A composer remembers his Kristallnacht terror

A composer remembers his Kristallnacht terror


norman lebrecht

November 09, 2013

Walter Arlen has been talking to the Financial Times:


walter arlen


“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.”



  • Stephen says:

    I have participated in a concert of “recovered music” and a concert that featured “Kaddish- I am Here” by Lawrence Siegel. I think about this a lot. It is one thing for a musician-composer to face obscurity in the pursuit of the soul and craft of making music. But to have that thrust upon one by circumstances that have nothing to do with anything other than unbridled hate is beyond measure.

    As an “obscure” artist, I can not imagine what it must be like to live one’s life knowing the music is there and at the same time unheard- silenced. Words can not describe what that pain must be like.

    I wept at both concerts for different reasons.

    The first was the sheer sense of loss to music and what we might have had if the lives and manuscripts had been spared. It was perhaps selfish.

    The second was that at some point, there will be no survivors to tell the story and that telling must fall to us. The enormity of that was overwhelming because the heinous brutality of the depth of the evil, I can not fathom. How then, can I tell the story?

    Add to that, that I am not Jewish by birth or profession. At a level of soul and spirit it might not matter, but to tell the story- to get it right- to find the shreds and shine a light on them- that must be our work as heirs as I see it.

    I send good wishes to Mr. Arlen, as he hears his music at long last.

    Thank you for posting this news item.

  • A Jewish refugee from Vienna, Kurt Frederik, was one of my professors at the University of New Mexico (of all places.) He deeply enriched my life and those of countless other students. Surely this is also part of the legacy of the survivors. I’ve written about Kurt Frederik’s influence on me here: