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

Émigré Community and Music in Los Angeles

For some two decades before Walter Arlen arrived in Los Angeles, a group of European émigrés who had sought refuge in Los Angeles had already been making an impact on the local music scene. Otto Klemperer arrived in Los Angeles by boat in October 1933 to become Musical Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which was then just fourteen years old. Arnold Schoenberg came a year later and taught at both USC (1935-1936) and UCLA (1936-1944). The celebrated conductor Bruno Walter followed in 1935, having fallen in love with California after conducting a concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1927. In those early years, the Philharmonic shared space with a downtown church, and the local opera season consisted of a brief visit from the San Francisco Opera Company at Shrine Auditorium. Ballet primarily meant visits by European companies. 

While there was no shortage of conductors, concert offerings of all kinds were limited. Concert pianist Arthur Rubenstein found a home in Los Angeles in 1937 and later recalled playing at the Hollywood Bowl each of the thirteen years he lived in California with virtually all of the available conductors. "I had the opportunity to be soloist with all the following: Stokowski, Ormandy, Szell, Steinberg, Rodzinski, Beecham, Klemperer, Wallenstein, Barbirolli, and Bruno Walter. I think I played twice with some. Koussevitzky was the last."(Igor Stravinsky conducted at the Hollywood Bowl in 1935 before Rubenstein's arrival.) While many emigres found work with the film studios, others, like Schoenberg, found the culture clash unbridgeable. Igor Stravinsky visited MGM Studios and saw "forty salaried composers, all working from morning to night to produce music. This way the directors avoid re-runs of music that already exists and do not have to pay royalties to the composers."2 When Schoenberg requested $50,000 plus artistic control to compose a score for The Good Earth, his deal fell through.

In addition, there was very little opportunity to hear new music. Klemperer recalled that "at first Schoenberg was furious because I didn't perform him more. I constantly tried to explain that the Los Angeles public was not yet ready for him." Peter Yates, who founded "Evenings on the Roof" with his wife Pianist Frances Mullen in 1939, recalled Los Angeles of the 1930s as a "veritable Sahara of artistic incomprehension." In the 1940s he called it "a city of cultural islands surrounded by vacant lots."3 When Otto Klemperer began his first season with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra, Yates was thrilled to hear live music of a quality he had only encountered on records, yet found himself dismayed by what he felt was insufficient audience enthusiasm. As he began to develop relationships with other emigres, including Schoenberg, a plan took shape to utilize and develop local resources and cultivate an audience. Among the early concerts were two all-Schoenberg programs in 1940 and 1941. The second had an audience of only 15 to 20 people.

The weekly chamber music series, "Evenings on the Roof" played an important part in helping Los Angelinos appreciate more adventurous music. Renamed "Monday Evening Concerts" when Lawrence Morton took over in 1954, it is still going today. For years Lawrence Morton chastised the cultural elite of Los Angeles for failing to acknowledge the contemporary geniuses that once dwelt among them, particularly Schoenberg and Stravinsky, whose greatness, he liked to say, was "obscured by the smog of local non culture."He found allies in Yates and Mullen, who at first hosted the weekly chamber music concerts on the roof of their home. The "Monday Evening Concerts" reflected the aspirations of an array of talented performers willing to work to develop an audience in Los Angeles at a period when commercial halls offered only the most standard concert fare. 

By the time Arlen started writing for the Los Angeles Times in the early 1950s, Los Angeles' community of European emigres had begun to decline and their popularity had diminished.  Arnold Schoenberg passed away in July 1951. An obsession with communism focused on Hollywood, and by implication, on the emigres' influence. Composer Hanns Eisler, a student of Schoenberg, was forced into a second exile, still others found themselves harassed or in sudden disfavor. But the fact that the Westside JCC was home to The Composers Workshop evidenced the continued presence of these and other émigré composers in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s. Anneliese Landau, an émigré musicologist hired in 1944 to be music director of the recently formed Jewish Centers Association, started the Workshop in 1957 as a regular showcase for local contemporary artists in performance and conversation.6

Arlen's comments on music by Leon Levitch, presented at a Composer’s Workshop held at the Westside JCC in April, 1958, are the observations of a fellow composer: its best, Mr. Levitch's music is sensitive, competently put together and pleasing in sound... When Mr. Levitch's muse does not reach its optimal level, however, his product is rather stale and shallow, and one misses adventurousness, a forward-looking orientation, rhythmic drive and interest, as well as a feeling of innate musicality which a composer's critical sense should never permit to be absent, even from his weakest work.

One senses Arlen analyzing the composition not just as a listener, but as an architect would comment on a blueprint.

In time, as the paper’s specialist in contemporary music, Arlen’s regular beat included performances at UCLA, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Monday Evening Concerts, which had now become a community institution. Goldberg had struggled to understand what was going on in the new music. Arlen was more comfortable with it. Reporting on a February 2, 1959 concert sponsored in collaboration with the Fromm Music Foundation, which included new pieces commissioned by the foundation from Gunther Schuller and Ingolf Dahl, as well as Stravinsky's Octet for Wind Instruments, and three works by Edgar Varese, Arlen led with the observation that the largest and most distinguished crowd of the season attended this "rambunctious affair."8 The role of critic allowed Arlen to find a place for himself among the circle of émigré artists still in residence, including Ernst Toch, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Eric Zeisl, Alma and Anna Mahler, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Darius Milhaud, and Arnold Schoenberg’s family.
Carol Merrill-Mirsky, ed., Exiles in Paradise (Los Angeles: Hollywood Bowl Museum catalog, 1991), 37.
2 Dorothy Lamb Crawford, Evenings on and Off the Roof: Pioneering Concerts in Los Angeles, 1939-1971 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 58.
Carol Merrill-Mirsky, ed., Exiles in Paradise, 13.
4 Dorothy Lamb Crawford, Evenings on and Off the Roof, 1, 48-50.
5 Burt A. Folkart, "Lawrence Morton Dies; Man Behind the Music," Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1987.
6 Hirsch, Lily E. (accessed August 11, 2016) One of Landau’s early efforts was organizing an International Composers Concert on April 24, 1945 to benefit the JCCs. The Workshop was an effort to reengage them with her work.
7 Arlen, “Center Gives Final Composer’s Workshop,” Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1958.
8 Arlen, "New Music Presented at Evening Concert," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 4, 1959.

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