Zeisl, Eric

Little Symphony (after Pictures of Roswitha Bitterlich)

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Eric Zeisl
(b. Vienna, 18 May 1905 – d. Los Angeles, 18 February 1959)

Little Symphony
after Pictures of Roswitha Bitterlich

I The Madman (p. 1)
II Poor Souls. Lento (p. 39)
III The Wake (p. 56) – They toast each other! (p. 71)
IV Expulsion of the Saints. Theme: Lento (p. 74) – Variation I: Church Windows. Langsam (p. 79) –
Variation II: A Plaintive Saint (p. 84) – Variation III: Figure of Jesus (p. 86) – Variation IV: A Man from the Crowd. Energetic in motion (p. 88) – Variation V: A Female Saint. Lento (p. 92) –
Variation VI: The Storming Crowd. Fast (p. 94) – Variation VII: Expulsion of the Saints through the Mob.
Not too fast (p. 99) – Faster! (p. 110) – Broad (p. 117)

Eric Zeisl studied composition in Vienna with the conservative masters Richard Stöhr (1874-1967) and Joseph Marx (1882-1964) and with the more progressively oriented composer Hugo Kauder (1888-1972). In the Interwar era he mainly established himself in his hometown as a song composer (he wrote ca. 100 songs until 1938). In 1927-28 he composed the opera ’Die Sünde’ (The Sin), followed by the jazz-influenced ballet ’Pierrot in der Flasche’ (Pierrot in the Bottle, 1929), the entertaining choral work ’Afrika singt’ (Africa Sings, 1930-31), ’Kleine Messe’ (Little Mass, 1932), and, written in 1933-34, Passacaglia for large orchestra and ’Requiem concertante’. During the 1930s he was a member of the interdisciplinary Viennese group ’Junge Kunst’ (Young Art) around the poet and psycho-analyst Alfred Farau (born Alfred Hernfeld, 1904-75) and the composer Julius Chajes (1910-85). After the ’Reichspogromnacht’ he fled to Paris in November 1938 where he became familiar with Darius Milhaud and composed the music for Hans Kafka’s stage version of Joseph Roth’s novel ’Hiob’. For Zeisl, this work became the decisive stylistic turning point from the ’Viennese idiom’ to the ’Jewish idiom’ that became his trademark after the immigration into the US in 1939. In 1941, he moved from New York to Los Angeles where he composed film music in the first instance. From 1946 on, he taught at the California School of Music and Arts, and from 1949 on, he was a teacher at the Los Angeles City College. His major works in the ’Jewish idiom’ are considered to be ’The 92nd Psalm – Requiem ebraico’ and the biblical ballets ’The Vineyard’ (1953) and ’Jacob and Rachel’ (1954). His only orchestral works in the American exile were the Piano Concerto in C major (1951-52) and a Concerto grosso for cello and orchestra (1955-56). In his later years he tried in vain to complete the opera ’Hiob’ he had begun in 1939. He died of a heart attack.
In November 1935, Zeisl visited an exhibition in the glass palace of Vienna’s Burggarten that was opened by Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg personally presenting paintings by the 14-year old Bregenz artist Roswitha Bitterlich (1920-2015) who was handed around as a ‚wunderkind’. Deeply impressed by the visionary expressive power of her art, Zeisl set down at his desk, wrote four orchestral pieces inspired by four of the paintings and joined them together as his ’Little Symphony’: ”The paintings, that is rather the ideas behind the paintings, provided such a stimulus that immediately after coming home from the exhibition I started out to set these ideas in music and completed the work … in four days.”
The première of the ’Little Symphony’ was given in a live broadcast of Radio Brünn (Brno) under the direction of Zeisl’s friend Kurt Herbert Adler (1905-88) on 30 May 1937. It was an immediate success, and the work was soon played worldwide. Three months after Zeisl’s arrival in New York, Ernö Rappé (1991-1945) conducted the Music Hall Symphony Orchestra in the American première of the ’Little Symphony’ in New York on 3 December 1939. The concert was broadcast live on NBC. When Universal Edition in Vienna published the printed score in 1953, the ’Little Symphony’ was the only orchestral work by Zeisl to be printed during his lifetime. In 2013, Yarlung Records issued the work’s première recording played by the UCLA Philharmonia (Los Angeles) under the direction of Neal Stulberg. The CD also contains images of three of Roswitha Bitterlich’s paintings that inspired the ’Little Symphony’.
Eric Zeisl’s only symphony immediately grips the listener with its direct, consciously simplified, drastically pictorial, and woodcut-like contoured tonal language, with its strong emphasis on rhythm and minimalized use of counterpoint. The work is an exemplary case in the challenging attitude of realistic aesthetics in Vienna during the 1930s, and it deserves to be played more frequently in concerts today.
Christoph Schlüren, April 2018
Performance material is available from the publisher Universal Edition, Vienna (www.universaledition.com) Reprint by kind permission of the publisher Universal Edition, 2018.

Score No.



Repertoire Explorer




210 x 297 mm


First print




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