Eric Zeisl

Eric Zeisl (1905-1959) was a composer whose career unfolded along a well-trodden path of exile.  In the early 1930’s he was a promising young Viennese composer just starting to make his career.  When Austria was annexed by the Nazis in 1938, he was forced to leave.  Emigrating through Paris and New York, he eventually settled in Southern California, living in Hollywood where he worked in the film business, did some teaching and was part of a vibrant and distinguished émigré community before he died of a heart attack in his early 50’s.  Zeisl’s music is deeply traditional; drawing on a broad range of powerful expressive devices, and from the late 1930’s his output is marked by a frequent turn towards what has been described as something like a “Hebraic” mode.

Early Life

Eric Zeisl was born into an assimilated Jewish upper middle-class family.  His family ran a café on Praterstern.  Eric and his brothers were involved in musical pursuits, particularly singing, from their earliest years.  There are stories about his passionate desire to improvise at the piano, and his early reverence for such composers as Beethoven, Schubert, Wolf, Wagner and Bruckner. 

His ambition to study music seriously was opposed by his parents, so young Eric apparently sold his stamp collection to pay for lessons.  After a year or so of study at the Vienna Academy of Music and Performing Arts, he continued to study privately with Richard Stöhr, a popular composition teacher at the Academy of Music and author of several important textbooks.  Unlike Schoenberg, his exact contemporary, Stöhr was a dedicated traditionalist who believed that the musical language of the late nineteenth century was still viable.  Stöhr considered Zeisl to be his most talented composition student. 

Zeisl also studied with Joseph Marx and Hugo Kauder in the early 1930’s and began to be recognized for the expressive power of such works as the Piano Trio Suite, Op.8, and his early songs, including several powerful ones based on the poetry of Nietzsche.  According to his biographers, Kauder was an innovative theorist and teacher who had been much influenced by Gustav Mahler in his thinking, something that he passed on to Zeisl.  In both his songs and his instrumental works, Zeisl was taken with Kauder’s approach.  One of the works where this is evident is the First String Quartet, in particular the final movement, a theme and variations based on a Slovak melody.  This work, premiered in 1934, made a great impression.  Zeisl’s biographer, Karin Wagner makes the important point that during these years avant-garde music was already being banned by the Nazis, and Zeisl’s more traditional language was tolerated in the early years of Nazi power.  She also points out that, despite various claims, Zeisl was never offered the Austrian State Prize for his Requiem Concertante, but rather received a small stipend to help with copying.  Around this time Zeisl also made some lifelong friends, associating with the painter Lisel Salzer and the writer Hilde Spiel.  At this time Zeisl was both productive and popular, composing works in almost every genre, but this was soon to end.

Change and Exile

With Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938 Zeisl’s fortunes took a predictable turn.  Though he at first moved to Baden in the hopes of riding out the bad times, it soon became clear that the Zeisls would not be able to stay in Austria.  Leaving his parents behind, Zeisl and several of his brothers left the country, and Eric and his wife, Gertrude, to Paris.

France in the late 1930’s was the home and pass-through zone of exiles from all over Europe, coming and going at a prodigious rate, from Walter Benjamin to Sigmund Freud, and from Pablo Picasso to Elias Canetti.  Hundreds of musicians from Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary also took up residence there for more or less time as their needs and, more importantly, their opportunities dictated. 

It was during his time in Paris that Zeisl made the acquaintance of the work of the Austrian writer Joseph Roth (1894-1939).  In 1939, his novel Job was presented in a staged version featuring such talents as Hugo Haas, Josef Meinrad and Leon Askin.  Zeisl wrote several pieces for this production, including Menuhim’s Song and a Cossack Dance.  This story of a search for Jewish identity through tragedy and exile, and its contemporary Job, Mendel Singer, captured Zeisl’s imagination, and became part of his musical and dramatic thought for the rest of his life.  Although he never finished a planned opera on Job, there are two acts extant, and Roth’s story is credited with pushing Zeisl in the direction of something like a “Jewish” compositional idiom. 

To America

With the political situation worsening in Europe, the Zeisls left for the United States in 1939, at first settling in New York.  Initially, Zeisl was both lucky and successful.  Ernö Rapee, a Hungarian conductor, included Zeisl’s Little Symphony in his weekly national radio broadcast, and it was a fantastic success.  Other works of the composer were played, and it looked as if he might be able to build a career for himself in New York.  The next year the family moved to a large house in Mamaroneck near the Long Island Sound, and the composer was able to work in pleasant and tranquil circumstances.  He was productive as never before and, compared to many other émigrés, doing quite well.

