Eric(h) Zeisl (1905-1959): The One Who (Nearly) Got Away
Having discovered that there were problems with the audio on this site, I’ve taken the opportunity of revisiting and updating the text since its original posting in March 2014. Since the exhibition in 2005/6 and the original posting of this article, Zeisl’s opera Hiob – Job has been performed at Munich’s State Opera. It was incomplete at the time of Zeisl’s death and only the first part “Europe” was finished. The Staatsoper commissioned Jan Duszynski to complete the second part, “America”. As Zeisl’s daughter Barbara candidly pointed out, “unfinished” also means he didn’t have the opportunity of editing the work and had set Hans Kafka’s text in its entirety without having the opportunity of going back to make cuts. With the completion of part 2, the opera became lengthy, and perhaps unwieldy. His completed, but never performed opera Leonce und Lena was more successful and perhaps more representative of Zeisl at his best when it received it delayed world premiere in Linz in 2017. As you can read below, its original premiere was thwarted by the annexation of Austria in 1938. Nevertheless, his Requiem Ebraico continues to receive performance after performance – from amateur choral groups at local synagogues to the Vienna Philharmonic. (also see below). It’s a distillation of Hiob’s musical expression – a Jewish opera – or oratorio – for a non- and multi-confessional world.
There is a theory that for every single genius, there are another four or five who somehow escape notice. This is apparently nature’s means of making sure that at least one is able to leave a mark. It may explain why so many scientific breakthroughs or new ideas have occurred to disparate people in disparate places at nearly the same time. It’s conjecture and ultimately an unprovable theory. When, however, considering the huge amount of talent that was dislocated or killed from the beginning of the 20th century, it seems plausible that it may have been nature’s mechanism of assuring that at least a little bit survived the impending losses Europe was about to suffer. For that reason, Erich Zeisl represents much more than just a composer. He’s one of the four or five who somehow slipped away unnoticed as others scrambled to more productive shores. He’s less the visible tip of the iceberg, and more the part of the iceberg that occasionally slips in and out of view depending on the roughness of the surrounding seas.
It’s inevitable to question rhetorically what might have happened to music had Hitler never happened and intriguing to speculate, had much of central Europe’s finest not landed in Hollywood, what would film music have become? Would Berlin, Paris or Rome today be the hub of cinema and thereby represent a different aesthetic dynamic between music and image? After all, it wasn’t just composers who landed in Hollywood, but many of Europe’s most charismatic film stars and talented directors, producers, technicians and administrators. Speculation, however, is pointless, and what developed is the inheritance with which we live today.
It would be easy to see Zeisl as the eternal victim of chronological misfortune. He was younger than most of his successful colleagues and older than those who arrived in new homelands as promising students. Austria got rid its Jewish musicians five years later than Germany. When Zeisl left Vienna, he went first to Paris and then to New York, so his eventual arrival in Hollywood was late. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, Zeisl was still in his 20s. This closed off his most natural and important market. His teacher Joseph Marx looked south to Italy rather than north to Germany, while others looked towards Austria’s historic provincial capitals such as Prague, Brno, Budapest, Czernowitz, Krakow or Lemberg for opportunities.
It would not be a good time to be a Jewish composer in Vienna. In 1918, following defeat and loss of empire, Austria’s parliament voted to merge with neighbouring Germany. The British, American and French allies declared the parliament’s vote invalid; though simply declaring it ‘invalid’ did not make the conviction that it was Austria’s inevitable destiny, go away. It was agreed to return to the question in twenty years. With the Austrian Adolf Hitler elected as Germany’s Reich Chancellor in 1933, it was only a question of ‘when’ a formal annexation would follow, not a question of ‘if’. The attempted Nazi coup and assassination of Austria’s chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß in 1934 confirmed the country’s precarious position and the impossibility of her continued post-1918 border-integrity. The annexation of Austria in 1938 came nineteen years after the allies had agreed to return to the question of integrating Austria into Germany.
