Hanns Eisler: Music

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Eisler in the 1950s
Eisler relaxing at his home in East Berlin in the early 1960s with his wife, Steffi.

By Peter Heyworth
New York Times
November 14, 1971

Graz, Austria—In the West Hanns Eisler's name faded into limbo after his appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947. A distinctly unpopular figure with the committee, he was, on the intervention of a list of mighty names headed by Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and Igor Stravinsky, finally allowed, or rather obliged, to leave the country.

Two years later, when the Russians set up an East German state, Eisler rallied to Berlin, which he had left in 1933. There this stormy petrel found himself cast in the unfamiliar role of official artist. He composed the young state's national anthem, labored to build up its musical life (today its national conservatory commemorates his name) and, at any rate for a while, did his best to function within the narrow creative confines that Zhdanov had prescribed for socialist realism.

A year before he died in 1962 at the age of 64, his diminutive, tubby yet intensely vital figure emerged in London for a BBC studio performance of his massive Deutsche Sinfonie. His name also appeared as composer of incidental music to some of Brecht's greatest plays. But otherwise he has remained a forgotten man, whose music has been virtually unperformed in the West.

Eisler loyally served the Revolution to the end. But this ebullient, combative and acutely intelligent man was one of nature's nonconformists, and it was not long before tensions arose between him and the cultural bosses of the political reformatory in which he had made his home. As the most brilliant of the second generation of Schönberg's pupils, his musical roots lay deep in the fertile soil of western decadence, and nothing would persuade him to deny his debt to this inheritance. A further cause of trouble was his libretto for a projected opera, "Johann Faustus," which he planned as a summa of his creative life, but which in 1952 was condemned [by East German critics] as "anti-national.

Thus in East as well as West, the full achievement of a composer, who bridged two worlds that for most of his life were not on speaking terms, has yet to receive the attention its deserves. Last month at the Graz Festival in Austria, one of Europe's livelier and less stereotyped festivals, a couple of well-conceived retrospective concerts did much to put Eisler's accomplishments into perspective. Perhaps in the final analysis Eisler scattered his seed in too many directions to achieve real greatness. Yet the range of the works performed revealed him as a much more substantial composer than is generally recognized.

Eisler's apprenticeship with Schönberg occurred in the years immediately after the First World War, when his master was feeling his way towards serialism, and Eisler's early works bear witness to this. But in the mid-twenties he abruptly broke with Schönbergian complexity, drastically simplified his idiom, evolved a highly individual and effective form of political song for use at rallies and demonstrations, wrote a number of witty cabaret-like setings of texts by leftist writers such as Tucholsky, and succeeded Hindemith and Weill as Brecht's closest musical collaborator. The two men became fast friends and there is even evidence that Eisler, who as an intellectual dealt with Brecht on something like equal terms, played a part in the writer's gradual conversion to Marxism in the late twenties. Whatever one may feel about its political message, their collaboration in Brecht's version of Gorki's novel "The Mother" remains a masterly example of non-operatic music theater.

Peter Heyworth is a music critic and historian.

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Eisler loyally served the Revolution to the end. But this ebullient, combative and acutely intelligent man was one of nature's nonconformists, and it was not long before tensions arose between him and the cultural bosses of the political reformatory in which he had made his home.