Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Vienna, Ernst Toch was initially self-taught as a composer, learning from the works of earlier composers. In 1909 he was awarded the Mozart Prize and abandoned his Vienna medical studies to study music in Frankfurt. Appointed professor of composition at the Mannheim Musikhochschule, he won a significant place for himself in Germany as a composer, developing from a conservative style to something more approaching that of Hindemith. In 1933 he left Germany, where his music had been proscribed, and the following year moved to the United States, finally settling in Hollywood, where his music for the cinema provided a ready income. The lack of wider interest in his concert work in America brought disillusionment, but this did not prevent him composing seven symphonies, among other works, during the final years of his life.
Toch enjoyed considerable success as an opera composer, before he left Germany. In America this could not continue. In 1921 he had set poems from Bethge's Die chinesische Floete (The Chinese Flute), the textual source of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), for soprano and orchestra, using a form of recitative, and other works sometimes include spoken parts. His Cantata of the Bitter Herbs, based on the Passover Haggada, is scored for solo voices, narrator, chorus and orchestra. His symphonies often draw on extra-musical associations, sometimes indicated in their titles, as with Jephta, Rhapsodic Poem (Symphony No.5).