Like many composers both before and after, Zeisl seems to have regarded Hollywood as a place where he could make a comfortable living and, at the very least, match his current output.  And like many other composers, he was to find that the movie business could be a trap for all but the most successful, and that California itself could veer wildly from a land of dreams to a land of dreams dashed.  His name for the town, “Schein-Heiligenstadt” is both a pun on “Holly=Holy” town, but also included the German word for hypocrisy.

Zeisl began to work for MGM in the early 1940’s and wrote music for the Fitzpatrick Travel Talks with titles like “On the Road to Monterey” “Morning in Minnesota,” and “Glimpses of Scotland.”  Although he ended up writing music for several films, including Bataan (1943), Song of Russia (1943), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and even Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), he was never to receive the main composer credit in a film.  Despite his disappointments with the film industry— and again, in this he was not alone— he was able to forge ahead in his own creative world with such significant works as the Requiem Ebraico in memory of his parents, who had died in the camps, and all those who perished.  Once again, he used something of the “Jewish” color he had begun to consciously employ in Job.  Many other works during this period, including the ballets Naboth’s Vineyard (1953) and Jacob and Rachel (1954) were composed at this time.  These, and many other works with Jewish themes, were performed at concerts devoted to Jewish music.  These concerts and his success led to his employment at the Brandeis Camp Institute in Simi Valley from 1948-50 and resulted in a major work, the “Brandeis Sonata” for Violin and Piano (1949-50).

His last completed work was the so-called “Arrowhead” Trio, written in 1956, but he spent the summers of 1957 and 1958 trying to complete the opera Job, a task he did not accomplish.

West Coast Exiles

According to the recollections of Gertrude Zeisl, painstakingly recorded by Malcolm Cole over twelve hours and transcribed, the Zeisl home was a meeting place of the great European exile community of the West Coast.  Alma Mahler Werfel, Korngold, Stravinsky, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Alexander Tansman and many, many others spent time together, and while he only met Schoenberg once, their children, Barbara and Ronald, met, uniting these families. 

From the late 1940’s Zeisl made his living teaching at several schools including the Southern California School of Music and Arts and the Los Angeles City College, where he gave evening classes.  He died of a heart attack in 1959 after teaching a class at City College.

Music Early Years

Eric Zeisl had a particular kind of talent involving an unabashed directness, a penchant for rich textures, “expressive” harmonies that sometimes recall the Baroque use of chords, and seemingly a preference for shorter over longer forms.  His first works, indeed through the early 1930’s, are primarily songs and suites.  We may remember that the suite originally referred to a collection of dance pieces, and in the 19th century came also to suggest a group of excerpts.  Either definition is far from the world of the symphony, with its implications of emotional and logical sweep.  Like his songs, Zeisl’s suites, including the Op. 2 Suite for Violin and Piano, the “Heinzelmännchen” Suite for Piano and the Op. 8 Suite for Piano Violin and Cello, are collections of musical pictures, linked by key more than attempts to establish themselves in the tradition of Sonatas and Trios. (Dvořák once famously remarked that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were actually more like suites).

So there is no suggestion that these works are in any way poorly organized or lacking in ambition.  The Op. 8 Trio Suite is a bold and powerful piece, revealing a sureness of tone that recalls early Brahms even as it reaches for the harmonic world of Mahler.  From the enormous depth of the Adagio to the faux-Oriental waltz of the Scherzo, to the beautifully crafted variations of the last movement (based on a theme recalling both Hansel and Gretel the Brahms Haydn Variations), this is the work of a composer who seems to have few doubts about his musical speech.  The last movement in particular, using a variation form that serves the composer well in many other works, shows an effortless fluidity that is simultaneously new, dramatic and ravishing.

When the composer does get to a traditional genre, as he does in 1930-33 with his first String Quartet, it too combines elements of traditional quartet structure with a kind of looseness more common to the suite style.  Particularly effective is a Theme and Variations on a Slovak folksong, revealing everything from the most delicate colors to wild bravura passages; the composer later successfully arranged this for orchestra.

