Paul Amadeus Pisk, composer, conductor, pianist, musicologist, and teacher, was born in Vienna on May 16, 1893. He was one of the many Austrian and German musicians who helped build music departments in American universities when they settled in the United States after fleeing the chaos of Europe in the wake of World War II.
Pisk was educated in Vienna during the final flowering of that city's musical culture in the early twentieth century. He studied musicology with Guido Adler at the University of Vienna and earned his Ph.D. in 1916. He also earned a diploma in conducting at the Vienna Conservatory in 1919. He was active as a music critic and editor and avidly promoted the performance of new music throughout his career. Pisk studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg and served as secretary of Schoenberg's important Society for Private Musical Performances (1918–21). He was also closely associated with the other composers of the Second Viennese School (Alban Berg and Anton Webern), and his compositions show their influence. Pisk's works extended to more than 130 opus numbers, most of it chamber music. His compositions are extremely chromatic, leaning toward atonality. In the tradition of Viennese classicism, his works are also structured around thematic development, although sometimes employing folk melodies.
Pisk was a founding member of the Austrian section of the International Society for Contemporary Music and served as its secretary (1922–34). He was director of the music department of the Volkshochschule in Vienna (1922–34) and taught theory at the New Vienna Conservatory (1925–26) and the Austro-American Conservatory near Salzburg (1931–33). By the early 1930s he had married a Viennese music teacher; they had two sons.
Because of his American contacts in the ISCM, Pisk visited the U.S. in the 1930s, and his works were performed in new-music concerts in New York. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1936. After a year in New York he took a position on the faculty at the University of Redlands, California (1937–51). His family joined him in the United States in 1939. He headed the music department in Redlands after 1948.
Pisk also taught at the University of Texas at Austin in the summers of 1945, 1947, and 1951. In 1951 he was appointed professor of music at UT and charged with building the Ph.D. program in musicology. His work in Austin brought national prominence to the UT music program. During his Texas years he coauthored (with Homer Ulrich) A History of Music and Musical Style (New York, 1963), a textbook, still in print, that traces the history of music through the music itself rather than events and lives of composers. In 1963 mandatory retirement rules at UT forced Pisk to retire. In honor of their distinguished professor and his seventieth birthday, the College of Fine Arts at UT commissioned and published a festschrift of twenty-six essays by colleagues and musicologists from throughout the world: Paul A. Pisk: Essays in His Honor (Austin, 1966).
Not ready to retire, however, Professor Emeritus Pisk took up a position as visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis. There he taught musicology until 1972, when, at the age of seventy-nine, he finally retired. He moved back to California and settled in Los Angeles, taught, lectured, and continued his writing. Pisk was still active in 1983, when many friends and colleagues gathered to celebrate his ninetieth birthday. A chronic back ailment plagued his final years and confined him to his bed during the last year of his life. He died at his Hollywood home on January 12, 1990. His name is perpetuated by the Paul A. Pisk prize, awarded annually since 1991 by the American Musicological Society to recognize the most outstanding scholarly paper read at its annual meetings by a graduate music student. An important archive of his works is housed in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.