Erich Zeisl

was born in 1905 in Vienna.  Against his parents’ wish he began studying music at the Academy when he was 14; only two years later, his first songs were published.  During the Twenties he produced works in widely varying genres; his opera Leonce und Lena (based on Büchner’s play) had already been accepted for performance by theaters in Vienna and Prague, when he, like so many Jewish colleagues, was confronted with the Anschluss, which destroyed his professional life and threatened death.  In November 1938 he and his wife fled to Paris, where Darius Milhaud had obtained a visa which allowed them to remain there until they could go to America in 1939.  They stayed in New York until 1942, when through fellow composer Hans Eisler’s intercession Zeisl obtained a Hollywood contract offer to work for MGM.  In Los Angeles he met many old friends, but the film studios were well staffed with European composers by that time.  He had a hard time getting work, and usually it was „drone assignments“  -  writing music for various scenes and not obtaining screen credit.  It was Stravinsky who recommended him for a position at L.A. City College, where Zeisl worked until his early, unexpected death.

In his early career Zeisl wrote a large number of songs, and he saw himself as a composer in the great Lied tradition of Schubert and Wolf.  His great love for his Austrian homeland may, as his daughter Barbara emphasizes in her memoirs, be one of the reasons why he never again composed a song after being forced to flee.

As a young composer in Austria he was prominent enough to be played on the radio, as in 1934 when his first string quartet was broadcast.  The publisher Universal Edition commissioned an instrumentation of several movements for string orchestra; Zeisl selected three, of which the first (Scherzo) and third (Fugue) were published by UE; but UE decided not to publish the middle movement, the Variations on a Slovak Folksong

Erich Zeisl died in California at the age of fifty-three.  We wish that the recent revival of interest in his works may also bring joy to audiences on this side of the Atlantic.