Walter Arlen (b. 1920)

Composer and music critic Walter Arlen found fame later in life when his compositions were first performed in public in 2008. Arlen, who escaped from Nazi persecution in Austria in 1939, has commented that his music has ‘[his] memories in it.’ He has been described by musicologist Michael Haas as the ‘quintessential exile composer,’ because his music was written as a cathartic way of coming to terms with the sadness and loss that he experienced during his life.

Born Walter Aptowitzer to a middle-class Jewish family in Vienna, Arlen showed musical talent from a young age and was sent for piano lessons with the Schubert scholar Otto Erich Deutsch. Arlen dreamed of studying at music college, but his plans were cut short when the Nazis annexed Austria in March 1938. The Arlen family’s department store, Dichter’s, was ‘Aryanised’ and taken from the family, and Arlen’s father was arrested and taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. Fortunately the family was able to acquire the necessary visas and permits. Walter was initially sent alone to relatives in Chicago in 1939, carrying a suitcase with his scores inside. His father’s release from Buchenwald was negotiated shortly thereafter, and the rest of the Arlen family escaped to London.

Unaware that his family had also managed to escape, Arlen worked as a shop assistant in Chicago but suffered from depression. A psychoanalyst suggested that Arlen begin composing again as a form of therapy, and he heard some of his vocal compositions in private performances with the playback singer Marni Nixon. Arlen studied composition with Leo Sowerby and Roy Harris, before enrolling in postgraduate composition classes at UCLA, where he became friends with other Austrian and German émigrés. He then became a music critic for the Los Angeles Times. Arlen stopped composing because he felt that to be both a music critic and a composer would be a conflict of interest; his style was also very different to popular avant-garde music. Whilst working as a critic Arlen founded the music department at Loyola Mount University, and maintained friendships with composers such as Stravinsky, Milhaud, Villa-Lobos and Chávez.

It was not until Arlen retired from journalism in the 1980s that he began composing again. His longtime companion Howard Myers shared his translations of poetry by John of the Cross, a Catholic born to Jewish parents but forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition. Arlen found inspiration in these poems, identifying with St John of the Cross, and setting the texts to music renewed his interest in composing. Much of Arlen's work expresses his feelings about his experiences during the Holocaust, including his escape from Austria, the deaths of family members in concentration camps and the suicides of several members of his family:

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.

In a pair of piano pieces Arlen includes a musical quotation from Schubert who, like Arlen, was born in Vienna. The composer explained that he included the quotation to ‘capture the disbelief that in [Vienna], the city of Schubert, Kristallnacht could happen.’

His musical output (around 65 works, mainly scored for voice and piano) remained unperformed until March 2008, the 70th anniversary of Germany’s annexation of Austria, when a concert of Arlen’s music was given at Vienna’s Jewish Museum. His works have since been performed in Europe and America, and have been released on three CDs by Gramola: Wien, du allein: Memories of an Exiled Wandering Viennese Jew (2015; Daniel Wnukowski, piano), Die Letzte Blaue (2014; various), and Es geht wohl anders, Things turn out differently (2012; Christian Immler, baritone, and Danny Driver, piano).

Walter Arlen lives in America and is an artistic adviser to the Jose Iturbi Foundation.

By Abaigh McKee.


Anon. (2012) ‘Walter Arlen: a life set to song’ Gramophone (; accessed 10/12/2016)

Fairman, R. (2013) ‘Composer Walter Arlen on how Kristallnacht changed his life,’ Financial Times (; accessed 10/12/2016)

Haas, M. (2016) ‘Restoration – Restitution’ [unpublished paper] UK.

Haas, M. (2011) ‘Walter Arlen, ‘Things turn out differently’’ The OREL Foundation (; accessed 9/12/2016)

Haas, M. (2015) ‘Walter Arlen: Exiled Composer’s Personal Works are Rediscovered’ KCET: Artbound (; accessed 9/12/2016)

In August 2010 a recording of songs by exiled composer Walter Arlen was made at the Vienna University of Music in cooperation with Here the pianist Danny Driver talks about working with the composer while making the recordings.