Composer Walter Arlen Passes Away at 103

Composer Walter Arlen Passes Away at 103
Walter Arlen

The Austrian-born Jewish composer escaped the Holocaust in 1939 and is regarded as a quintessential exiled composer who found fame and recognition later in life

Wise Music Group and G. Schirmer mourn the loss of Walter Arlen who passed away at the age of 103 on September 3, 2023. Arlen is considered one of the most profound and quintessential exile composers who fled Nazi-occupied Europe during WWII. 

Wise Music Group is publishing his works with an agreement with the Exilarte Center for Banned Music based in Vienna, an organization with a mission to bring back and uncover the music of composers silenced by the Nazis.

Michael Haas (Co-Founder, Exilarte Center) reflects, "Walter Arlen was in many ways the quintessential 'exile composer.' He wrote music that his contemporaries from his two homelands, Austria and America, were incapable of. His compositions were a synthesis of both, sounding Austrian to Americans and American to Austrians. His music reflected more than just a mixture: It also reflected personal trauma, as well as offering moments of joy: Joy at having survived and finding a new life and love, yet at the same time, reflecting sorrow at loss of home, identity and family. His music and personality remained the Austrian in America and the American in Austria."

Born July 31, 1920 to a middle-class Jewish family in Vienna, Arlen showed immense musical talent at a young age. He took piano lessons from the Schubert scholar Otto Erich Deutsch, and dreamed of studying music in college. At the age of 18, his family-owned department store was taken by the Nazis in 1938. Arlen’s father was arrested and taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Arlen’s family was able to secure the necessary paperwork to send him to live with family in Chicago in 1939. He left with a suitcase filled with his scores inside.

His father’s release was negotiated shortly after Arlen had left, and his family escaped to London. Arlen had no idea about his family’s escape as he lived in Chicago working as a shop assistant. It was suggested that he started writing music again as a form of therapy.

Arlen studied composition with Leo Sowerby and Roy Harris, and then attended postgraduate composition classes at UCLA. He became friends with other Austrian and German émigrés. He then became a music critic for the Los Angeles Times but stopped composing because he felt there would be a conflict of interest of a composer also being a music critic. Arlen founded the music department at Loyola Marymount University while he worked as a critic, and was friends with the composers Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Carlos Chávez.

In 1980, Arlen retired from journalism and began writing music once again at the age of 60. He found inspiration in the poetry of John of the Cross, a Catholic born to Jewish parents but forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition. These texts renewed his interest in music.

Arlen’s body of work is a reflection of his experiences surviving the Holocaust and the trauma it caused to himself and his family. His compositions ended up numbering around 65 individual works that were mostly scored for voice and piano. And they remained unperformed until March 2008 when a concert of Arlen’s music was given at Viennas Jewish Museum.

Walter Arlen leaves behind a rich history of musical storytelling that will now be able reach future generations, creating a direct connection to his life and the human condition of the past. Arlen was also recently interviewed in the 2023 Netflix documentary Eldorado: Everything the Nazis Hate, and by journalist Tim Greiving for NPR’s All Things Considered.

”It is a privilege for G. Schirmer to finally publish the great music of Walter Arlen.  I just wish Walter had lived long enough to see his music in print,” noted G. Schirmer President Robert Thompson. 

Arlen is survived by his husband Howard Myers.

For more information, please contact your local Wise Music Promotion Team. See Contact Us.