Hanns Eisler: Life

Bullet Life of a revolutionary in music
Bullet Hanns Eisler lifeline: 1898-1962
Bullet BBC Composer of the Month
Bullet Interview with Wolf Biermann
Bullet Jascha Horenstein remembers Eisler
Bullet Eisler in the McCarthy Era

Hanns Eisler: musician for the workers

Accessible atonality, sensitivity to words and spartan scoring define the works of Hanns Eisler.

Spartan instrumentation
In common with many composers of his generation, Eisler abhorred the lush and indulgent sonorities of late Romanticism, opting instead for a transparent and often contrapuntal texture that gives prominence to harsher sounds such as the muted trumpet, saxophone and high-pitched clarinets. The political complexion of his musical language is manifested in the frequent of driving march rhythms.

Accessible atonality
Eisler derived his musical language from Schönberg but from the very outset of his career managed to create a style of precision, clarity and wit. These qualities remained with him whatever genre he was writing in, and the juxtaposition of twelve-note technique and unambiguous tonality that graces his later works seems entirely natural and convincing.

Sensitivity to words
Eisler never wrote music that obfuscated or sentimentalised the words he set. In line with Brecht's theories of music being part of the whole process of epic theater rather than an addendum, his work allows the listener to be proactive rather than passive in responding to text. One way in which he does this is to unsettle the listener by deliberately ending songs in an unresolved manner.

Erik Levi

As a man of principle, Hanns Eisler fought fascism on both sides of the Atlantic with political songs, socially relevent theater works and powerful film scores.

By Erik Levi
© BBC Music Magazine
August 1998

Some composers' achievements can be neatly categorised in a few words. Not so Hanns Eisler. Surveying his output in his centenary year [1998], one is struck not only by the brilliance of his compositional technique, especially his capacity to set words to such direct effect, but also by his versatility which encompassed so many different genres, from the "applied" forms of film and theater music and political songs to abstract compositions. A man of strong convictions, he dedicated his life to fighting all forms of political and social repression, and suffered the double indignity of enforced exile from both Germany and America.

Born into an impoverished Jewish family in Leipzig, 1 he was the third child of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Eisler and Marie Fischer, a butcher's daughter. Moving to Vienna in the early years of the century, Eisler's political awareness was shaped at a very early age by the meagre social conditions in which he grew up, and by the radical left-wing stance adopted by his older brother and sister, both of whom were later active in the Austrian and German Communist Parties. Eisler began composing at secondary school, though material circumstances prevented him from receiving any formal musical tuition during this period. Moreover, two years after the outbreak of the First World War, Eisler was called up and served in a Hungarian regiment of the Austrian army. Despite being wounded and hospitalised several times, he demonstrated considerable singlemindedness in continuing to compose, writing among other things an anti-war oratorio in 1917 and a set of "Galgenlieder" (Gallows Songs), subtitled "Grotesques on poems by Christian Morgenstern."

At the end of the war, Eisler resolved to overcome his relative inexperience as a composer by undergoing a period of further study. Rejecting the teaching on offer at the New Vienna Conservatory as "fossilised," he became a private pupil of Arnold Schönberg between 1919 and 1923. Although he was naturally rebellious, Eisler worked with tremendous industry and application to meet the demands of Schönberg's rigorous teaching. Later he remarked that it was only through Schönberg that he learnt "true musical understanding and thinking." For his part, Schönberg acknowledged and nurtured the young composer's talents, generously refusing to charge his pupil for any lessons.

By 1923 Eisler had gained sufficient technical assurance to compose the freely atonal Piano Sonata No. 1, his first acknowledged opus which was later awared the Art Prize of the City of Vietnna in 1925. Apparently Schönberg was so impressed with the sonata's first two movements that he recommended the work for immediate publication by Universal Edition even before the finale had been composed. Further instrumental, piano and vocal compositions appeared in the following two years, confirming Eisler's position as the most promising of Schönberg's pupils after Webern and Berg.

