The Music of Eric Zeisl
Albany Records TROY 1756

April 2018
Michael Sokol, baritone and narrator (Jacob and Rachel)
Mark Kashper, violin (Variation on a slovakian folk song)
Los Angeles Jewish Symphony
Noreen Green, Artistic director
January 1, 2019
Jacob and Rachel
  1 Introduction 0:59
  2 Jacob's Flight 1:40
  3 Night 1:05
  4 Jacob's Dream 2:57
  5 The Promise 3:34
  6 At the Well 1:42
  7 Rachel Appears 1:10
  8 Dance of Recognition 1:44
  9 Slaves at Work 1:12
10 Dance Between the Relatives 2:31
11 The Contract 1:03
12 Theme and Variations 1:11
13 Variation I - In the Night 1:34
14 Variation II - Work in the Courtyard 2:25
15 Variation III - Leah's Dance of Jealousy 3:20
16 Variation IV - Fulfillment of the Contract 0:57
17 The Wedding Feast 2:45
18 Rachel Enters 1:03
19 The Wedding Ceremony 2:36
20 Morning, Discovery of the Betrayal 4:41
21 Seven More Years 1:34
22 Finale - The Promise Reiterated 2:28
Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song
  1 Theme - Lento, Grave 1:38
  2 Variation I - Moderato 1:24
  3 Variation II - Flowing 1:10
  4 Variation III - Delicate 1:41
  5 Variation IV - Marcato 1:27
  6 Variation V - Allegretto, Quasi Serenade 1:43
  7 Variation VI - Grave, Cadenza, Allegro Furioso 3:28


Born in 1905, Eric Zeisl fled Austria in 1938, coming to the United States, and committing himself to applying his mastery of classical compositional technique to commemorating the destroyed Jewish European heritage. He met Benjamin Zemach at the then new Brandeis-Bardin Institute, where Zemach headed the dance and theater department. The two men set out to create two biblical ballets, one of which, Jacob and Rachel, is performed on this recording. Zemach expertly distilled the dramatic elements of the old stories into scenes, and Zeisl composed the music -- his forte was exactly that, depicting characters, actions and emotions in music. The second work on this recording, Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song, derives its theme from a book of folksongs called Slowakisch. The translation of the text is: Lord God mine, Father mine, give the world your light and justice. Every day your poor servant suffers terribly. The mission of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony is to perform orchestral works of well-known as well as not widely recognized Jewish composers. The LAJS is the only orchestra in America dedicated to the performance and preservation of orchestral works of distinction that explore Jewish culture, heritage, and experience. Led by artistic director Noreen Green, who founded the orchestra in 1994, the LAJS celebrates the richness of Jewish music, sharing it with diverse audiences. Dr. Green is known worldwide for her knowledge and skill in presenting music with Jewish themes. She has served as guest conductor in the United States, Israel, South Africa, Australia, and Canada. In 2017, Musical America recognized her as one of its Movers & Shapers the Top 30 Musical America Professionals of the Year.

