The Music of Eric Zeisl: Jacob and Rachel, Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song (CD Review)

The Music of Eric Zeisl: Jacob and Rachel, Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song (Albany Records, 2019)

Los Angeles Jewish Symphony; Noreen Green, Artistic Director

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Composer Eric Zeisl (1905-1959) was born into a lower middle-class family of Czech background in Vienna’s Jewish quarter (Leopoldstadt). His parents operated a café and maintained an identifiably Jewish, if not religious, household. The Zeisls were not “tribal” Jews; social and economic mobility outweighed whatever particularistic or ritual concerns they might have had. Still, according to Eric’s wife, lawyer Gertrud Zeisl (née Jellinek, 1806-1987), Eric learned to read Hebrew as a child (without understanding the meaning) and on Shabbat mornings would accompany his grandfather to a synagogue “in the backstreets.” These early experiences informed Zeisl’s use of a “Hebraic element” in a number of compositions.

Like many middle-class European Jewish families, the Zeisls viewed art music as a pathway to acculturation and integration into society. Piano lessons were a fixture in their home. The four Zeisl brothers each needed the piano for practice (two were singers), but Eric just wanted to “play.” Eric’s parents, concerned that he would never make a living in music, discouraged him from following his passion. Undeterred, Eric reportedly sold his stamp collection in order to pursue advanced studies. After a short time at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts, he continued learning privately with Richard Stöhr, a Viennese Jewish composer born in the same year as Arnold Schoenberg. In stark contrast to his better-known contemporary, Stöhr was a traditionalist who championed a nineteenth-century musical language. Zeisl would himself carry the traditionalist torch, favoring tonality and direct emotionalism over the cerebral systems fashionable at the time.

In the early 1930s, Zeisl studied with the conservative Joseph Marx and the progressive Hugo Kauder. Zeisl internalized Kauder’s infatuation with Gustav Mahler, bringing Mahlerian influence to the fore in the final movement of his First String Quartet (premiered in 1933), which features a Slovak melody he later developed into Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song for string orchestra (1937). The latter piece is faithfully performed on this new CD.

When avant-garde music was targeted for prohibition in the early years of the Nazi regime, Zeisl’s traditional sound was more or less tolerated. It was therefore especially tragic when he and Gertrud were forced to flee to Paris in November 1938—narrowly escaping the events of Kristallnacht—leaving his parents behind in Austria. They stayed in Paris for about a year. Unable to find financial security, they arrived in New York in September 1939. Zeisl befriended Hanns Eisler, a fellow Austrian who was teaching composition at the New School of Social Research. Eisler was leaving for Hollywood to work in film, and helped Zeisl secure an eighteen-month contract with MGM.

Zeisl arrived in Los Angeles in 1942. He was among the youngest and least connected of Hollywood’s émigré composers, an illustrious group that included “Hollywood Sound” architects Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, and Miklós Rózsa. A relative late-comer to the competitive film industry, he was limited to writing uncredited “moods” for short scenes and musical effects. Unable to secure a long-term contract from MGM or any other studio, Zeisl became a freelancer, working on background cues for more than twenty films between 1942 and 1958, ranging from Lassie Come Home (1943) to Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). Zeisl found more stable employment after the war as an instructor of composition, first at the Southern California School of Music and Arts and, beginning in 1949, at Los Angeles City College.

From 1948 to 1950, Zeisl served as composer-in-residence at the Brandeis Arts Institute for young Jewish artists, musicians, and performers in Simi Valley. The experience allowed him to further explore a Jewish musical aesthetic, and inspired the “Brandeis Sonata” for violin and piano (1949-50), perhaps his best-known chamber work. His time at the Brandeis camp was bookended by compositions on Jewish themes, notably Requiem Ebraico (1945) for SAB soli, SATB choir, and organ (or orchestra)—a tragic setting of Psalm 92 commissioned by German-born Rabbi Jacob Sonderling, considered the first serious musical reflection on the Holocaust—and the biblical ballets Naboth’s Vineyard (1953) and Jacob und Rachel (1954).

