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

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After studies with Arnold Schönberg in Vienna, Eisler moved to Berlin where he was converted to a style of "useful music" aimed at social transformation. Exiled after the Nazis seized power, Eisler's travels finally brought him to New York and Hollywood. Forced to leave during "Red Scare" that followed the end of World War II, he returned to Berlin (East) where he died in 1962.

 
 
1898 Hanns Eisler is born July 6 in Leipzig, the third child of Austrian Jewish philosopher Rudolf Eisler and Marie Ida (Fischer) Eisler, Christian daughter of a butcher.
1901 Eisler family returns to Vienna.
1914 World war begins in Europe.
1916 Eisler, serving as a frontline soldier in a Hungarian regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army, is injured several times in combat.
1917 Beginning with revolts by frontline troops, revolution topples the Russian monarchy in February. A provisional government is declared in Petrograd, and the czar and royal family are arrested. In October, after months of chaos, the Bolshevik party led by V.I. Lenin seizes power.
1918 The United States intervenes in Europe. After a series of defeats, the German and Austro-Hungarian armies disintegrate. On November 9, German Emperor Wilhelm II abdicates, followed by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Karl I on November 12. Revolutionary turmoil convulses Berlin, where Social Democrats negotiate a secret agreement with the imperial army and declare a democratic republic. Hours later, a rival socialist republic is proclaimed by Reichstag deputy Karl Liebknecht. Liebknecht is leader of a break-away faction of Social Democrats, the revolutionary Spartacus League (Spartacists). Both factions struggle for control of Berlin. Eisler, demobilized, returns to Vienna. Like many of his generation, he has high hopes for a socialist revolution that will transform Europe.
1919 The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) is founded on January 1, with Spartacist leaders Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg among its leaders. A communist revolt begins in Berlin, Bremen and Munich but is suppressed by the Social Democratic government with the help of right-wing death squads. Liebknecht and Luxemburg are murdered January 15 in Berlin. Eisler's private studies with composer Arnold Schönberg begin in Vienna.
1920 Eisler directs the Vienna worker choirs "Stahlklang" ("Sound of Steel") and "Karl Liebknecht."
1922 Eisler studies with Anton Webern. In October, Benito Mussolini is appointed head of the Italian government.
1923 Schönberg reveals his revolutionary "twelve-tone" (dodecaphonic) method of composition. Eisler composes the atonal Piano Sonata No. 1 op. 1 RealAudio. Schönberg sponsors the work's première in Prague. In November, Adolf Hitler leads a rebellion in Munich against the German Republic, but troops loyal to the Bavarian government suppress the uprising.
1924 Eisler composes the first twelve-tone work by a Schönberg disciple—Palmström op. 5. Webern and Alban Berg follow soon after. Lenin dies in January. Josef Stalin remains in power as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
1925 Eisler wins the Art Prize of the City of Vienna. He moves to Berlin, a city convulsed by political tension and cultural innovation. His early vocal and chamber works are performed in Venice and at Paul Hindemith's new music festival in Donaueschingen.
1926 Eisler begins to move away from abstract concert music towards "applied music" with social and political content. Composes the cantata "Tagebuch des Hanns Eisler" op. 9 (Hanns Eisler's Diary), one of his few "subjective" works. Painful rupture with Schönberg: Eisler believes his teacher is a late-Romantic reactionary, Schönberg denounces his former protégé as a coffeehouse radical. Eisler composes "Zeitungsausschnitte" (Newspaper Clippings) op. 11, based on personal ads in Berlin daily newspapers. His method is still dodecaphonic but the content reflects Eisler's new concern about everyday life. He applies for membership in the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) but later has second thoughts and allows the application to lapse.
1927 Première of "Tagebuch" at Hindemith's music festival, now moved to Baden-Baden. Première of "Zeitungsauschnitte" in Berlin. Eisler begins collaboration with Agitprop choral ensemble "Das rote Sprachrohr" ("The Red Megaphone"). Writes first film and theater music. Becomes music critic for KPD daily "Die Rote Fahne" ("The Red Banner").
1928 Birth of son Georg. Eisler teaches at the Marxist Workers' School in Berlin. Continues to write protest songs and militant choral music, developing a unique stye of kampflieder ("songs for the struggle"). Beginning of friendship with famed Berlin theater director Erwin Piscator.
1929 Death of Eisler's mother in Vienna. Beginning of friendship with singer-actor Ernst Busch. Première of radio cantata "Tempo der Zeit" (David Weber) op. 16 at the Baden-Baden festival. Writes "Song of the Unemployed" (Weber). Première of militant song "Der rote Wedding" (Erich Weinert) op. 28 RealAudio. Writes "Auf den Strassen zu singen" (Concerning Singing in the Streets, Weber) op. 15 for mixed chorus and other militant choral music for male voices. In October, the New York stock market crashes and worldwide economic depression begins.
1930 Economic crisis deepens and the SPD-led Grand Coalition collapses in Berlin. As unemployment spreads in German cities, support grows for the militant KPD. At the same time, middle-class voters desert the bourgeois democratic parties to support the rising Nazi movement. Beginning of Eisler's 27-year friendship and creative partnership with Bertolt Brecht. First journey to the USSR. