On May 18 , Eric Zeisl’s 95th birthday will be celebrated with the world premiere of one of his pieces in Washington, DC. Despite his early death, Zeisl was a prolific composer whose friends included some of the most influential musicians of the age - Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Alexandre Tansman, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Erich Korngold, and Ernst Toch.
Zeisl was born on May 18, 1905 into the rich Viennese culture of the early 20th century, which, along with his Slavic and Hebraic heritage, shaped his music. In spite of a difficult childhood, a family steadfastly against his becoming a composer, and the deteriorating political climate of pre-World War II Vienna, Zeisl composed prolifically. His lieder production in 1931 alone included 24 unpublished songs, the Kinderlieder cycle of 6 songs, and songs later published by Doblinger under the titles Sechs Lieder and Sieben Lieder. Nevertheless, inflation and depression were both rampant in Vienna, so from the age of 15 he taught theory and piano lessons to support himself.
In 1933, the Viennese representative of the powerful German music publishing house, Schott, was interested in Zeisl’s music. However, his German superior at Schott responded negatively, citing “the present economic situation.” His letter’s date - February 16, 1933 - tells the story. Since Zeisl was Jewish, his music was banned in its largest market, Germany. Despite this, Viennese publishers Universal Edition and Doblinger published works by Zeisl in 1935.
Zeisl began his Requiem Concertante, using the Roman Catholic requiem mass, in November 1933 after the death of his future wife’s father. After a pause in its composition, it was completed swiftly following the assassination of Dollfuss on July 25, 1934. For it Zeisl was awarded the Austrian State Prize by the Vienna State Academy and a letter of congratulations from the Bundesministerium für Unterricht. Despite this astonishing recognition for a Jewish composer in Vienna in 1934, the “Requiem Concertante” remains unperformed since its premiere.
By 1936, Zeisl’s music was regularly broadcast on Radio Wien, receiving rave reviews from a wide variety of of newspapers - from the Neues Wiener Journal, to the Oesterreichische Gewerbezeitung, a trade paper, and the Wiener-Zeitung, read mostly by lawyers. After the Anschluss, however, life in Vienna became dangerous. Often travelling to his students’ homes in disguise, Zeisl arrived on several occasions on the heels of a Gestapo arrest. In 1938, he was offered a position at the Neues Konservatorium der Stadt Wien (Vienna Conservatory), but Zeisl and his wife fled Vienna, narrowly avoiding capture on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.
Settling for a time in Paris, where he began his long friendship with Darius Milhaud, Zeisl eventually moved to the United States, finally landing in Hollywood. In 1945, the year he became an American citizen, Zeisl composed his Requiem Ebraico, dedicated to the memory of his father and the other countless victims of the Holocaust [recently released on the Decca Entartete Musik CD series.]
Calling Hollywood “a blue, sunny grave”, Zeisl scored 21 films, ranging from such classics as “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) to “Lassie Come Home” (1943) and “Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man” (1951). Zeisl’s work in the film industry was often uncredited, and he returned to serious composition.
In California, Zeisl was composer-in-residence at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute and at the Huntington Hartford Foundation. His students included Oscar-winning film composer Jerry Goldsmith, Robin Frost, and Leon Levitch, and his compositions included a piano concerto, cello concerto (for Gregor Piatigorski), four ballets, numerous choral and chamber works, and half an opera. On February 18, 1959, after teaching a composition theory class at Los Angeles City College, Zeisl suffered a fatal heart attack. The outpouring of grief shown in letters from his friends and colleagues reflect the love and esteem that followed Zeisl throughout his life.
Quoted by Malcom S. Cole and Barbara Barclay in their brilliant biography, Armseelchen: The Life and Music of Eric Zeisl, Zeisl summed up his career:
“All this I have achieved against the terrible handicap of the most unfortunate time any young composer was ever born into. War, turbulence, poverty and strife, suppression and discrimination, flight and exile, and a totally new start in a[n] entirely foreign world I had to take in stride, and yet I have gone on composing my music and people have stopped to listen to it.”
The Eric Zeisl Webpage - http://www.schoenberglaw.com/zeisl/ - includes a listing of Zeisl’s works, recent/upcoming performances, and recordings, and links to the Eric Zeisl Archive at UCLA, Zeisl’s online family tree, and Gertrud Zeisl’s oral history.
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