as part of the Colburn School’s Ziering-Conlon Initiative, which preserves and celebrates the legacy of composers suppressed by the Nazi regime. 

1 For example, “Memories Re-created by Quintet.” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1952. “Boston Orchestra’s Flawlessness Thrills Distinguished Audience.” Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1953. Arlen, Walter. “Milhaud Honored at Concert.” March 17, 1967. (LA Times historical citations in this article are from ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times 1923-Current File.)

  2Haas, in Dorothy Lamb Crawford, Evenings on and Off the Roof: Pioneering Concerts in Los Angeles, 1939-1971 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995). Arlen was said to attend every rehearsal, day or night, which involved Igor Stravinsky.

3 Goldberg, Albert. “The Sounding Board,” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1956, and Walter Arlen, "New Music Presented at Evening Concert," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 4, 1959.

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