Max Helfman, music director of the Brandeis Institute and a noted synagogue composer, was drawn to Zeisl’s use of “Hebraicisms”: stylized echoes of synagogal modes and Jewish folksong. Helfman’s compositions and arrangements similarly display a preference for modal melodies (using diatonic scales that are not strictly major or minor), pentatonic flavors, parallel fourths and fifths, and other vaguely Eastern (or Middle Eastern) elements meant to convey a “Jewish essence.” (To some extent, these propensities mirror those of the Eastern Mediterranean style of composition, which flourished in Israel among European immigrants and native-born Israelis in the 1930s-40s.) In Helfman’s assessment, Zeisl’s Hebraic sensibilities produced “compositions which spring strengthened and renewed from a base which unites East and West through the harmonies of the one and the techniques of the other” (B’nai B’rith Messenger, Oct. 6, 1950).

Zeisl undertook the ballet Jacob and Rachel with a grant from the New York Art Foundation and the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in Los Angeles. Together with Russian-born dancer and choreographer Benjamin Zemach (1902-1997), he adapted scenes from the biblical narrative. As Malcom E. Cole, the late musicologist and Zeisl scholar, explains in the liner notes accompanying the CD: “The action begins with Esau declaring his intent to slay his brother Jacob (Genesis 27:41). Jacob flees. After various encounters—human and divine—he fulfills the seven years of labor he pledged in return for his uncle Laban’s permission to marry the beloved daughter, Rachel. A trickster [like Jacob], Laban on the couple’s wedding night, replaces Rachel with Leah, the older sister.” Some incidents are omitted, others are embellished, and the ballet concludes with an invented ending: “embracing as they sit on a hill, Jacob and Rachel see a vision of angels and listen to God reiterate his promise [to Abraham, Genesis 22:17-18].”

Financial issues prevented Jacob and Rachel from being performed in Zeisl’s lifetime. The long-overdue world premiere took place on May 9, 2009, fifty years after the composer died of a sudden heart attack at age 53. Underwritten by E. Randol Schoenberg (grandson of Eric Zeisl and Arnold Schoenberg) and his wife, Pamela Lynn Schoenberg, the ballet was performed by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS), under conductor Noreen Green, and the BODYTRAFFIC Dance Company.

The recording of Jacob and Rachel, released in early 2019 to commemorate LAJS’s twenty-fifth year, was also underwritten by the Schoenbergs. Exquisitely executed and finely recorded at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, the ballet gives mature expression to Zeisl’s Judaic sound.

Punctuated by plucked strings, driving rhythms, percussive piano, and fluttering reeds and flutes—techniques used to replicate Middle Eastern aesthetics—Jacob and Rachel has a distinctive “Eastern” quality. At the same time, it is highly cinematic, with whole-tones underpinning the “neither here nor there” mysteriousness of “Night” (track 3) and a concluding passage suitable for “The End” title of any Hollywood epic (track 22).

“Hebraicisms” are heard in the “exotic” parallel fourths and fifths and shofar-like trombone in “Jacob’s Dream” (track 4), which also introduces a folk-like theme played to different rhythms throughout the piece (e.g., “Rachel Appears,” track 7; “Rachel Enters,” track 18; “Finale—The Promise Reiterated,” track 22). “The Wandering Feast” (track 17) and other dances could have sprung from Slovakian, Eastern European, or Israeli repertoires, while “Slaves at Work” (track 9) has hints of a quirky Raymond Scott ditty.

Noreen Green and the LAJS have done a great service in bringing this little-known work to life. One can only imagine that Eric Zeisl, who was regrettably underappreciated in his day, would have whole-heartedly endorsed this brilliant realization of his unique musical voice.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Music Interconnected

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The study of music is usually approached with a narrow goal or point of view. An instrument is learned, a compositional technique is analyzed, a movement is surveyed, a vocal style is practiced, and so on. These different paths intersect from time to time, such that knowledge of a composer’s chronological and geographical setting informs the interpretation of a piece. Yet, by and large, “specialized studies of this type cut music off from its natural connection with the spiritual and material world, and leave out of consideration the fact that [music] is only one part of general culture.” This reminder, from Hugo Leichtentritt’s introduction to his book of Harvard University lectures, Music, History, and Ideas (1938), urges a recognition of music’s interaction with things and forces outside of it.

