Austrian composer Erich Zeisl was born in 1905 to a middle class Jewish family in Vienna. Despite strong objection from his family, the young Zeisl was stubborn in his resolve to study music. Thus, at the age of fourteen he entered the Vienna State Academy and published his first works two years later.
Zeisl’s career was perhaps damaged more so than those of Europe’s other composers and artists, because his work was just gaining recognition when Hitler’s Anschluss forced him to flee Austria. He had received an Austrian state prize in 1934, but was unable to secure a publishing contract because the music of Jewish composers had been banned in Germany (the largest regional market). A scheduled 1938 premier of Zeisl’s opera Leonce and Lena would not occur as planned because of the Nazi annexation of Austria.
Briefly settling in France, Zeisl and his family made their way to the United States by 1939, and lived for a time in New York. Zeisl was able to earn a meager living there, but soon moved to Hollywood, joining so many other émigré composers who wrote film scores. In Hollywood, Zeisl again faced difficulties as he was something of a late-comer. He would go on to score parts of nearly fifty films, including The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). However, despite this substantial body of work, his compositions were always uncredited. Moreover, Zeisl did not identify artistically with film scoring. He soon left Hollywood, returning to serious composition while teaching.
For the remainder of his life, he held positions at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, now part of American Jewish University, and Los Angeles City College, where he taught composition among other subjects. His students included the film composer Jerry Goldsmith.
Zeisl died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 54. In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in his music. His Requiem Ebracio, written in 1945 and dedicated to his father, who perished in Treblinka, and the countless other victims of the Jewish tragedy in Europe, has been performed by major orchestras, including the Israel Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.
Erich Zeisl's grandson, E. Randol Schoenberg, is the President of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.