Yet, in the Austria of the Anti-Nazi, fascist dictator, Kurt von Schuschnigg, who succeeded Dollfuß, one could gather from reading the autobiography of Hilde Spiel and others, that politics played a minor role in the daily lives of most people. The only thing that mattered was music, art and friendship – everything else was ‘outside’. This was the tragedy of composers such as Zeisl, and indeed, everyone in his circle of artists and intellectuals. What could they have done? When the inevitable happened, Zeisl managed to escape to Paris. With the fall of Czechoslovakia following on the heels of Austria’s annexation, it was clear that war could not be avoided. France was in no state to defend itself against Nazi aggression and the Zeisls left for America. Everywhere Zeisl ended up, he was too old to be a student, yet too young and too foreign to be established. When eventually he landed in Hollywood, he suffered the fate of most late-arrivals and became an assembly line worker on the conveyor belts of the city’s film studios. He orchestrated and filled in the bits sketched out by more established composers. By the time he left, he had worked on countless movies yet was credited for none.
There was, however, more to Zeisl’s private life than hackwork at the studios and he moved easily within the circles of the most eminent émigré musicians living in Los Angeles. He arrived in Hollywood with a recommendation from Hanns Eisler, and from there, continued through a network that found him equally at home within both Schoenberg and Stravinsky circles. He received commissions from Piatagorsky, was close to the Korngolds, Alma Mahler and Darius Milhaud. It was Alexandre Tansman, who told him after the war, that studio work was killing his talent and he needed to get out before it was too late.
Leaving the studios was a challenge, but it resulted in a short, but fruitful period of creativity before a heart attack killed him at the age of 53. In July 2014, the Bavarian Staatsoper in Munich completed and performed Zeisl’s opera Hiob or Job, based on Joseph Roth’s novel ‘Hiob’ and with a libretto by Hans Kafka.
In 2005/6, the Jewish Museum put on an Erich Zeisl exhibition and I thought it worth telling his story with the audio guide and photos that were used.
Zeisl was born in 1905, the third of four boys, to a middle class family that owned and ran a café in the middle of Vienna’s ‘Matzos Island’, or Jewish district. The family wasn’t devout, but traditional, and their café ‘Tegetthoff’ was across from the station where thousands of Eastern European Jews arrived from their Shtetls in search of a new life in the imperial capital city. At the time, Zeisl’s self-identity as a Jew would have seemed implausible. His future wife Getrud (Trude), in conversation with Malcolm Cole talks about Zeisl’s early years.
(Trude Zeisl in conversation with Malcolm Cole on Erich’s early life)
The Zeisl family wasn’t particularly musical, but Sigmund, Erich’s father sang in a local men’s chorus. Erich’s interest in music was such that he sold his stamp collection in order to pay for lessons. The only year he was registered at the Music Academy was 1920/21, when as a fifteen year old, he studied with Richard Stöhr. His progress was such, that Stöhr took him out of the class and sent his older pupils to Zeisl for extra help in harmony. He went on to study with both the progressive Hugo Kauder and the conservative Joseph Marx.
(Erich Zeisl’s compositions from 1920-1928)
(Hugo Kauder’s influence, with example of Nietzsche Setting from 1931)
(Joseph Marx with example of Zeisl’s first string quartet)
Zeisl soon fell in with a group of young middle-class intellectuals, students and artists, most of whom were Jewish. It was here he would meet his future wife, the law student Gertrud (Trude) Jellinek, but also their close friend, the writer Hilde Spiel and the painter Lisel Slazer.
Fred Hernfeld, later known in America (following a period of imprisonment in Dachau), as the psychotherapist Alfred Farau, organised an interdisciplinary group including Zeisl, Spiel and Salzer, but also the composer Julius Chajes and the violinist Felix Galimir, which he dubbed ‘Junge Kunst’ – or ‘Young Art’. The Galimir Quartet, made up of Felix and his three sisters premiered Zeisl’s first quartet in one of ‘Young Art’s’ events in 1933.
Trude Jellinek and Erich were married in 1935 despite initial misgivings from Trude’s wealthier, more worldly family. In conversation with Malcolm Cole, she describes their early relationship.
