Eric Zeisl was born in Vienna to parents who had come from the Czech region of the Hapsburg Empire and who operated a café in what was then known as the Jewish quarter or district of Vienna. He began composing around the age of eight or nine, as reported by his widow, Gertrud, in a 1975 interview with Zeisl’s biographer, Malcolm Cole. But his mother was apparently opposed to his musical interests and is said to have destroyed his early works. Against what he would later describe as strong resistance from his family, the fourteen-year-old Eric—who had become enamored of Beethoven and Schubert in particular (and later Wagner)—entered the Vienna Music Academy. He studied with Richard Stöhr, Joseph Marx, and Hugo Kauder, under whose guidance he wrote his first string quartet, which was performed by the renowned Galimir Quartet and was his first work published by Vienna’s leading publisher, Universal Edition. Yet the first published pieces to bring him serious recognition—by the age of sixteen—were his lieder; and he cultivated that genre for the next eighteen years. His melodic gift and flair for dramatic gesture are evident in such examples as his Mondbilder (Moon Pictures), on texts by Christian Morgenstern (1928), and the six Kinderlieder, including settings of poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1938). The world-renowned bass Alexander Kipnis performed Zeisl’s lieder from that period and became their ardent advocate. A notable choral work of 1930 is Afrika singt, based on German translations of American poetry by the Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Frank Home.
Zeisl won the Austrian State Prize in 1934 for the Requiem Concertante (1933–34), a large-scale work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. But as a Jew, he was not to see it published; by that time, music by Jews or those of Jewish descent (those with even one Jewish grandparent) was already prohibited in Germany, which constituted a primary market. Nonetheless, Viennese publishers such as Universal and Doblinger continued to issue his songs. In 1937 he was appointed to a professorship at the Music Academy, but the 1938 Austrian vote to become annexed seamlessly to Germany as part of the Third Reich prevented his assuming that post. It also aborted his plans for the production of his recently completed comic opera, Leonce und Lena. After the nationwide pogrom on November 9–10 now known as Kristallnacht, Zeisl and his wife quickly emigrated to Paris, where a number of Jewish artists and intellectuals had taken refuge. There he experienced, in the words of his biographer, a time of “artistic reexamination and profound stylistic exchange.” He began a lasting friendship with the French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud and others who would also soon emigrate to the United States.
Zeisl and his wife immigrated to America at the end of 1939. Upon his arrival in New York, the composer and conductor Ernö Rapée—probably best remembered for his tenure as head conductor of the resident orchestra at Radio City Music Hall in New York—is said to have described Zeisl as having “discovered the rare secret of writing music that pleases an audience . . . capable of filling an important place in our [America’s] musical life.” While still living in New York, Zeisl was able to have some of his compositions performed and published there, but for a good while he and his wife and their infant daughter lived in what he would later describe as relative poverty. In that exile, Zeisl developed a new interest in larger forms, about which his wife later speculated:
He never again wrote songs. America is such a big country, and I think that in some way made an impact, that…the smaller, gemlike … chiseled … miniature drama … didn’t seem right here, that something bigger was elicited from him because of the bigness of the country.
Judaism became another new preoccupation, together with the fate of the Jewish people; and he conceived a related project, that, had he completed it, would have been his largest work—an opera based on the novel Hiob (Job), by the Austrian writer Josef Roth, about a Polish Jew who emigrates to America. Zeisl put that project aside in 1941, when he was lured to Los Angeles to work in film music for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He was a relative latecomer to the Hollywood scene, and for the most part he collaborated on pictures without receiving screen credit. He soon abandoned film music and returned to concert-oriented composition, but he did not resume work on Hiob until the final years of his life, and he completed only two acts.
Although in America Zeisl never came close to achieving the recognition he had enjoyed in Vienna—which clearly would have increased over time had the German elections of 1932–33 never brought the National Socialist Party to power—some of his works (in addition to Requiem Ebraico, which became his best-known and most frequently played composition) were performed by such noted conductors (some of them fellow émigrés) as Kurt Herbert Adler, Harold Byrns, Wilfred Pelletier, Ernö Rapée, Izler Solomon, and Leopold Stokowski. These works included the Passacaglia-Fantasia (1933), Little Symphony (1935–36), the “Cossack Dance” from the Job incidental music (1939), and Songs for the Daughter of Jephta for wordless female chorus and chamber ensemble (1948). Among his other Jewishly related pieces are Prayer, for soprano and organ; the “Brandeis Sonata”; Psalm settings: and biblical cantatas.
In 1949 Zeisl assumed a position at Los Angeles City College as professor of theory and composition, and his Prayer was performed at an event honoring him upon that appointment. In the late 1950s the University of Judaism in Los Angeles (now the American Jewish University) commissioned him to write two ballets, Naboth’s Vineyard and Jacob and Rachel, neither of which has been choreographed or produced in full, nor recorded.
Among Zeisl’s students at Los Angeles City College were the film composer Jerry Goldsmith and ragtime composer Robin Frost. After teaching a class on February 18, 1959, just as he was about to sign a publishing contract, he suffered a fatal heart attack.