Walter Arlen
Walter Arlen, photographed in Vienna this month © Andreas Jakwerth

The date was November 9 1938. It was a bitterly cold night in Vienna but Walter Arlen, aged 18, was feeling restless. His mother had told him that “they” had been around looking for him again – and, for no other reason, he left the house and started walking. It was around 8pm, the streets were deserted, and he walked for two hours up into the hills, where there was a vantage point over the city. To his amazement he saw red glowing lights in the sky. At first he had no idea what was happening, but gradually the truth dawned: these were fires, and the synagogues of Vienna were burning.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of that night. This was Kristallnacht, widely regarded as a symbolic turning point in the fate of Jews in Germany and Austria that would lead inexorably to the Holocaust. Arts events are scheduled in many countries to mark the anniversary, from readings of poetry and memoirs to performances of musical works related to the historic event.

For the teenage Walter Arlen, then known by his family name Walter Aptowitzer, Kristallnacht was the start of years of traumatic upheaval. A few months later, the night after Adolf Hitler was welcomed into Vienna with “tremendous jubilation”, the family was woken by Nazi stormtroopers banging on their door with the butts of their rifles. Once inside, they ransacked everything. Arlen’s father was taken away to Dachau concentration camp. Arlen himself was beaten up. He recalls bitterly how one of the guards, who was known to his father as a fellow member of a stamp-collecting club, used the raid to seize his father’s prized stamp collection.

With hindsight, this looks like a story heading for tragedy. But Arlen had one stroke of luck: family connections gave him an escape route to the US. (It was on his arrival that he anglicised his name, choosing the same surname as another Jewish musician, songwriter Harold Arlen, who wrote “Over the Rainbow” – possibly an optimistic gesture.) Although he was to spend the war years alone and with no knowledge of what had happened to his family (they had all reached London but were bombed out three times, and his mother subsequently committed suicide), the young musician was at least out of harm’s way.

A synagogue ablaze
A synagogue ablaze in Landau during Kristallnacht © Ullstein Bild

“I was in the deepest depression,” he says. “A social worker made an appointment for me with a doctor and I underwent two years of psycho­analysis, which helped me hugely. I had already started composing when I was 10 years old and the doctor said to me, ‘You were born to write music and it will help you enormously.’”

The diagnosis was the right one, as composition prizes and other early successes showed, but then Arlen secured work as a music critic on the Los Angeles Times. “I stopped composing,” he says, “because I thought people would only say the music of a critic was junk.” There was compensation at that time in California, where Schoenberg and Stravinsky, the two most famous composers of their day, had also taken refuge during the war – Arlen met them, went to their private concerts, reviewed one historic premiere after another. But the result was a 35-year hiatus before he started writing music again.

Among the earlier works he composed in the 1980s is a pair of Nocturnes for piano. Pensive and nostalgic, they hark back to that night when Arlen looked out over the burning synagogues of Vienna. “I do not scream or rage about what happened,” he says. “These are essentially sad pieces. The second has quotations from Schubert, as I wanted to capture the disbelief that in this city, the city of Schubert, Kristallnacht could happen. Schubert is the epitome of the soul and beauty of Vienna for me.”

Suddenly the music poured out. “It was as though it had been dammed up inside me for all those years,” he says. “During my working life as a critic, I didn’t have any burdens on me; they were somehow repressed. The music that came out now was nostalgic, postmodern before there was such a thing, and in its own way tonal. My heart is always in my music. My memories are always in it. I revere musical beauty, and whether other people find my music beautiful or not, that is always my aim.”

Arlen and his aunts, November 1928
Arlen and his aunts stand by the family home in November 1928

Arlen’s output is inevitably modest, totalling about 65 works. As he was never able to study orchestration, they are mostly songs and piano music. Most remarkably of all, the composer himself had hardly heard any of them performed until a few years ago, when a proposal came forward to record his music. A two-CD set of the songs (Things Might Be Different on the Gramola label) appeared last year and the piano music has just been recorded for future release by Daniel Wnukowski, who Arlen describes as an “inspirational” pianist. There will be six CDs in all.

All this will add another musical portrait to the already substantial gallery of composers silenced by the Nazis. Michael Haas, author of Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis, says Arlen is the “quintessential exile composer. The music he writes could never have been written by an Austrian of his generation who had remained in Austria, or by an American. For him, it was a means of trying to come to terms with the loss of homeland, family and culture. His ruminations are sorrowful rather than angry, and many are startlingly beautiful.”

Looking back, Arlen says: “The Vienna of 1938 was an incredible place to be – so many composers, artists, writers, philosophers. What if Kristallnacht had never happened? We know of the gifted Jewish composers interned in Theresienstadt [the “artistic” concentration camp] – like Ullmann and Schulhoff – and the revival of operas by composers such as Schreker, Braunfels and Zemlinsky has shown us what might have been. Musical history would surely have been the richer.”

This is no less the case for Arlen himself. “I would have spent my life as a composer,” he says. “Would my music have been different? Surely yes – the music I have written is so heavily influenced by what happened to my family, the tragedies that befell me, the loss of everything in Austria that our family owned, stolen under the Nazis and never returned. If none of this had happened, I would have been a different person.

“I am not a religious Jew, my family were not religious Jews. But I feel that I am a representation of the Jewish spirit, whatever that might be. To me, it is honesty, rectitude, intellectual achievement. I had heard nothing of my music before these recording sessions brought it so wonderfully to life. Now I am 93 years old and I hope that finally my music will be noticed by the public before I die.”

‘Es geht wohl anders: The Songs of Walter Arlen’, sung by Rebecca Nelsen and Christian Immler, accompanied by Danny Driver, is released on Gramola

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