The Biblical story of Jacob and Rachel is one of deception, bait-and-switch, wife-swapping, jealous rivalries, and sex, sex, and more sex. It’s like a whole season of Marriage Boot Camp rolled into a single chapter.
Jacob meets and falls hopelessly in love with Rachel, so much so that he agrees to indenture himself for seven years to Laban, Rachel’s father, in exchange for being allowed to marry her. But Laban is a double-dealer. On the day of the nuptials, he substitutes his elder daughter, Leah, Rachel’s sister, under the wedding canopy. Jacob, unable to see the bride’s veiled face, ends up marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. Laban’s excuse is that according to custom, it’s the right of the older daughter to wed first. But conniving Laban makes Jacob a deal he can’t refuse. If he agrees to work for Laban for another seven years, he can have Rachel’s hand in marriage as well.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters, Jacob doesn’t love Leah; he never did. But Rachel is unable to conceive and bear him children, and that’s a very bad thing in a culture that places the value of progeny above all else. Leah, on the other hand has no problem in that department, and while Jacob may not love her as he loves Rachel, she nonetheless pops out four sons for him.
Rachel isn’t happy with that situation at all. So, she gives her handmaid Bilhah to Jacob to serve as a surrogate birth mother on her behalf. Bilhah bears Jacob two more sons, Dan and Naphtali. Well, now Leah isn’t having any of that. Two can play the same game. So, she now gives her handmaid Zilpah to Jacob to serve as surrogate mother on her behalf. Seems rather ungracious of her, doesn’t it? She already gave birth to four sons of her own. Why should she begrudge her sister? Anyway, Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid, now bears Jacob yet another two sons, Gad and Asher. After all of this begetting, and Leah herself becoming pregnant again, lo and behold, Rachel miraculously becomes fertile and bears Jacob a son, Joseph, who, being the sole fruit of Rachel’s womb, will be Jacob’s favorite son.
All in all, Jacob fathered 12 sons, each of whom became the leader of one of the 12 Tribes of Israel. I’m sure there’s more than one takeaway from this story, which begins in Genesis, Chapter 29, but here’s what I find curious. What are the odds of fathering 12 sons and only one daughter, Dinah? That must have been some very special sperm!
American danseur and choreographer Benjamin Zemach (1901–1997) recast this narrative in a libretto of his own making, choreographed it in 20 short tableaux or vignettes, and then collaborated with Eric Zeisl in 1954 to compose the music for the ballet Jacob and Rachel. An unusual feature, for a ballet, is that six numbers of Zemach’s libretto are spoken by a narrator over an orchestral accompaniment, and a seventh, “The Promise,” is sung in a manner that straddles the divide between recitativo stromentato and aria. All vocal sections are performed by baritone Michael Sokol.
As Noreen Green noted in our interview, “Zeisl’s music is richly tonal, steering clear of the more Modernistic tendencies of his contemporaries.” It does, however, employ all of the trappings of a good cinematic score: colorful orchestration produced by unusual and unexpected combinations of instruments; irregular, nervous rhythms, where called, for to heighten suspense and tension; applied dissonance, as appropriate, to intensify dramatic confrontation and strife; and a number of soothing, lyrical interludes intended to portray Rachel and Jacob’s attraction to her on first meeting.
It should be noted, though, that Zemach’s chronicling of the Biblical narrative tells only the first half of the story. It ends with Laban’s duping Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel, and Jacob’s agreeing to work seven more years for Rachel’s hand. The curtain falls, now as God intones “The Promise” to Jacob, “I will bless thee and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sands upon the seashore, and in they seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”
I suspect that seeing Zeisl’s Jacob and Rachel staged live with its choreography would make for an even more moving experience than simply listening to it on disc. There is some wonderful and very beautiful music here, and Noreen Green leads the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony in a memorable performance that captures all of the score’s wide-ranging emotional dimensions, from discord and conflict to loving tenderness and even awe in the presence of God.
If you didn’t know that the Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song was based on a Slovakian tune, and that the piece was composed by Eric Zeisl, originally in 1930 as the fourth movement of his First String Quartet, and subsequently expanded for string orchestra in 1937, you might think you were listening to something by Tchaikovsky, up to a point anyway. At least one of the variations, namely the fourth, finds itself in 20th-century territory—Hindemith perhaps—but for the most part, Zeisl’s Variations have their roots in late 19th-century Romantic soil.
The Fifth Variation, for example, with its pizzicato accompaniment and lilting waltz-like melody (though it’s not technically a waltz) is again a bit reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, with a few “sour” harmonic twists thrown in to season the broth that are more lighthearted and amusing than sad or bitter. The violin solo in the final variation, beautifully played by concertmaster Mark Kashper, could come right out of a 19th-century, Eastern European shtetl.
Well done all around, and a strong recommendation well deserved.

Jerry Dubins, Fanfare Magazine


What a magnificent discovery! Eric Zeisl (1905–1959) was born in Vienna, leaving for Paris in 1938 to find refuge and finally finding his way to America in September 1939. He died at the early age of 53, suffering a heart attack after teaching an evening class at Los Angeles City College. As a teacher, one of his students was Jerry Goldsmith. Readers are most likely to have encountered his Requiem Ebraico, recorded by Decca as part of its Entartete Musik series, and also by BIS on a disc entitled Remembrance.
Charm, skill, and Zeisl’s obvious aptitude for musical depiction characterize Jacob and Rachel. My colleague Jerry Dubins provides a fine and sometimes humorous précis of the story in his review accompanying his interview around this disc. Despite the singing (one movement) and narrations (times six), there is no doubt about the dance credentials of the score: The movement “Rachel Appears” could only be from a ballet. There is a hint of the dynamic of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale in the overlapping of voice and instrumental ensemble at “Slaves at Work,” an echo perhaps underscored by Zeisl’s expert writing for, and clear liking of, the winds. A splendidly imaginative theme and four variations nestles within this work; one wonders how many treasures would be unearthed by close study of the score itself.
Conductor Noreen Green, the artistic director, conductor, and founder of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS), clearly loves this score. She finds the darkness (“Leah’s Dance of Jealousy,” the third variation of that set mentioned above) as well as the power in it, a power sustained by an unflagging concentration. The performance is remarkably alive (try the infectious rhythms of “The Wedding Ceremony”) and captured in vivid sound. Michael Sokol is superb as the narrator, and likewise as a full-throated baritone in the one sung number, “The Promise,” where the long lines of “I am the God, the God of Abraham, thy Father” shine out resplendently. The movement “Morning, Discovery of the Betrayal” is astonishing: descriptive of the dramatic scenario, certainly, but scored with such imagination, garlanding the lower instruments with high woodwinds like shards of shattered glass.
The sheer weight of string sound that opens the Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song (the theme is marked Lento, Grave) gives the impression of an Atlas with the world on his shoulders. An explanation for this comes with a translation of the words for the theme, as follows: “Lord God mine, Father mine, give the world your light and justice. Every day your servant suffers terribly.” Originally the fourth movement of Zeisl’s First String Quartet, the piece covers a great deal of ground. The marcato fourth variation, with its unstoppable rhythm, is particularly powerful, the performance here unstoppable, as if powered by gritted-teeth determination; the balletic Allegretto, quasi Serenade which follows could hardly be more different, and how charmingly it is done. Mark Kashper’s eloquent violin graces the work’s final variation; the close is far from restful, however, with the brightness of the LAJS’s upper strings only emphasizing its angst.
Documentation is incredibly generous, with a conductor’s note, notes by E. Randol Schoenberg, and a reproduction of “Realization of the Ballet,” an historical document by choreographer Benjamin Zemach.

Colin Clarke, Fanfare Magazine