Hanns Eisler: Life
Hanns Eisler
Caricature of Eisler from an interview in Literaturnaya Gazeta, Moscow, in 1935.
 

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 on the meaning of music
"Someone who knows only music, understands nothing about it."

Some composers may have tried to escape the upheavals of their century through the illusion of "pure music," but not Hanns Eisler. His lifelong conviction was that music should not be subjective but objective, not obscure but transparent, not metaphysical but grounded in history. Eisler's art held up a mirror to the revolutionary hopes and bitter disappontments of his generation—a generation that witnessed two world wars, the rise and fall of empires, an age of revolutions.

"A composer knows," Eisler wrote on the eve of his expulsion from the United States, "that music is written by human beings for human beings and that music is a continuation of life, not something separated from it."

On these pages you can follow Eisler's:

Bullet early years as a World War I veteran and Arnold Schönberg protégé in Vienna.

Bullet break with Schönberg in the mid-1920s and conversion to a communicative style of music engaged in great social and political questions.

Bullet close personal and professional relationship with Bertolt Brecht.

Bullet exile from Nazi Germany and ten-year sojourn in New York and Hollywood.

Bullet deportation from the United States during the hunt for "Reds" in the entertainment and music industries.

Bullet return to Berlin to again join forces with Brecht and continue the search for a communicative style during a period of social and political upheaval.

Here you will meet the varied and sometimes contradictory faces of Hanns Eisler:

Bullet the composer of aggressive political music whose later art songs reveal "an almost Schubert-like tenderness."

Bullet Schönberg's "heretical pupil" who never abandoned hope for a modified twelve-tone idiom that could reach a mass audience.

Bullet the Hollywood composer who described some of his own work as "cheap" but whose film scores earned two Oscar nominations.

Bullet the composer of East Germany's national anthem who fought the government's censorship of jazz and atonal music.

"Eisler was an optimistic fighter, yet bound up with his optimism and his struggle were despair and suffering, but without pathos—which he hated," says contemporary German composer Heiner Goebbels. "He was among the most brilliant polemicists of his day because he stood up to his contradictions by boldly seizing them and forcing them to collide and encourage a creative dynamic. He was a great dialectician. We can learn a lot from him. If I met him today, I would remain silent at first just to listen to him."

Apart from our biographical resources on this page, we invite you to visit our Music and Ideas page where you take a virtual tour with audio samples of Eisler's theater, chamber, vocal and symphonic works.

Written by Andy Lang.

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Hanns Eisler—a gifted composer who became an "unperson" in the United States after he was forced to leave in 1948 as "an undesirable alien"—is increasingly popular in Europe, where his very diverse and often inventive music is reaching a new generation of listeners. Eisler reacted against the late-Romantic tradition of "art for art's sake" and instead argued that music must have a social function—music should be engaged in the struggle for human liberation. So he was closely associated with the political theater of Bertolt Brecht and other radical writers, and was one of the first serious composers to experiment with the new technologies of radio, film and recording. At the same time, he wrote extraordinary chamber music and was arguably one of the best composers of German concert lieder in the 20th century.