(Trude Zeisl in conversation with Malcolm Cole about her early relationship with Zeisl)
It’s very difficult for today’s Austrians to come to terms with their five years of anti-Nazi dictatorship between 1933-1938. Some historians refer to this period of corporatist government as ‘Austro-Fascism’, while others simply call them ‘the Dollfuss/Schusschnigg years’. The Nazi party was driven underground, while Social Democrats were thrown into prison. This left many actively looking forward to Austria’s Nazi annexation in the hope of first removing Schusschnigg before getting rid of Hitler. Members of the Communist party were the most persecuted of all, meaning the strongest opposition to National Socialism had been neutralised, saving Hitler the bother. For the vast majority of non-political Austrians, it was felt that the strong arm of government had kept political extremists of both right and left at bay. Mussolini guaranteed the integrity of Austria’s 1919 borders and the Catholic church played a major role in the country’s day-to-day administration. It was not a democratic state, yet it was supported by a number of intellectuals and artists who saw Austro-Fascism as the lesser of two evils. The composers Ernst Krenek and Egon Wellesz were both avid supporters.‘Junge Kunst’, largely progressive and thus sympathetic to the Social Democratic Party, kept its head down and looked inwards. Times were uncertain, but it would be the last time that Austria’s bright young things could enjoy artistic freedom with a degree of financial security. The Zeisls moved to a well-appointed apartment in Vienna’s first district. Everyone maintained the naïve hope that Austria could resist absorption by neighbouring Germany and the deluge they knew must follow.
(Zeisl’s last Viennese concerts – Hitler’s arrival in Vienna, letters to Hilde Spiel in London)
After the success of Wozzeck, Alban Berg attempted to secure the rights to set Georg Büchner’s second play, the farcical Leonce und Lena only to be informed by his publisher Universal Editions, that Dr. Wilhelm Grosz had already taken out an option. Grosz is profiled elsewhere on this site, and his opera was never composed. By the time the option could be renewed, Berg had turned to Lulu and Zeisl secured the rights for himself. The premiere would have taken place in the Schönbrunn Palace Court Theatre, conducted by Kurt Herbert Adler. Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria meant the performances could not take place. Leonce und Lena therefore joins a list of other opera premieres to fall victim to the Nazi cultural purge: Max Brand’s Requiem (now lost) was to have been conducted by Karl Böhm; Hans Gál’s Die Beiden Klaas conducted by Fritz Busch; Marcel Rubin’s Prinzessin Brambilla conducted by Jascha Horenstein and Krongold’s Die Kathrin to have been conducted by Bruno Walter. The Zeisls fled Vienna following the Kristallnacht pogrom on the 9th of November 1938, for the near-by resort of Baden. It was only a matter of time before they were ordered to leave Baden by the local mayor who wished the town to be ‘Judenrein’ or ‘cleansed of Jews’. The Zeisls shipped all of their worldly goods to Los Angeles, for no better reason than that it was the furthest point away from Nazi Austria.
(Trude Zeisl in conversation with Malcolm Cole discussing Erich’s brother Willi and their joint flight from Vienna.)
Most of Zeisl’s output prior to emigration had been Lied settings of German poetry. He admitted that he would feel uncomfortable setting music to a language he did not innately understand. His last work before fleeing Austria was a setting of the same text as that by J.S. Bach: Komm süßer Tod. It was not only his last work composed in his native country, but it was the last text he would set to music in his native language.
(Opening of ‘Komm süßer Tod’ sung by Anna Clare Hauf with Trung Sam: pn.)
The Zeisls were saved – Erich and his three brothers, as well as Trude’s mother, narrowly escaping capture in Cologne, they arrived in Paris and initially stayed at the Hotel Perey. Trude and her mother had gone through American telephone books in search of Zeisls or Zeisels, finding first a plumber in NY who guaranteed an affidavit before disappearing altogether. Eventually, they located a distant relative in Milwaukee who guaranteed the family safe passage. Following the death in Paris of Joseph Roth, Hans Kafka secured the rights to adapt his novel Hiob or Job into a play. The novel/play was an up-dated account of the Old Testament story of endless suffering and redemption. Zeisl was engaged to write the incidental music. This commission would provide a true turning point in Zeisl’s creative life. At a time when a pre-global world saw nationality and ‘race’ as intertwined, to be deprived of one’s nationality was to be declared inferior and less than human. It was a devastating doctrine and many, Zeisl included, began to search for a new identity that was neither Austrian nor German. With his work on Roth’s Job, he found his individuality as a Jew – not a religious affirmation, but a sense of secular self-identity that transcended confessional belief. He and Kafka agreed to collaborate and turn the fragments of Job into a full opera.
