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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