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Contributions to Musical Life in LA
"Walter Arlen in LA," by Michael Haas, Part Three
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.
Reviewer of the Émigré Community
"Walter Arlen, Music Critic," by Mary Enid Pinkerson (4 of 4)
Arlen always retained a strong pride in his continental roots and took pleasure in being part of the émigré artistic community. Despite arriving in the U.S. as a teenager and making a life in Los Angeles’ developing music scene, Arlen’s critical voice remains openly attached to the richness of European culture in comparison to that which America has to offer. It is clear that Arlen’s greatest pleasure was in covering music performed and/or written by the local community of German and Austrian musicians who had, like himself, fled the Nazis and found refuge in Los Angeles.
Clippings from the LA Times in March 1952 record an exchange with composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco who would later become a close friend. Arlen was called on to review the Hungarian Quartet at the Pasadena Playhouse where they were joined by Castelnuovo-Tedesco playing the piano part in a premiere performance of his Second Quintet, Memories of a Tuscan Countryside. Arlen, writing as “W.A.” suggests the composer rework the composition into a symphonic poem to give it more color.
Since Arlen used his own compositions to process difficult wartime memories, he finds it surprising that Castelnuovo-Tedesco does not. Convinced this would be truer to the “stuff that memories are made of” and would enhance the music, he adds, “If it is only pleasant memories with which the artist deals he runs the risk of falling prey to a shallow sentimentality devoid of that depth of expression which he can project into his work only if he allows himself to come to grips with the full range of his emotional experience.”1 The comment apparently struck a nerve. In response, Castelnuovo-Tedesco sent a letter to the paper to ask who wrote the review and request that the editor give the critic a message:
Their exchange here captures a tension with which all emigres struggled—was it better to dwell on the past or move on with their lives?
Tell him that from Italy I have also many unpleasant memories: Mussolini, the Fascists, misery, ignorance prejudice... (and even some music critics!) But these things don't inspire me to write music and I prefer to forget them.2
Igor Stravinsky, the world's most famous composer, was drawn to Los Angeles in part by the convivial group of European refugee musicians who became his close friends. When covering the music of Stravinsky which comprised the opening night program at Mermaid Tavern in Topanga Canyon in August 1976, Arlen points out that Stravinsky's music has a "living local tradition." He notes approvingly that the present conductor, Lawrence Foster is keeping that tradition going, even with his own flair. As it happened, Stravinsky made his conducting debut with this Octet (in Paris in 1923) and Foster made his conducting debut with L'Histoire in a Sunset Blvd. club (not far from Stravinsky's house, in 1958). Stravinsky’s music has a living local tradition and the trick is to follow in his footsteps. Foster was the right man for it. Even his specific gestures and general conductorial demeanor on this occasion proved reminiscent of Stravinsky. (Stravinsky, however, never conducted in an embroidered muslin peasant shirt.)3
Five years later, in 1981, Arlen again promoted the Los Angeles angle in his review of a performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C (1940) by the USC Orchestra. Calling the concert a “handsome down payment on the upcoming Stravinsky centenary (he was born on June 17, 1882),” Arlen urges Los Angeles to “go all out for Stravinsky,” noting that he lived here for more than 25 years.4 Arlen was equally in his element at a concert of Viennese music conducted by Eugene Ormandy (a Hungarian), to which he gave a warm review:
On the other hand, impressive artistry could also provoke Arlen to criticize lack of opportunity in this country, as in a review of Patricia Brinton, a lyric soprano who he points out, has spent several years studying and concertizing in Europe. For Arlen, her recital demonstrated
It was a treat to hear waltz music conducted by a man born and raised in a city by the Danube (it also flows through Budapest). With subtle rubatoes in the right places, carefully molded instrumental solos and effervescent tempos that felt inevitable, there was no mistaking the genuine article.5
...the kind of professionalism and artistry which is strictly the product of fine training and wide experience, and that we deprive ourselves of a great deal of pleasure by not providing the kind of activity which would keep a performer of her attainments on our side of the Atlantic.6
As an émigré himself, Arlen was keenly aware of this perceived lack of opportunity in America. His editor, Albert Goldberg had covered some of this territory in a series of three columns written in 1950 called “The Transplanted Composer” in which Goldberg asked a number of the émigré composers who fled the Nazis to comment on their situation and how it affected their music. In his response to Goldberg’s question, Eugene Zádor pointed out the vast difference in the sheer quantity of high culture on the two continents:
While America may have denied Arlen the career as a composer he dreamt of as a child in Austria, his status as an émigré helped him to get these assignments as a critic. Using his gifts in the setting in which he found himself, Arlen was able to assist the careers of other transplanted composers as well as students, and in the process helped to make his own contribution to Los Angeles' music scene.
Before the war we had about 160 orchestras in Middle Europe, playing nine to ten months a year. Often the ink was not yet dry on your score before you had a performance. In this country about 30 regular symphony orchestras play four or five months a year, and believe me the ink is very definitely dry before you hear a work performed. The road from finished score to performance is often longer (and harder) than the road from empty paper to finished score. And—believe me again—there is no greater inspiration for a composer than to know that he will be performed in the near future.7
1 Arlen, Walter, “Memories Re-created by Quintet,” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1952.
2 Castelnuovo-Tedesco's letter was printed in the Times as "Music Mail Box," April 6, 1952.
3 Arlen, "Music Review: Stravinsky Opens Mermaid Season," Los Angeles Times Aug. 24, 1976.
4 Arlen, "USC Orchestra in Modern Program," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 16, 1981.
5 Arlen, “Music Review: Ormandy Leads L.A. Philharmonic,” Los Angeles Times, July 19, 1976
6 Arlen, "Soprano Shows New Artistry," Los Angeles Times, June9, 1958.
7 Goldberg, Albert, "Music: The Sounding Board," Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1959.