Not only does a piece of music reflect a cultural backdrop—which itself is informed by physical setting, political climate, social position, local language(s), etc.—but it also encompasses wide-ranging disciplines: physics, mathematics, acoustics, psychology, anatomy, physiology, literature, poetry, dancing, acting, philosophy, metaphysics—just to name a handful. This is the essence of Leichtentritt’s title Music, History, and Ideas: the three broad categories cannot be separated. Viewing music through a microscope—as isolated techniques, pieces, or genres—we neglect the many threads that stitch sound into a complex cultural and scientific fabric.

Of course, interconnectivity is not limited to music. Naturalist John Muir expanded the notion in his reflective tome, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), about his experiences in Yosemite in 1869. In that all-encompassing environment, surrounded by intricately vibrant meadows and mountain ranges, Muir realized: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” (An earlier version, from his journal dated July 27, 1869, records: “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.”)

Muir’s takeaway from that first summer applies equally to music: “the lessons of unity and inter-relation.” Every rock, tree, insect, bird, stream, lake, and flower is at the same time distinct yet inextricable. None of these elements can exist independent from the others, and each invites us “to come and learn something of its history and relationship.” As a generative art form, constantly modified by interactions between musicians and musical ideas, music has a history and genealogy extending far beyond any single note, phrase, pattern, or tune. As a product of human activity and an element of human culture, music is “hitched” to everything that constitutes life itself—physically, intellectually, and spiritually.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

 

 

 

 

Music Everlasting

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“There is no time like the present,” “once in a lifetime,” and other such clichés highlight an obvious truth: each moment is unrepeatable. At any point in time, we have the ability to do one thing and one thing alone. Nothing that we do, say, think, or feel can, in the strictest sense, be compared to any other. Regrets about missed opportunities are purely theoretical. Judgments and self-inventories can only be based on actual occurrences, not “what ifs.” Jean-Paul Sartre makes this point in his treatise Existentialism: “There is no genius other than one which is expressed in works of art; the genius of Proust is the sum of Proust’s work; the genius of Racine is his series of tragedies. Outside of that, there is nothing. Why say that Racine could have written another tragedy, when he didn’t write it? A man is involved in life, leaves his impress on it, and outside of that there is nothing.”

The deterministic worldview draws a similar conclusion. All facts in the physical universe—including human history—are inescapably dependent upon and conditioned by their causes. The choices we make, big and small, fit in a chain of cause and effect that yields a single outcome. Meteorologist Edward Lorenz imagined the classic example with his “butterfly effect,” wherein the distant flapping of butterfly wings influences a tornado several weeks later. The resulting chaos theory holds that the universe operates by unpredictable determinism: everything happens in an orderly pattern, but we cannot know with certainty how things will turn out until they actually happen.

Live music gives sonic expression to the unrelenting yet unpredictable uniqueness of each passing moment. In his erudite tome, A Composer’s World: Horizons and Limitations, Paul Hindemith muses on the individuality of each performance. Sound, he contends, is music’s least stable quality: “An individual piece of music, being many times reborn and going through ever renewed circles of resonant life, through repeated performances, dies as many deaths at the end of each of its phoenixlike resurrections: no stability here, but a stumbling progression from performance to performance.” Hindemith connects the frailty of sound to the fleetingness of life itself, suggesting that musical moments are just as unrepeatable as other moments. Like the passage of time, each performance is one of a kind, and each iteration evaporates as soon as it occurs.

The impression of permanence is stronger in recorded music. Listening to recordings is, of course, subject to the same forces as live performances: sounds come and go in accordance with time’s progression. The crucial difference is that the same performance can be heard again, creating a sort of conditional eternality. Rather than living, dying, and resurrecting with each performance, recorded music exists in a perpetual present tense.

This semblance of stability is wholly at variance with life’s ephemeral, deterministic trajectory. Recordings allow us to simulate everlasting moments; life pushes ahead but the music remains the same. This psychological gratification, rooted in a desire to obtain the unobtainable, accounts in part for our attraction to recorded music.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Catchiness in Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The term “popular music” originated with songs emanating from Manhattan’s Tin Pan Alley and competing publishers in other major American cities. From the 1880s to the early twentieth century, these mass produced songs captured the ears and hearts of American consumers. Almost as soon as the tunes penetrated the market, another term was coined: “catchy.” An ad for A. G. Henderson’s “No More Parting, Norah Darling” (1889) hypes the song’s “easy, sweet, and catchy melody, set to pretty and effective words. A very striking and well-arranged chorus. Sing this song ONCE, and the air will haunt you.” A review of “My Jenny’s Shelling Peas” (1892), by Chicago music publisher S. W. Straub, opines: “It has an interesting story, and has a beautiful, catchy melody with a superb chorus. It will become very popular, we predict.”

Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths sold thousands of songs to fast-pace publishers, who, in turn, fed sheet music to hungry household pianos. As John Shepherd writes in his definitive book, Tin Pan Alley, “The faster the songs…could be produced, the more money there was to be made.” One consequence of this assembly line approach was that “catchiness” became the norm, rather than a quality reserved for especially well-crafted melodies. Originality fell victim to the rapid-fire ethos. For expedience, melodists turned to modifying and piecing together bits of pre-existing melodies. Lyricists returned again and again to well-worn themes and clichés. Of course, a legitimately clever hit occasionally rose above the homogenous whole. But, for the most part, every song possessed some catchiness by virtue of sharing variations of the same rhythms, verse-chorus forms, melodic phrases, and sentiments. To this day, recycling of this kind is a defining aspect of popular music.

A handful of scientific papers have sought a formula for musical catchiness. These include a study of the UK’s top-ten sing-along songs and an analysis of musical “hooks” (memorable musical fragments). These studies, which investigate why some recordings are seemingly catchier than others, tend to leave out salient factors, such as radio play and promotion from the music industry. Lesser-known or overlooked songs often have the same features, but lack the popularizing platforms.

Rather than tracing catchiness to a unique trait or set of traits, it is perhaps better to think of catchiness as a synonym for “familiar,” or even “familiar before it is ever heard.” Catchy songs trigger musical information already stored in the brain. Other elements, such as a magnetic performance or generational sentiment, certainly play a role. But a truly catchy melody—one that resonates beyond a recording or performer—requires high levels of musical déjà vu. Otherwise, it won’t catch hold of the listener.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Literature as Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aspects of music can be spatially represented through notation and recording, which freeze moments in time. But, as an experiential medium, which relies on performance and audition, music reveals itself in the present tense. This temporal quality is not only thought to distinguish music from spatial arts, such as illustration, sculpture, jewelry, and ceramics, but also from written language, which cements ideas and oral expression into fixed letters. However, this characterization has its limits.

Author Anthony Burgess restricts the framing of words as concrete objects to informational writing. Scientific texts, legal documents, historical records, and other types of non-fiction primarily appeal to reason rather than imagination. They are written for study, reference, and comparison to other writings in the field. Their words are artifacts to be mulled over, digested, quoted, and critiqued. Contrastingly, Burgess sees literature as a “twin of music,” which, like music, occurs in real-time, transcends physical space, and manifests in the imagination.

Burgess’s interest in the link between music and literature stems from his biography. Best known for his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, featuring a deranged gang leader obsessed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Burgess was also a composer of some 150 works, most of which have been lost. He wished the public would view him as a musician who writes novels, rather than a novelist who composes music on the side. Yet, in his memoir, This Man & Music, Burgess concedes: “I have practiced all my life the arts of literary and musical composition—the latter chiefly as an amateur, since economic need has forced me to spend most of my time producing fiction and literary journalism.”

Burgess’s fiction brims with musical content, from characters who are musicians or music lovers, to writing styles that consciously borrow from sonata form, symphonic form, and the like. Stressing literature’s performative essence, Burgess complains: “We have come to regard the text as the great visual reality because we confuse letters as art with letters as information.” While non-fiction works might be understood as monuments of human thought, literature is a lived experience akin to traveling through a piece of music.