(Opening of Zeisl’s opera ‘Job’)
The performances of Job were successful and brought the immigrant community together. Members of the former Max Reinhardt Ensemble took part, and the Zeisls could leave their hotel for a house in the appropriately named route de l’Asil, Le Vésinet. Here, they would meet with familiar faces such as Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler, Paul Stefan, Hans and Trude Kafka and importantly for Zeisl, Darius Milhaud, who became a life-long supporter and friend. Kafka’s libretto for Job would become Zeisl’s life work, though ultimately, the opera remained unfinished. In Roth’s novel, Mendel Singer loses everything and he abandons his disabled son for a new life in America, where incredibly, things only get worse. He loses his faith, his culture and his belief in God and humanity. Ultimately, he is saved by the once ill son he abandoned years before in the Shtetl. The reverse would be true of Zeisl, who felt that he had been unable to save his father, who along with his stepmother, perished in Treblinka. The Zeisls left for America in September 1939.
(Letter to Hilde Spiel from Paris regarding passage to America)
Only two months after arriving in New York, Zeisl had his Little Symphony performed and broadcast from Radio City Music Hall. The Hall’s music director Ernö Rapée scheduled additional works of Zeisl and there were even repeat broadcasts. The Zeisls moved from their hotel accommodation to a one room flat on 91st St. With the birth of their daughter Barbara in 1940 they moved to a spacious house in Mamaroneck Long Island. With Zeisl’s arrival in America, he dropped the ‘h’ from his given name Erich and became Eric. The ‘h’ could equally have stood for ‘homeland’. With a number of performances under his belt, an emerging name on the American music scene, he felt that he should move to Hollywood, where like many Jewish émigrés, he probably thought he could earn enough to help family members and friends leave war-torn Europe. Hans Kafka had already landed a writer’s contract at MGM, while Hanns Eisler also pulled local levers to get the Zeisl family relocated to the West Coast. It was, after all, where their possessions had been shipped.
(Letter to Hilde Spiel – performances of his Simple Symphony)
Zeisl’s move to Hollywood was not everything he had hoped for. His initial contract with MGM only lasted 18 months and thereafter, he worked as a freelancer on countless films for several studios. Despite the number of fellow Central Europeans, they were unprepared for the ‘law of the jungle’ money-orientation of studio bosses and colleagues. To make matters worse, Zeisl was highly sensitive to sunlight and found the endless summer blaze of Los Angeles intolerable without long sleeves and hats.
(Letter to Hilde Spiel regarding life and work in Hollywood)
Fellow Central Europeans recognised in Zeisl a great talent frustrated by his inability to fit in. Through his studio work, he had become close with both Alexandre Tansman and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. The family was popular within the émigré circle and held salons that possibly matched those of Salka Viertel . They were frequent guests of the Manns, the Feuchtwangers, the Eisler, Korngolds, Schoenbergs, Stravinskys and so on, but Zeisl’s personal ambitions to establish a musical language that was Jewish without being confessional began to undermine his ability to produce film music on demand and to a deadline.
(Hanns Eisler and Zeisl, Toch, Dessau and politics)
When Rabbi Jakob Sonderling approached Zeisl for a work, Zeisl was reluctant to supply something liturgical such as Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre or Korngold’s Passover Psalm and chose instead to compose a uniquely Jewish work with a universalist message – it was a similar condition made by Ernst Toch with his Cantata of the Bitter Herbs. Zeisl’s Requiem Ebraico crosses confessional lines and re-engages the style he had started to develop with his music for Hiob – Job.
(Requiem Ebraico with the Vienna Philharmonic and Arnold Schoenberg Choir)
The final Hollywood straw was arranging Tchaikovsky for a stage extravaganza. Alexandre Tansman sensing the destructive frustration of his friend and colleague offered him the encouragement to ‘move on’ and to leave the hack work behind. It was brave step to take and far riskier in a one industry city such as Los Angeles.
