Ilia Trilling was born in Elberfeld (now Wuppertal), Germany, to parents who were Yiddish actors with various touring groups. In 1910, when his parents settled for a while in Warsaw, he began formal musical studies, and during the First World War he became the director of a Yiddish theater in Kiev. Throughout the 1920s, until he emigrated to America in 1929, Trilling was involved with a number of Yiddish theatrical troupes in the Ukraine and Russia. In New York he became a dance instructor for a theater company and then took a position as choirmaster of the major Yiddish theater in the Lawndale district of Chicago, the heart of that city’s eastern European Jewish population. A few years later he was engaged as the composer-in-residence of the Hopkinson Theater in Brooklyn, and he began writing for full-length Yiddish theatrical productions, which eventually played in all the major houses.