Edmund Meisel was one of the more important -- if not the most important -- of pioneering figures in serious film music. But thanks to the chaotic state of preservation, much of his work and the hard evidence of his significance was lost for more than fifty years.
The Vienna-born composer began composing incidental music for the stage in the '20s, and his early credits included the scoring of plays by Bertolt Brecht, among others. He started writing music for films soon after, a result of his acquaintanceship with modernist theater director Erwin Piscator, who was engaged in various projects relating to experimental theater and film. Meisel quickly revealed himself to be a vastly talented composer, capable of working in a multitude of style and idioms, encompassing expressionist music as well as elements of jazz, and more traditional orchestral modes as well. He also showed a wry sense of humor, especially where patriotic songs were concerned, which was a fairly risky proposition in the high-pressure, edgy political world of late '20s Germany. His major breakthrough in film took place in 1925 with his new score -- commissioned by the German distributor -- for Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin, which helped turn the movie into a major hit; the movie had originally opened in Russia with a conventional organ score of an apparently very lackluster nature, and was no more than a modest success; when it proved unexpectedly popular in Berlin with its impoverished original score, the distributor felt that a further investment in music might help, and Meisel was approached. His resulting music, although hardly sophisticated by today's standards, established the approach to scoring movies that would come to dominate filmmaking around the world, and most especially in Hollywood. His score amplified and deepened the emotional aspect of the viewing experience on a shot-by-shot and scene-by-scene basis, heightening the excitement and involvement of the viewer in ways that had scarcely been achieved before. Even more astonishingly, he achieved this result in just 12 days of frantic work, for which he had guidance from the director only for the movie's final reel (for which Eisenstein persuaded him to rely on rhythm as the dominant element in the music). Rushed or not, Eisenstein was so pleased with the results that he later used Meisel on October (1927). He wrote full scores for such late silents as Arnold Fanck's The Holy Mountain (1926), and was the composer on the great music/cinema experimental work Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1929), for which he wrote a score intended to be played by an orchestra of 75 musicians. Meisel (who was sometimes credited simply with his last name) also wrote articles on the subject of film composition and the performance of his scores, leaving an unusually full account of himself and his work for posterity, especially considering the brevity of his career. There's no telling where he might have gone with the advancements that took place in movie sound and music that took place in the early '30s, but it was not to be -- he died in Berlin in 1930 at the age of thirty-six. Sadly, although his name was known to scholars, his actual score to Potemkin was lost, and events that followed in Germany and Europe only served to further obscure his reputation and the importance of his work; in subsequent years, Eisenstein's movie was shown using excerpts from Dmitry Shostakovich symphonies, among other accompaniments. Meisel's Potemkin score was only reconstructed and heard anew, complete, in the '90s. That event led to a renaissance in Meisel's music, in terms of its recognition and availability on DVD and CD.