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Austrian-American Composer Walter Arlen has Died, Aged 103

Arlen was also a music critic for the Los Angeles Times, and maintained friendships with Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Villa-Lobos


As a composer, Walter Arlen largely kept his work private. Escaping from Nazi persecution in Austria in 1939, Arlen commented that his music has “[his] memories in it,” according to Music and the Holocaust. It wasn’t until 2008, that many of his pieces debuted to great public acclaim. 

Born in Vienna as Walter Aptowitzer in 1920 into a middle-class Jewish family, Arlen showed musical talent from a young age. He experienced opera for the first time at age eight when his parents took him to see Puccini’s Tosca

“It bowled me over,” he said of the experience, wrote NPR. “That was the beginning of my wanting to be a composer.” He began composing around age ten. Additionally, his mother played the piano and his uncle played the violin.

When Arlen’s grandfather discovered he had perfect pitch, Arlen was sent to receive piano lessons from the Schubert scholar Otto Erich Deutsch

His plans for a music career were interrupted when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. The Arlen family’s department store, Dichter’s, was taken from the family, and Arlen’s father was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp (from which he was later released). 

Walter was initially sent alone to relatives in Chicago in 1939. Following America’s entry into the war in 1941, he worked in a chemical factory, which debilitated him. After seeing a psychoanalyst for the following few years, it was suggested Arlen begin composing again as a form of therapy.




Arlen took composition lessons with Roy Harris and Leo Sowerby, who notably premiered Schoenberg’s organ works in the U.S., and whose students included Ned Rorem. Arlen later enrolled in postgraduate composition classes at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

At the end of WWII, and after his family arrived in America following their initial escape to London, Arlen won a competition that would allow him to travel the U.S. for the next four years alongside Harris and his pianist wife Johana.

He also helped Harris transcribe his manuscripts. Held at the Library of Congress, the score of Harris’s famous Symphony No. 3 is in Arlen’s hand.

Following this period, Arlen decided to become a music journalist and registered for a UCLA course taught by Albert Goldberg, a critic at the Los Angeles Times, where Arlen would later hold the same role.

At the time, Arlen ceased composing as he felt his being a music critic simultaneously would be a conflict of interest. He often reviewed contemporary music, including those of Korngold and Schoenberg.

Later on, he established the music department at Loyola Mount University and was friends with composers including Stravinsky, Milhaud, Villa-Lobos, and Chávez. He was also an acquaintance of Mahler’s daughter, Anne, who introduced him to wider music and social circles.


Aaron Copland, Irving Mills, Walter Arlen, Anne Mahler and Lukas Foss

L-R: Aaron Copland, Irving Mills, Walter Arlen, Anne Mahler, and Lukas Foss


In 1958, a cycle of Arlen’s songs was being performed at a National Association of American Composers and Conductors conference. There, he met Howard Myers, who would become his life-long companion.

Arlen began composing again in the 1980s after retiring from journalism. He later served as an artistic adviser to the Jose Iturbi Foundation.

“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,” Arlen said. “If none of this had happened, I would have been a different person.”

Arlen wrote around 65 works (scored mainly for voice and piano). They finally premiered in 2008 at the 70th anniversary of Germany’s annexation of Austria, in a concert of Arlen’s music at Vienna’s Jewish Museum

His works have since been performed in Europe and America and conducted by artists such as James Conlon, plus have been released on several CDs with the Gramola music company. 

His orchestral cantata Song of Songs has been performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in Vienna’s Konzerthaus and again in Israel. 

At age 99, he was approached by Wolfgang Brandstetter to compose the film score for the newly discovered print of the 1924 silent film Stadt ohne Juden (City Without Jews), based on the novel by Hugo Bettauer. The soundtrack premiered on Arlen’s 100th birthday. 

In 2019, a documentary film was made by Stephanus Domanig, titled Walter Arlen’s First Century. The trailer of the film can be viewed below.


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