In 1925 Eisler left Vienna to settle in Berlin. Coincidentally, Schönberg also made a similar move in the same year, taking over a master class in composition from Busoni at the Prussian Academy of Arts. During this period, however, Eisler became increasingly estranged from the Schönberg circle, rejecting its posture of art for art's sake and its disdain for historical events that had in his own words "revolutionised the world." The ideological disagreements with Schönberg had already surfaced in the Vienna years, but they came to a head after Eisler was overheard making critical statements about the compositional potential of the twelve-note technique. When the younger composer was challenged by Schoenberg for this indiscretion, he did not deny his position—"I am bored by modern music, it is of no interest to me since much of it is devoid of all social relevance"—but tried to draw a distinction between such work and that of his teacher. Yet all his efforts to heal the rupture were to no avail, and the two were only reconciled when they found themselves exiled in California in the early Forties.

The break with Schönberg occurred at a time when Eisler was undergoing one of several periods of self-doubt and depression, feelings which were exposed in the uncharacteristically confessional "Tagebuch" (Diary) composed in 1926. This crisis caused Eisler to re-examine his whole approach to composition and strive towards a musical style of greater clarity and objectivity that would serve the needs of the workers' movement. But to attain such goals, he had to adopt a much more militant stance. In 1927 he became the music critic of the Communist periodical "Die rote Fahne" (The Red Banner) and this offered him the ideal public forum with which to develop his political theories. As a further step, he also joined the Berlin Agitprop group "Das rote Sprachrohr" (The Red Megaphone), serving as its composer, pianist and conductor. This experience was invaluable, since it taught him how to express himself in a way that the workers could understand.

In 1927 Eisler witnessed the premiere in Baden-Baden of the "Mahagonny Songspiel" by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Immediately he recognised both the directness of Weill's music and the conspicuous suitability of Brecht's verses for musical setting. Abandoning the bourgeois genres of chamber and vocal music that had occupied him up to this point, Eisler began to write in so-called "applied" forms such as political songs and ballads for chorus. In this music, Eisler reasserted tonality and utilised the potential offered by popular musical idioms and orchestrations; but unlike Weill he resolutely neutralised any hint of nostalgia or sentimentality.

The political turmoil of the last years of the Weimar Republic brought Eisler closer to Brecht. Soon the two artists collaborated on a number of major projects, the most significant being the "teaching play" [Lehrstück] of 1930, "Die Massnahme" (The Measures Taken), for tenor, three speakers, male chorus, mixed chorus, brass and percussion— a work of hard-hitting austerity whose musical idiom is modelled upon the Bach Passions. Also dating from this period is the compelling incidental music to "Die Mutter" (The Mother, 1931), which Brecht arranged from Maxim Gorky's novel, and the score to "Kuhle Wampe" (1931), a powerful film about unemployment and social deprivation in a Berlin suburb in which the militant and stirring "Solidaritätslied" [Solildarity Song] plays a central role.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Eisler was in Vienna attending rehearsals for a performance of "Die Massnahme." Given Nazi antagonism towards the Left, there was no question of Eisler returning to Germany, and the composer spent the next fifteen years moving between Denmark, London, Paris and the United States. In this difficult period he continued his fruitful collaboration with Brecht, pouring much of his energy into the fight against fascism, and composing among other things his largest and most ambitious work, the "Deutsche Sinfonie," and a series of chamber cantatas with texts by Brecht and the Italian Ignazio Silone. The "Deutsche Sinfonie," composed between 1935 and 1948, was conceived as a protest against the Nazis, and is a highly original sequence of orchestral and vocal movements in which Brecht's poems about the desperate fate of Germany are set with a stark and almost defiant realism.

Not surprisingly, the potential for performing these recent works was limited, though an opportunity to hear some of the movements from the "Deutsche Sinfonie" in Paris in 1937 was cancelled by the composer when he learnt that the French authorities, bowing to pressure from the Nazis, intended to present the music without Brecht's texts. Despite such setbacks, Eisler composed as prolifically as before, and resolutely avoided prostituting his political and musical principles for commercial purposes. Interestingly enough, much of Eisler's music of this period, including several scores for films, reverted to the twelve-note technique, albeit in an extremely clarified and transparent form which admitted tonality where it was deemed appropriate.

It was as a result of his considerable experience and expertise as a film composer that Eisler eventually found his way from New York to Hollywood, where he wrote scores for Fritz Lang and Clifford Odets in the early Forties. This was a particularly stimulating time for Eisler, with many German exiles living within the same neighborhood, including Brecht, Schönberg, Thomas Mann and Theodor Adorno (with whom he wrote the pioneering book "Composing for the Films"). Yet Eisler was unable to suppress his anxieties about the situation in war-ravaged Europe, and gave vent to his feelings of despair and helplessness in "Das Hollywooder Liederbuch," one of the most moving song collections of the 20th century.

