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Student and Critic
"Walter Arlen in LA" by Michael Haas, Part Two
There could hardly be two more contrasting cities than Vienna and Los Angeles. The former lives from the past, the latter dependent on the trends of tomorrow. Yet it was precisely this synthesis that brought so many central European refugees to Southern California. The movie industry realized that its tales of adventure and love demanded the music of German late Romanticism, while the even climate of the region was the opposite of Vienna’s extreme fluctuations between freezing winters and stifling summers. The perpetual sunshine, spring climate and year-round jasmine were of course not to everyone’s liking. The Composer Eric Zeisl described it as a ‘sunny, blue grave’. Others, who initially felt safe geographically so far from Europe, would realize that the distance between themselves and former homelands was not solely measured in miles or kilometers.
The ways of America, and more specifically, the ways of Los Angeles were unlike anything they had known before. The American language itself tore down barriers constructed by German that allowed a permanent distance between oneself and those who were not family members or intimate friends. Professors who were offered teaching positions in local universities were shocked at the easy exchanges that existed between students and faculty–indeed, they were shocked how in an environment shaped by individual choice, classes weren’t held with the wise and venerated master in front of silent, unquestioning youngsters. Arnold Schoenberg and Ernst Krenek soon learned that the opposite face of Californian informality was openness to new thinking and ideas. Crusty Europeans soon accepted that questions from pupils were not an outward manifestation of stupidity refusing to yield to the brilliance of their lectures, but a legitimate challenge to claims of intellectual authority.
Walter Arlen, at the age of thirty, was neither a crusty European, nor stupid. He quickly learned English and spoke without a trace of accent. His attractive, yet studious appearance betrayed little that was not clean-cut American. Like so many émigrés fleeing the barbarity of Nazism, he appeared to have reinvented himself by putting as much distance between himself and his past as possible. As a youngster, he had it easier than those a generation older, holding on to the traditions of a continent that had so brazenly disowned them. He no longer needed to feel shame at being a Jew and one of his first student works upon arriving at UCLA was a setting of the Song of Songs.
His studies in UCLA meant that he could live in Santa Monica with his Aunt Esther, her husband, and his father. One of his teachers was the music critic for the Los Angeles Times, Albert Goldberg, who invited the young Arlen to go and cover for him at a concert of contemporary music. Arlen objected and reminded Goldberg that English was not a language in which he had experience writing. “You will” said Goldberg, and from that moment Arlen’s journalism became a permanent fixture of Los Angeles’s contemporary music coverage. With Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, Ernst Toch, and Igor Stravinsky all based in the same city, Arlen’s position would become more important than he could ever have imagined.
Yet it was hardly the jump into the deep-end that it may initially appear. While working with Roy Harris, he had met and gotten to know some of the world’s most important musicians, composers, and administrators. By the time he began studying with Goldberg, he was already better connected than most of his classmates, and with a musical background from Vienna–no matter how tenuous–his sophistication stood out.
Once established as critic, Arlen took the ethical decision to cease composing. How could he possibly operate as a critic for contemporary music if he had established a profile for himself as a composer? There is a Yiddish saying, ‘You can’t dance at two weddings with one behind,' and Walter chose to remain a journalist and later, pedagogue. In addition, he was profoundly aware that his musical language was out of step with the trends of the day. Even if his own music bypassed the strict dodecaphonic or aleatoric fashions of the mid-20th century, it was his responsibility to provide intelligent commentary on the works of others. It was a profession he took seriously. He regularly covered new music introduced at Peter Yates' "Evenings on the Roof," and as the series transitioned to become Lawrence Morton’s "Monday Evening Concerts" and later relocated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Like Eric Zeisl, Arlen was able to move seamlessly between the opposing new-music camps of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.
His account of attending the funeral of Schoenberg’s wife was a chilling reminder of how close and hateful anti-Semitism remained. He had been one of only a few to attend the funeral of Arnold Schoenberg who was buried as a Jew. Schoenberg had reconverted to Judaism in Paris in 1933, though his wife and family remained Catholic. At the funeral of Schoenberg’s wife Gertrude, the priest made comments that Arlen and members of the Schoenberg family felt offensive to any Jew, and nearly criminal given the atrocities from which they had all escaped, and from which Catholic conversion would have offered no rescue. It brought to mind a song Arlen wrote as a teenager for his cousin Micky - and Micky's eventual suicide - a silent departure from life that was tragically common among émigrés as well as other Holocaust survivors. He called the lullaby "Es Geht Wohl Anders (Things Turn out Differently)," perhaps a subconscious premonition of his own struggles to come.