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

Contributions to Musical Life in LA

During his thirty years as a music critic, Walter Arlen became immersed in a community of world-renowned composers and musicians, many of whom had themselves escaped the Nazis and found refuge in Los Angeles, providing a rich array of artistic influences. When he returned to composing, he would recall his many connections with prominent West Coast refugees, such as Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and his particularly close relationship with Darius Milhaud in songs.

But Walter Arlen’s contributions to musical life in Los Angeles were not limited to his work as a critic. He founded the José Iturbi Gold Medal Concert Series for young artists following the death of the pianist in 1980. During their long friendship, Iturbi surprised Arlen by delivering a piano and thus unwittingly contributed to Arlen’s later resumption of composition. Arlen also took up the challenge of founding and heading a music department at Loyola Marymount University, allowing him to teach and research. Indeed, Arlen was the natural music communicator. Perhaps because English was his second language, he was infinitely more precise in its use, and handled words and meanings with care, never falling into lazy patterns, clichés, or trendy formulations. His command of his second language would eventually equal his fluency in his native German. It was a precision in communication that he maintained when analyzing the works of other composers and when writing his own. 

The arrival of Howard Myers into Arlen’s life would offer the familial stability he had missed since childhood. Myers was creative, intelligent, inquisitive, and open to the world that Arlen was eager to show. He would also be the inspiration for some of Arlen’s most sensitive, intimate, and beautiful music. One day in 1986, Myers presented Arlen with his translation of poems written by the Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross, a Spanish Saint whose family had converted from Judaism to avoid persecution during the Inquisition. It would inspire Arlen to return definitively to composition with a cycle entitled Songs of Love and Yearning.

Composition had come and gone throughout the decades and Arlen’s circle of intimate friends meant that he was treated to the occasional private performance. One of his acquaintances was the soprano Marni Nixon, at the time married to Ernest Gold, the composer of Exodus and himself a fellow Viennese refugee born as Ernst Goldner almost exactly a year after Arlen. Nixon was attracted to Arlen’s cycle Le Tambeau de Gabriel Fauré and even sang them in recitals, making them the first Arlen works to be heard in public concerts.

By the time of Arlen’s retirement, his life must have appeared happy and fulfilled. Howard Myers was able to balance the hurt and rejection that so audibly infused Arlen’s music. He encouraged Arlen’s intellectual and historic inquisitiveness and was sympathetic to his cultural and religious identity as a Jew. As a couple, they traveled the world - through London, Paris, Rome and, of course, Vienna - and these ancient civilizations moved Arlen to musical expression. Perhaps it was their very contrast with trend-obsessed Los Angeles that spoke most powerfully to Arlen’s soul. In any case, his four Arabesques form a massive work for piano solo and would be considered a Sonata were they not four tone poems describing the transcendental beauty of the ancient world. His Arabesques, in contrast with those of Debussy or Schumann, refer to the original meaning of ‘as an Arab’. The piano works of Arlen, in general, are freer in their structure than his songs. The pianism they demand does not require fast fingers or pounding octaves, but exactitude of color and harmonic balance. He evokes his experience through the sounds of the instrument rather than attempting to relate a linear narrative: tone poems in every sense of the word.

Since the publication of this digital exhibit, Filmdelights has released a documentary about Walter Arlen's life featuring Michael Haas, among others. Learn more about the film, "Walter Arlen's First Century" at Filmdelights.


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