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A Life's Work Rediscovered
"Walter Arlen in LA," by Michael Haas, Part Four
In 2007, as music curator for Vienna’s Jewish Museum, I was carrying out research for an up-coming exhibition and spending several weeks researching in Los Angeles. Barbara and Ronald Schoenberg had introduced me to Walter Arlen, whom coincidentally, I had met only the previous evening at the home of the Austrian Consulate. A friendship soon grew and Howard approached me with news of Walter’s own compositions. He told me that Walter would be furious if he knew that I had been told about them. He managed to show me a few sample manuscripts, which were instantly recognizable as musically literate and meticulously clear. They were obviously not avant-garde and appeared by their transparency and delicacy to be both appealing and attractive. A drive down Santa Monica Boulevard, and my initial impression was confirmed when Howard innocently popped in a cassette of a young violinist playing Sonnet for violin and piano, an arrangement of his song Does he Belong here-from his Rilke Cycle of Sonnets to Orpheus. The intrinsic beauty of this work, both as song and as violin solo, was so instantaneous, that I agreed to mount a concert of Arlen’s works at the Jewish Museum–a concert that we could not know would have enormous repercussions. Rather than being an evening with friends in the museum’s modest lecture theater, it became the memorial event for recalling Austria’s annexation in March 1938–seventy years earlier. Walter’s family story–long forgotten in Vienna–was a mere page in the horror of these events and the concert had become a gala with state and federal politicians from all parties in attendance.
The politicians were all from a generation that had not experienced the Anschluss and regardless of party allegiance, found it incomprehensible that such a disaster could have befallen their homeland. Walter, whose macular degeneration had now nearly rendered him totally blind, spoke quietly in the soft Viennese dialect of a forgotten age. For the politicians and members of museum staff in attendance, it was a deeply moving experience. It was not just the voice of someone who had witnessed what had happened, but Walter still spoke as the perfectly preserved seventeen-year-old boy he had been at the time. The pain and shock was nearly unbearable, with relief coming only from the melancholic beauty of the works selected.
Adding to the poignancy of the event was the concurrent demolition of the Art Deco building that had formerly housed the Dichter Department Store. It was where Walter had been born. The double dealings and mendacity of post-war Austria meant that restitution was inconceivable for either the store or the family estate on the Hungarian border. The lack of restitution meant that there was no resolution and ‘bitterness’ is insufficient to describe the anger and sense of rejection that Arlen would feel again as a ninety year-old. Yet paradoxically, returning his music to Austria became an act of reverse restitution, restoring to his homeland that tiny bit of cultural beauty that had been thrown out and trampled upon. It was in effect, yet another Dichter family mitzvah to the people of Vienna. His last composition before losing his eyesight entirely was My Song, to be sung a-cappella. He appended to his cycle of songs based on the poems of Rabindranath Tagore.
SOUND CUE - My Song - from Wein, Du Allein
Pain and anger does not diminish over time, but takes on a voice of its own. Arlen’s most angry work, Arbeit Macht Frei, is in many ways his most imaginative and creative, combining lyricism and suspense while departing from musical tones altogether in order to give a voice to those who perished in the Holocaust. In the second movement of the piece, he substitutes music with the gradual speeding up of a metronome, meant to mimic the heart-beats of those in the gas chambers who suddenly realized what was happening to them. It represents much that is unique about Arlen’s biographical evocations in sound.