Ernst Toch was one of a legion of highly talented and successful Central European composers for the concert hall who were forced from their respective homelands by the rise of the Nazis -- and ended up working in the American film industry. Toch was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1887, at a time when the Hapsburg Empire was in its glory. Though the imperial government itself was regarded as repressive politically and hopelessly conservative, Vienna was a center of intellectual ferment in Central Europe, and Toch came of age amid what is often considered the city's golden age of creativity and invention, early in the 20th century. Toch himself was a multi-threat thinker and scholar, a student of philosophy at the University of Vienna, of medicine at Heidelberg, and music at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. His primary musical instrument was the piano, at which he excelled on a virtuoso level, and for which a significant part of his later output as a composer was written. Self-taught as a composer, he was initially influenced very heavily by Mozart, and his early works, in a pastiche style heavily influenced by the latter, found some moderate critical and public success.
Toch's professional breakthrough came in 1909, when his chamber symphony in F major won the Frankfurt/Main Mozart prize, and from that point on, he concentrated on composition rather than performance. Toch won the Mendelssohn Prize for composition in 1910, and in 1913 was appointed lecturer of both piano and composition at the College of Music in Mannheim. He won five additional prizes for composition before the exigencies of the First World War required his call-up, and he served four years in combat. Toch resumed composition in 1919, hardly skipping a beat as he began developing a new style, based in polyphony.
Toch was a full and busy participant in the thriving musical life of Weimar Germany, and a significant part of his work was of a humorous bent. He also developed a new idiom, "Gesprochene Musik," or the "spoken chorus," at the start of the 1930s. Toch's film career began in the wake of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany -- Jewish composers, musicians, and writers were among the earliest targets of the new regime, and were forced out of their careers and the academic and intellectual life of the country. Had this not happened, it is unlikely that Toch, who had never before written music for motion pictures (in itself a newly reinvented field after the coming of sound), would have been engaged by Alexander Korda's London Films to write some of the music for his production of The Rise of Catherine the Great.
At the time, in the wake of the massive international success of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Korda and London Films were relatively flush with cash and ambition, and Toch's engagement was one of the first manifestations of the producer/director's reach toward high culture in the making of his movies. In music, this would later involve the commissioning of scores by Sir Arthur Bliss, among other British notables, but in the main -- as Toch's involvement illustrated -- this side of Korda's creative decisions would be realized through a stream of talented refugees from Hitler's Germany. Toch was the first in a string of geniuses rendered homeless by politics and militarism given a brief creative and financial haven by London Films, culminating with Korda's fellow Hungarian Miklos Rozsa.
Toch was sufficiently successful with his first film effort so that he also provided music for the same studio's The Private Life of Don Juan (1934). By the following year, he had moved to Hollywood and starting to make his way in that city's film and music communities. He did the scores for several independent productions, including The Outcast (1936), but also found something of a home at Paramount, where he wrote music for such highly visible films as the drama The General Died at Dawn (1936), with Gary Cooper, and the comedy thriller The Cat and the Canary (1939), starring Bob Hope. He also contributed to the music for such outside projects as The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) at Fox. Toch's modernist style often found him pegged as a specialist in thrillers and chillers, to which it seemed best suited in the eyes of most producers -- his music could be heard in the science fiction chiller Dr. Cyclops (1940), and the John Houseman ghost story The Unseen (1945), and in between in a brace of anti-Nazi wartime thrillers. Toch worked for various music departments, at Warner Bros. and Columbia, among other studios, and his work crops up as "stock" or "library" music in pictures going right into the middle of the 1950s.
Though Toch appreciated the opportunity to live comfortably and earn a living in Southern California, and liked some of the challenges involved in his film work, he also found that it compromised his credibility in the concert hall. Following the end of his active film career (though his library music would turn up for years afterward), he went on to a rich and productive career composing for the concert hall over the next decade or so, right up until his death in 1964. His output includes seven symphonies, numerous orchestral works and chamber pieces, a handful of operas, and many smaller scale works, variously for piano and voice. His music, whose growth and recognition was interrupted by political and military upheavals around the world, was getting rediscovered in the early 21rst century, and his name once again recognized in both music and cinematic circles. Toch was also the grandfather of authors Lawrence Weschler and Toni Weschler.