After the war Eisler assumed that, for the time being, he would remain in the United States. In 1946 the University of Southern California offered him a professorship in counterpoint and composition, and he began a collaboration with Charlie Chaplin on the film "Monsieur Verdoux." Another project that occupied his energies during this period was the composition of incidental music to Brecht's play "Galileo Galilei" in 1946. Yet within months, the political climate had changed dramatically in the wake of the bitter campaign against left-wing intellectuals that gathered pace during the McCarthy era. Not surprisingly, both Brecht and Eisler were singled out for condemnation in the wave of anticommunist feeling that swept through America at the time. No less a person than Richard Nixon, the California Congressman on the recently convened House Committee on Un-American Activities, was sent to Hollywood with the task of collecting facts in order to incriminate Eisler.

As a result of Nixon's efforts, Eisler was twice summoned before the Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and denounced as a Communist agitator. Though Eisler denied the charge, adding sardonically that he was flattered by the prosecutor's accusation that he was "the Karl Marx of Communism in the musical field," the composer was deported in 1948. While the musical world reacted with sympathy to Eisler's treatment and the composers Bernstein, Harris, Copland, Piston and Sessions courageously sponsored a concert of his music in New York, attempts to overturn the decision were to no avail. As he left the United States, Eisler poured scorn on the humiliating treatment meted out to him by the authorities: "I feel heartbroken over being driven out of this beautiful country in this ridiculous way. As I listened to their questions, it became plain to me that these men represent fascism in its most direct form."

Back in Europe Eisler settled once more in Berlin. He became an enthusiastic proponent of the newly created German Democratic Republic, composing music to the country's national hymn in 1949. Yet his idealism was soon to be shattered by the cultural infighting that gripped a nation that was suffering under the yoke of Stalinism. His proposal to write a full-length opera on the life of Johann Faust was aborted after the libretto was subjected to vitriolic criticism from small-minded bureaucrats. Eisler became so depressed after this experience that he couldn't bring himself to compose any of the music.

Yet such disappointments were eventually offset by increasing recognition, particularly in the mid Fifties, when official attitudes towards Eisler's more atonal works had softened considerably. Although his final years were blighted by a severe heart attack, the composer was awarded the National Prize of the GDR on his sixtieth birthday (1958) and witnessed the triumphant first performance of the "Deutsche Sinfonie" in East Berlin the following year.

It is interesting to speculate as to why it has taken so long for Eisler's music to have achieved the level of recognition which it surely deserves. Undoubtedly, the politics of the Cold War and the relative inaccessibility of scores and recordings prevented him from receiving the serious attention accorded to other composers who were at one time associated with the Second Viennese School. But apart from the political stigma, one might also point out that until relatively recently musicologists and critics, as well as the listening public, deemed the applied genres of composition to which Eisler was committed as somehow musically inferior and less worthy of serious investigation than traditional abstract forms such as the symphony or string quartet.

Although Eisler's music seems inextricably bound up with the political struggles which he experienced during his lifetime, his work has not lost its relevance to the present day. In particular, he is to be admired for attaining an idiom that is both individual and accessible to the widest public, and for refusing to compromise both his musical and political objectives in the face of formidable obstacles.

Erik Levi is senior lecturer in music and director of performance at the Royal Holloway, University of London. He is a frequent commentator for the BBC Music Magazine and other publications. Levi is particularly respected for his work on music suppressed in Nazi Germany. This article was reprinted with permission from the BBC Music Magazine.

1. Website editor's note: Eisler's mother was a Christian, his father Jewish. It also may not be accurate to say the family was impoverished. Rather, they were middle-class: Eisler's father was a professor of philosophy at the University of Leipzig.

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It is interesting to speculate as to why it has taken so long for Eisler's music to have achieved the level of recognition which it surely deserves. Undoubtedly, the politics of the Cold War and the relative inaccessibility of scores and recordings prevented him from receiving the serious attention accorded to other composers who were at one time associated with the Second Viennese School. But apart from the political stigma, one might also point out that until relatively recently musicologists and critics, as well as the listening public, deemed the applied genres of composition to which Eisler was committed as somehow musically inferior and less worthy of serious investigation than traditional abstract forms such as the symphony or string quartet.