(The final straw and advice from Alexandre Tansman)
Zeisl’s decision needs to be put into some sort of context. Far more established studio giants had come to similar conclusions and left the film industry as soon as the war was over. Both Korngold and Ernst Toch suffered debilitating heart attacks that reminded them that time was running out. In addition, the idealism that had been behind much of war-time creativity was starting to be questioned in the context of an emerging Cold War. Juarez, a film for which Korngold supplied one of his more intriguing scores, was the first film to be savaged by the House of Un-American Activities. Just the name of the committee reminded émigrés of the Nazis referring to Jews as being ‘Undeutsch’ or ‘Un-German’. The movies started to become trivial and light-weight, removing any pretence of artistic idealism that producers, directors or composers may have maintained. Only Hanns Eisler, respected for his very different approach to cinema and music, wanted to carry on, convinced that with time, he could offer a legitimate alternative to the concept of music simply expanding on what the eye already perceived. Once he was expelled from America in 1948, a political chill ran through the industry and some émigrés, such as Thomas Mann believed that they were seeing a repeat of what they had already experienced the previous decade.
For composers and émigrés with young American children and limited funds, the option to return to Europe was not clear-cut. In any case, to what should they return? Thomas Mann and Ernst Toch returned to Switzerland rather than Germany and Austria and an attempted return by the Korngolds was met with frustration and undisguised resentment at what Austrians perceived as a cushy existence in glamorous Hollywood, against having to suffer Hitler, war and bombardment. Zeisl’s own situation was described to Hilde Spiel upon hearing of her return to Vienna.
(Letter to Hilde Spiel in Vienna)
Freed to explore his ambition to create a secular Jewish musical aesthetic, Zeisl soon found colleagues more than eager to collaborate. His Viennese friend Julius Chajes along with Max Helfman invited Zeisl to join them at Brandeis Summer camp, where between 1948 and 1950, he was able to participate in projects that taught and promoted both Jewish secular and folk music. Even the likes of Hanns Eisler and Ernst Toch had participated in the arrangements of Jewish songs and dances. It provided the environment of such works as his Brandeis Sonata for violin and piano premiered by Yalta Menuhin on piano and the violinist, Israel Baker.
This new style was developing in tandem with his work on ‘Job’ and an example of the direction in which he was striking out can be heard in his Menuchim’s Song in an arrangement for violin and piano.
(Eudice Shapiro, violin and Eric Zeisl, piano perform Menuchim’s Song)
Leaving the film and entertainment industry meant securing an income through teaching and he managed initially a position at Southern California’s School of Music and Arts, before moving to Los Angeles City College, where Ernst Krenek, another important Los Angeles, non-movie refugee taught. Hugo Strelitzer premiered in a student work-shop production, Zeisl’s long-delayed opera Leonce und Lena in 1952.
Zeisl went on to compose his one and only ‘Lied’ – this time in English, entitled Prayer in 1945. Until his unexpected death in 1959, he accepted commissions from Stokowski, Piatagorsky and Kurt Herbert Adler. He wrote sonatas and concerti for the piano as well as for cello, a second string quartet, a Concerto Grosso and a biblical ballet. One of his last works was the engaging Arrowhead Trio composed at Lake Arrowhead for harp, flute and viola.
(Extract from the Arrowhead Trio)
The cheerfulness of his Arrowhead Trio could never have presaged the tragedy of his sudden death on February 18th, 1959. He had just finished teaching a composition class at Los Angeles College – a class that would be taken over by Ernst Krenek – when he was fatally struck by a sudden and unexpected heart attack. Only Kurt Weill’s death under similar circumstances at the age of 50 in 1950 could have sent equivalent waves of grief throughout America’s refugee community. The letters of condolence read less like an extract from a Who’s Who of musical Los Angeles and more a Who’s Who of Europe’s intellectual diaspora. His posthumous fame and popularity would no doubt have pleased him. It would, however, not have surprised him. Zeisl stayed loyal to his inner voice in the full knowledge that with time, the world would listen.