‘Die Letzte Blaue’ Returns Home

After Decades of Exile, a Special Home Coming for Émigré Composer and Critic Walter Arlen

News | Matthias Wurz | April 2008

Michael Haas, Edith Arlen Wachtel and Walter Arlen with Barbara Prammer (Photo: W. Fried)

The tiny and fragile Walter Arlen (b. 1920) in his dark suit and tie sat calmly at the left side of the stage at the back, at a small table, a glass of water at his hand. A microphone clipped to his jacket, he seemed tired as this concert in his honor drew to a close after more than two hours.

It was a moving event, recognizing the 70th anniversary of the Nazi Anschluss of Mar. 12, 1938, at Vienna’s Jewish Museum. On the stage with him, music curator Michael Haas - "my actual discoverer," Arlen said - was alert to his failing energy and wove an effortless narrative of history and insight around the old man’s memories, including the audience in a musical fireside chat.

At the same time, Arlen’s bright eyes and charming smile glowed with excitement as the evening reached its climax. Respected in America as Music Critic for the Los Angeles Times, Arlen had rarely been the center of attention as a composer, except perhaps at Loyola Marymount University’s Music Department in the 1960s.

So this was a special homecoming after the decades of exile, after the shock of disinterest in Austria for its returned Jews after World War II. This was not something unique to Walter Arlen; a whole generation of Austrians suffered this same fate.

But every life, every story, is unique, and needs to be told, touching the listener each time with the recounting of a life lost and found.

An exhibition accompanying the concert included photographs and personal documents, complementing the ongoing exhibition on the Korngolds, the celebrated Viennese critic and his famous émigré composer son.

On that evening, Arlen told his story in six episodes from the dark days in March 1938 to the present, interspersed with performances of his chamber music by soprano Irene Waller, violinist Iva Nicolova, and Andrea Linsbauer on the piano.

Returning to Austria after the fall of the Third Reich left Arlen feeling divided, a feeling that endures today: "So fühle ich mich immer in einem Zwiespalt," said Arlen. The feelings of longing for his home land persisted; his mother had committed suicide in exile.

On the other hand, "Austrians behaved very, very badly after the war," Arlen said in an interview with the Viennese weekly Falter. "That was all a scam: For the applications for compensation we received nothing from the archives. It was a disgusting, appalling fight that we had to do for some restitution."  And then there were the human losses of the disastrous Nazi-Rule of the years 1938 to 1945, the loss of so many friends, relatives and colleagues.

"Telling those stories gets on my nerves," Arlen admits, and one feels his impatience with hearing his music performed. Indeed, the last two items performed that evening connected one of Arlen’s first musical experiences – the Viennese Schlager ‘Wenn die letzte tttt geht’ (1919) by Willy Engel-Berger (1890 – 1946) –  to one of his last composition that he entitled die letzte Blaue ("the last blue one") referring to the blue tag marking the last tramway of the evening, still used until a few years ago by the Wiener Linien. Missing die letzte Blaue, meant the train had left for good, chosen by the organizers – the Jewish Museum of Vienna, Exil. Arte and Grundstein – as a symbol for Walter Artlen’s life.

When Arlen was a little boy, he sang die letzte Blaue on the counter of the Warenhaus Dichter, near the Brunnenmarkt, the largest department store outside Vienna’s First District, founded and then owned by Arlen’s grandfather, Leopold Dichter.

It took decades to find the music to the old song again, Arlen said, but eventually he succeeded, and in 2000, he wrote his own paraphrase for piano solo. The 1920s Schlager is catchy, a bit like a Scott Joplin rag, although Irene Wallner only partly matched the lightheartedness and felt more like a Lieder interpretation.

Arlen reinterpreted die letzte Blaue, splicing it with elements of the Fledermaus overture or the Donauwaltzer of Johann Strauss Jr.. Although skillfully executed by Andrea Linsbauer, the piece seemed to call for a little more elegance, beyond the drive of the original Schlager, drawing deeper into the pull of the implied nostaligia.

Nevertheless, Arlen’s writing reveals here a compositional quality of Leonard Bernstein, skillfully interweaving his own musical ideas with those from the reminiscent past.

The event took place before a packed house: For the latecomers that evening, it meant standing, as the 150 seats were quickly filled.  Many of the composers relatives and friends attended, including Arlen’s sister Edith Arlen Wachtel, former Austrian Ambassador to the U.S., Peter Moser and his wife, in a rush of ‘hellos’ and hugs, tears of happiness and joy.

The evening had begun with Barbara Prammer, President of the Austrian Parliament, who approached the podium, dressed in black, simple and respectful. No seeking of media attention, but reaching out to those present. And although she had brought a script, the address was personal and spontaneous.

"I must repeatedly remind myself that the younger generation doesn’t share our experiences of the past," she said, "and that we will have to come back to this subject again and again."

Then she told a personal story about how as a young mother, she was working on her masters thesis about children in the concentration camps.

"It was a most intense time, with all that disgust and horror," set against the reality of the love of her child. "To this day," she said, her voice quavering, "I cannot bear to read it aloud."

Prammer is chair of the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, and thus active in the efforts to resolve final restitution claims.

"Had we started our work 30 or 40 years earlier, how many more victims could have been reached," she said. "Time is running out for this generation, and," she added, with a glance at Walter Arlen, "only a few are still here to remind us."

Events like the one at the Jewish Museum that evening were "well-directed to highlight our history," she concluded. And contemporary witnesses like Walter Arlen had deserved something better from Austria.

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    the vienna review April 2008