This discussion has more to say about literature than it does about music. Like the poet E. T. A. Hoffmann, another composer who made his living in words, Burgess idealized creative writing as an art approaching music. Central to his argument is the conception of time as the canvas upon which both art forms take shape, and imagination as the invisible realm where their meaning is made.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

 

The Semiotics of Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Comparisons between music and language hit a wall when the focus turns to meaning. Although both are innate modes of human expression which, in their vocalized forms, use the same mechanisms of respiration, phonation, resonance, and so on, they function differently. Whereas English speakers would agree about the meaning of a word like “chair,” there is no such consensus about the meaning of a chord or scale. Outside of song, which is basically a form of stylized speech, meaning in music tends to be subjective. As a result, some scholars have taken to limiting—or even dismissing—the possibility of shared musical meaning. However, when we look beyond direct comparisons with language, we see distinct cultural meaning assigned to all sorts of things, ranging from music and food to gestures and facial expressions. “Chair” might not have a musical equivalent, but meaning is discerned in other ways.

An appeal to semiotics, the science of signs, seems most appropriate when evaluating musical meaning. Especially helpful is C. S. Peirce’s formulation of three types of signs: symbols, indexes, and icons.

Of the three, symbols are the least instructive. Language is a system of symbols, wherein each word or phrase has a definite and consistent meaning, albeit often contextually defined. Words are a shortcut for something else; the word “angry” represents an emotional state, but the word itself is not that emotional state. Language is essential for describing and analyzing music, but as ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino explains, such symbols “fall short in the realm of feeling and experience.” Symbols are secondary or after-the-fact, and may distract from the intimacy and immediacy of the musical experience.

Musical signs are more fruitfully viewed as indexes: signs that point to objects or ideas they represent. This applies mainly to music associated with a particular concept or occasion. For example, a national anthem performed at a sporting event becomes an index of patriotism, while a Christmas song heard while shopping becomes an index of the season. Through a combination of personal and shared experiences, these pieces—with or without their lyrics—serve as repositories of cultural meaning. On a smaller scale, music can serve as an index of romantic relationships or peer group affiliations.

Musical icons resemble or imitate the things they represent. These can include naturalistic sounds, such as thunder played on kettledrums, or mental states conveyed through musical conventions, such as ascending lines signaling ascent or exuberance. Icons tend to be culturally specific, such that listeners in a music-culture develop shared understandings, even as individuals add idiosyncratic layers to those understandings.

Precision, directness, and consistency are the lofty goals of language, but these are not the only ways meaning is conveyed. Musical meaning relies on non-linguistic systems, such as signs and indexes. While these may not be as steady or specific as language, they communicate shared meaning just the same.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Wrong Notes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Fidelity to the score is a defining characteristic of classical music. Pitches, values, tempi, volumes, and articulations are clearly written for meticulous enactment. In translating these symbols into sound, the musician ensures the piece’s survival even centuries after the composer’s death. There is, of course, room for (slight) variation. Because elements such as dynamics and tempo markings are at least moderately open to interpretation, no two performances will be exactly the same. Still, the faithful and accurate rendering of notes is key to the integrity—and the very existence—of a classical piece.

The foregoing outlines the nominalist theory of classical music, which defines a work in terms of concrete particulars relating to it, such as scores and performances. Because a musical piece is an audible and experiential phenomenon, which is symbolically represented in the score, it can only truly exist in performance.

This position raises two issues. The first concerns “authentic” performance. Is it enough to simply play the notes as indicated, or do those notes have to be played on the instrument(s) the composer intended? Does a cello suite played on double bass or a reduction of a symphony played on the piano qualify as an instance of the same work? How essential is the use of appropriate period instruments? These questions look for elements beyond the written notes.

The second issue centers on the notes themselves. Most performances of concert works include several wrong notes. However, we generally do not discount these performances for that reason (and we may not register the wrong notes as they are played). If all of the notes are wrong, then the work has not been performed, even if the intention is sincere. But what percentage of the notes can be wrong for the performance to qualify as the work? We might argue that the work is independent from any performance of it; but that does not satisfy the nominalist’s position.

Most discussions of musical ontology—addressing the big question, “Do musical works exist?”—are confined to classical music. Score-dependent arguments do not lend themselves to jazz, for instance, where the improvising performer composes on the spot, or certain kinds of folk music, where embellishments are commonplace and written notation is absent.

Questions about music’s ontological reality do not have easy answers, and the various philosophical camps have their weaknesses: nominalists, Platonists (who view musical works as abstract objects), idealists (who view musical works as mental entities), and so on. Whatever fruits such discourse might bear, it points to the uniquely “other” nature of music, which is both recognizable and ineffable, repeatable and singular.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.