Herbert Zipper, Champion of Community Music

Herbert Zipper with students

Dr. Herbert Zipper leads a concert at the 32nd Street Magnet School in Los Angeles.

Dr. Herbert Zipper, for which the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall is named, was a pioneer of the community music movement in the United States. Remembered as a dedicated activist, Dr. Zipper was known for his work in music education and his deep commitment to every student with whom he interacted. He believed that a performing arts education should be available to everyone, a philosophy on which Colburn’s mission of “access to excellence” was built.

Zipper was born in Vienna—Europe’s cultural center—in 1904. He received an extensive musical education from an early age and his natural talent as a pianist and composer gained him acceptance into the Viennese Academy of Music. As a young man, he experienced Vienna at its musical height—the Vienna Philharmonic reigned supreme and Richard Strauss was celebrated as a composer and conductor. Zipper studied with Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel, among others, at the Viennese Academy of Music.

After Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Zipper was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. His experience there was as much about preserving his humanity as it was about physical survival. He relied on music, creative expression, and collaboration with other artists imprisoned in the camp to keep his spirits lifted. Only a few short months after arriving in Dachau, Zipper had already assembled a group of 14 musicians to perform unsanctioned concerts at the camp on Sunday afternoons. This sheer act of defiance and courage not only spoke to Zipper’s belief in the arts as a means of healing, but also as a means of building community, a theme that would resonate in his future career.

Through extreme good fortune, Zipper’s father was able to secure his release and he made his way to the Philippines, where he had been offered a conducting position with the Manila Symphony Orchestra. This was also where Zipper was reunited with his future wife, Trudl Dubsky, the great love of his life, who had been living in Manila since before the outbreak of war. He and Trudl were married and lived there in peace until the Japanese invaded the country in January 1942.

Zipper and Trudl immigrated to the United States in March 1946. Upon their arrival, Zipper began to notice a common trend in the country’s school systems: there was a noticeable deficit in arts education. Thus, he embarked on his life’s work starting community arts programs. In New York City, Zipper revived the Brooklyn Symphony and its outreach offerings. In Chicago, where he first met the Colburn family, he headed the Winnetka School of Music. He was also one of the leading figures in the creation of the National Guild of Community Music Schools, dedicated to supporting music education throughout the United States.

In Los Angeles, he became involved with the University of Southern California’s preparatory school, which would later become Colburn’s Community School of Performing Arts. Having invested much of his efforts in growing the program, Zipper was eager to ensure its sustainability. He approached Richard D. Colburn with the idea of purchasing the school from USC and developing it into an independent community school. The deal was finalized on August 26, 1980, and laid the groundwork for the beginnings of the Colburn School.

Zipper believed that the first music teacher in a child’s life was the most important and that even the youngest students should learn from the best faculty available for their age and skill level. This also extended to other educational opportunities. He developed an in-school orchestra program that brought professional musicians to LA public schools twice a year. The program started at the USC preparatory school and carried over to the Colburn School, where it eventually became the Zipper Orchestra. Zipper was adamant that students should hear the finest performances in their own schools on a regular basis. He would return to schools a few weeks after each performance to teach students about elements of the orchestra.  A generation later these students would still recall Zipper’s visits to their schools and often brought their own children to study music at Colburn.

Throughout his years at Colburn, Zipper’s presence and philosophy inspired the community and provided a vivid reminder of the importance of the arts. The unimaginable hardships he faced only strengthened his view that the universal language of music was crucial to survival. His influence is still seen today in Colburn’s philosophy of “access to excellence” and commitment to providing the best possible education to the next generation of young artists.

It is fitting that our beloved 400-seat Zipper Hall is named after this remarkable man. One of the very finest halls for chamber music in the United States, Zipper Hall is a jewel in Los Angeles. Each year, Colburn proudly welcomes students, faculty, staff, families, and other members of the community to Zipper Hall for more than 200 free or affordably priced music and dance performances—one of the many ways we continue to honor Dr. Zipper’s legacy today.

Learn more about the extraordinary life of Herbert Zipper in Dachau Song: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of Herbert Zipper

Images from the Herbert and Trudl Zipper Archive at the Colburn School; reproduced with permission from Celia Pool and Gavin Perry.

The Herbert and Trudl Zipper Archive consists of materials dating from approximately 1900–1997 from the lives of Herbert Zipper (1904–1997), his wife Trudl Dubsky Zipper (1913–1977), and members of the immediate and extended Zipper family, including sister Hedwig “Hedy” Zipper Horwitz/Holt (1907–1989), and maternal uncle (by marriage) artist Arthur Paunzen (1890–1940).

The archive includes personal and professional photographs, decades of personal and professional correspondence, unpublished and published sheet music and scores, books, audio, music, and video recordings on various media, concert programs and related publicity materials, award plaques and certificates, framed and unframed artworks, a set of 1939 encyclopedias, a wood/stone sculpture and a portrait carved by Herbert Zipper, a bronze and a stone sculpture of a dancer, and more.

The collection was originally bequeathed to Crossroads School by Herbert Zipper and retrieved from Zipper’s home, garage, and office spaces by Paul Cummins after Zipper’s death in April 1997. Since then, the collection has been housed at Crossroads School and in 2019, Crossroads School donated the collection to the Colburn School.

The collection is in a state of sorting and processing and requires cataloging, digitization, conservation, and re-housing of materials. With over 400 boxes of materials, the School is currently raising funds to support the processing and conservation of this important collection.

With the support of a generous gift from Ann Mulally, we will begin this summer the multi-year project of processing the archive—cataloguing, digitizing, and making available to the world of researchers, historians, dancers, artists, and arts lovers. If you would like to join Ms. Mulally in this effort by making a gift, please contact the Philanthropy Department at philanthropy@colburnschool.edu.

For research and access inquiries, please contact archives@colburnschool.edu.