Once again, when Zeisl does start working with a large orchestra it is to write a work using one of his beloved variation genres, the Passacaglia.  In this work Zeisl boldly chooses a bass theme that is at least twice as long as is typical for the genre.  Because the first half of the theme is somewhat simple and predictable, while the second veers wildly through several keys, the work has simultaneously a straightforward regal bearing and a risky edge.

Zeisl’s almost 100 songs reveal a talented reader of poems and a subtle setter of texts. His “Komm süsser Tod” combines the rhythms of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” with the harmonic intensity of Dvořák’s Biblical Songs to create a memorable farewell.  This may be noteworthy since it was both the last song written by Zeisl and a probably a commentary on the loss of his homeland.

Job and After

Writing about her father, Zeisl’s daughter Barbara recalls something the composer said when he was asked about whether his music had changed in the United States.  “I was a finished product of the old world; I could not change that even if I wanted to.”  Whether this is true or not is difficult to say, and still more difficult to prove. However, we have remarked on certain changes that took place in his outlook, and his music, when he began to work on Job.

Most audible in places like “Menuhim’s Song,” with its augmented intervals and “Hava nagila” skips, and its attempts to conjure ancient modes, this Hebraic style becomes part of Zeisl’s musical vocabulary, to be used whenever plot or his inner need calls for it.  While this does become one feature of his style, it would also be wrong to overemphasize it, since it is well integrated into the rest of his vocabularies.  We might note at this point that one characteristic of any so-called Viennese style is its concatenation of musical dialects.  Whether in Mozart’s Magic Flute, Beethoven’s Ninth or Mahler’s Symphony #1, we encounter an amazingly wide palette of styles, featuring quite abrupt juxtapositions.  Zeisl’s discovery and assimilation of any “Jewish” style would simply place him on a par with the very masters he revered.

Vestiges of this musical idiolect can be heard in one of his most important and popular works, the Requiem Ebraico, a setting of Psalm 97 in three versions, including a final one for SATB chorus, soloists and orchestra.  This deeply moving tribute to those who perished in the war pushes the vocabulary even further with what seems sometimes to cultivate a Jewishly inflected “innigkeit” to augment that Viennese innerness he felt was his birthright.

Such a thing can also be heard in his final work, the “Arrowhead” Trio.  While the outer movements move with alla Barocca fluidity, the inner core is something different altogether.  Here, the “Jewish” opening interval is seamlessly integrated into the rest of the texture, and the result, with the flute, violin and harp, sounds something like Debussy, “only a little bit Jewish.”  For whatever reason the composer chose to write in this manner, the result is, like his best work, some uncanny combination of the completely conventional with enough depth and subtlety to strike the listener as convincing and deeply moving.

Indeed, it is perhaps in his brilliantly rendered slow movements that Zeisl is his most powerful and original.  While the outer movements of the Second String Quartet, for example, are forceful (in the case of the opening movement) and charming (the Finale), it is in the best Viennese tradition that the slow center carries the expressive weight of the work.  Although there are no easily audible studied Semitisms, the movement has the feel of his penchant for a Jewishly inflected innerness, combining the ancient and the modern and the traditionally lyrical with the pulse of cantillation.  And when the opening gives way to a series of prayer-like sequences, the effect is mesmerizing.


In his recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell encourages us to question the meaning of success, and the means by which one achieves it.  At the very beginning of the book he notes that if you look at the rosters of the most successful Canadian hockey teams, a hugely disproportionate number of players were born in January, February and March.  That is because the cutoff for these elite leagues is January 1, and thus, at a very young age, when differences of months genuinely matter, players born in January will usually shine when opposing players up to a full year younger.  Those players will get more attention, superior training, and in general will do far better than their teammates who have the “misfortune” to be born in, say, October, November and December.

While nothing can truly explain the past, this phenomenon might allow for some understanding of why things were so hard for Eric Zeisl.  Born in 1905, he was virtually the youngest of his cohort of exiles and had neither the accomplishments of Krenek (b.1900) or Weinberger (b.1896) who had established themselves as international stars with “Jonny” and “Schwanda,” nor the connections of Korngold (b.1897) or Martinů (b.1890) to help him along. 

Often, when we look at measures of success and failure, we consider issues of talent to be paramount, or imagine that it all is a matter of luck.  Yet it might be that neither is the case; perhaps much of Zeisl’s fate was determined, quite simply, by the year in which he was born.