A little more than a half year later, Walter had turned eighteen. He had bribed officials to have his father freed from Buchenwald, only to see him arrested again a few weeks later. He had witnessed months of bullying and the requisition of the family's country estate on the Hungarian border, where he had spent every summer holiday with his best friend, Lorant, a Hungarian playmate from Budapest affectionately known to his friends as ‘Lumpi’. The family bank accounts and department store had been ‘liberated’ from Jewish ownership and his mother, who had worked every day in the women’s accessories department, had been abused and thrown out by her own employees. In November, he watched as the clouds of the night sky turned glowing red when marauding crowds stormed Vienna’s Jewish quarter, setting fire to all but one of the city’s historic synagogues in a murderous pogrom that would soon be known as Kristallnacht.
Not only did the Nazis destroy Walter’s family’s livelihood, they also thwarted his brilliant academic and musical ambitions. His musical talent was discovered when, as a five year old, he would entertain his grandparents’ and customers at the store by singing a popular song frequently heard on the radio. His grandfather promptly took him to see Otto Erich Deutsch, a renowned Schubert scholar, who declared that Walter had perfect pitch and recommended he be enrolled in piano lessons. But after the Anschluss, Walter’s musical education halted abruptly: he and all other Jewish students, along with many of their teachers, were expelled from school only weeks before university exams called the Matura.
Walter had absorbed these terrifying images and experiences at the most impressionable point in his life. They ingrained in teenage Walter the rejection of an entire society along with the abrupt loss of status and wealth, the fear of walking on the very streets where he had grown up and the sense that all the mitzvahs so scrupulously carried out by the Dichter family for the people of Ottakring had been for nothing. Added to this sense of desperation was the insecurity of all young men on the threshold of adulthood, and the dark ambiguities of sexual desire. His father was back in Buchenwald, his mother clinically depressed (eventually committing suicide) and his younger sister Edith no longer a member of the coveted ballet school at Vienna’s State Opera. The family was well-connected but even then, only Walter was free to make it to America before the expiration of his affidavit, changing his name to Arlen and leaving everyone else behind. His mother, father (eventually securing release through bribes for a second time) and sister would end up in London where they would be bombed out of temporary accommodation on more than one occasion. His youthful dreams of becoming a composer had been dashed.
Until later in America, he was advised by a therapist to compose anyway.
And compose he did. He hadn’t really had much training beyond lessons with Leo Sowerby in Chicago, his first city of residence, and four years spent as Roy Harris’s amanuensis. Some would think this training enough and indeed, he no doubt picked up a good deal without the day-to-day instruction in orchestration and what in German is called Tonsatz – the craftsmanship of composition. Like all talented painters, writers and composers, he was able to make his own way, if only groping forward and trying things out before putting his efforts back into a desk drawer – presumably, never to be seen again, or even heard. Writing music had become the aesthetic crossword puzzle he needed in order to stay sane. How apt that his earliest American compositions are based on the poems of Robert Frost – cool, yet full of nature, yearning and melancholic. Even in these first works, it’s possible to recognize a musical language that would result in Arlen becoming the quintessential ‘exile’ composer.
By the time of his arrival in Los Angeles in 1950, his music did not resemble anything written by one of his American contemporaries; but neither could it express itself as the work of a young Austrian. It was the music of dislocation, transplantation, longing for an unrecoverable past and thirsting for understanding, love and security. It was music that quietly sang of nobility in isolation, music of a poet in exile.