33. To the Promised Land
Written by: Eric Zeisl 1948.
Fragments of the score are available via:



33. To the Promised Land
Written by Eric Zeisl, 1948
Fragments of the score are available at http://www.schoenberglaw.com/zeisl/mp3/Orchestral/To%20the%20Promised%20Land/



On November 9 1938, a communiqué from the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, arrived at every Gestapo office in Adolf Hitler’s Reich: ‘Actions against Jews, especially against their synagogues, will take place throughout the Reich shortly. […] Should Jews in possession of weapons be encountered in the course of the action, the sharpest measures are to be taken.’

Over the next two days thousands of Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked, two hundred synagogues were destroyed, 91 Jews were murdered and between 25,000 to 30,000 were arrested and deported to concentration camps.

Kristalnacht aka Novemberpogrom aka the Night of Broken Glass was the beginning of a programme whose aim was the systematic eradication of the Jewish people. Those who could, left as quickly as possible. Among their number were the composer Eric Zeisl and his wife Gertrude, a young lawyer. They left Vienna on November 10.

Fortunate as the Zeisls were to escape the Nazis, Eric Zeisl did not completely escape the consequences of Hitler’s policy of extermination. An up and coming composer, the economic depression and the rise of the Nazis made it impossible for Zeisl to have his work published in Vienna, Austria or Germany. When exile was forced on him he did not have a body of work commensurate with his talent. This placed Zeisl at an enormous disadvantage when he tried to get his work published and performed in his new home, America. Zeisl never stopped composing but the effect of his exile without a substantial body of published work behind him was to place his work on the margins of classical music history.

Born to a lower middle class family of restaurateurs in Vienna in 1906, Eric Zeisl was something of a child prodigy. He won a place at the prestigious Vienna State Academy and had his first song published while still in his teens. He won a state prize for a setting of the Requiem mass in 1934, but his Jewish background made it difficult to obtain work.

The Zeisls fled first to Paris, then to America, a trip engineered by Gertrude and made possible by a random act of kindness by an impoverished New York plumber. They settled down in West Hollywood. A number of exiled Jewish artists had made Los Angeles their home and the Zeisls became part of a community of composers that included Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.

Zeisl’s main project was an opera, Job (1939) based on the 1930 novel of the same name by Austrian writer Joseph Roth. Zeisl spent twenty years working on the project. It was never completed. Paid work came in the form of a part time teaching job at City College and writing music for low budget Hollywood movies. Next time you watch Lassie Come Home (1943) or, more likely, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), listen out for the music: that’s Eric Zeisl. Not his best, but him nonetheless. Zeisl also did the music for Hitler’s Madmen (1943), and The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944). For much of this work Zeisl was not credited, thus becoming something of an almost invisible man himself.

This was the kind of music Zeisl was making in the spring of 1945 when Hitler was defeated and the world learned of the horrors of the extermination camps. Zeisl was also working on Requiem Ebraico (Hebrew Requiem, Psalm 92), a composition for the Interfaith Forum Concert in which three religions were to express themselves in music. Zeisl learned of his father’s death in Dachau concentration camp while writing the requiem, and his sense of loss shaped the tone and mood of the piece. One of Zeisl’s few widely performed and recorded works, Requiem Ebraico stands as a tribute to his father’s memory.

By Gertrude’s account, Zeisl was not a practising Jew, nor could he understand Hebrew – he could read it, but he could not understand it. Still, in 1948, the year when Israel was granted statehood by the United Nation, Zeisl composed To The Promised Land. Here is Gertrude discussing the background to the piece with Zeisl historian Malcolm S Cole, in an interview for the University of California’s Oral History Program in 1975:

Well, that was the famous producer of ‘Job’ in Paris [Gordon]. He was here [in Los Angeles] at that time, and he was then producer of a great production that was for the benefit of Israel or something of this kind. It was to be held in Shrine Auditorium, and it was still war and impact of Hitler and the Nazi horrors, and so on. And it was a huge production in which he [Zeisl] used parts of  ‘Job’, the story, he redid the ‘Overture’ and ‘The Cossack Dance’ and a cradle song that he had composed years before in Vienna and that somehow fitted there, and several pieces in a smaller orchestration. And then there was also the national anthem of Israel, which was orchestrated by him for this, like an overture. And out of these pieces, he made a suite which he called ‘To the Promised Land’ and sent it to Transcontinental Publishers, who had a clientele for this kind of thing.

But Zeisl was not, apparently, a particularly ardent Zionist:

Cole: What were Eric’s feelings about this emerging state of Israel?

‘Gertrude Zeisl: I really honestly don’t know if he had any particular feeling about it. Eric was just completely Viennese. He was so typically Viennese. If you imagine somebody or knew the Viennese type, then you would know that there could be nothing more typical than him. So I think that he was surely in sympathy with it, but it did not mean too much because it was a thing that had no connection with him, really.’

The Zeisls spent the rest of their lives in Hollywood, where their daughter Barbara was born. Eric continued to divide his time between teaching music theory at Los Angeles City College and composing his own work. He was beginning to make a name for himself among his peers, the critics, and the American public, when he died of a heart attack in 1959. He was 53. Zeisl was survived by Gertrude and Barbara, who married Arnold Schoenberg’s son Ronald and went on to become a professor of German at Pomona College.
The rediscovery of Eric Zeisl’s work has been a slow one. Eric Zeisl – His Life and Music, by Gertrude S Zeisl, was published in 1978. A biography, Armseelchen – The Life and Music of Eric Zeisl, by Malcolm S. Cole and Barbara Barclay was published in 1984. Zeisl’s Concerto in C Major was performed in Saratoga, Los Angeles in 2005. Zeisl’s work, including manuscripts of Suite for Orchestra, from the opera Job, and To The Promised Land, is archived at UCLA’s Irwin Parnes Collection of Composers’ Music.

Eric Zeisl never returned to Vienna.



The History Place – World War II in Europe

Lost concerto comes alive in Saratoga – Work of forgotten Jewish composer heard at last, By Richard Scheinin, San Jose Mercury News via Jewish Music Web Center Classical or Jewish art music.

Eric Zeisl oral history transcript: his life and music, by Malcolm S Cole (1978)

Waxman: Song of Terezin; Zeisl: Requiem Ebraico: Decca Entarte Musik (1999)
Listen via: www.classicsandjazz.co.uk

UCLA Music Library Special Collections Eric Zeisl Archive



<   >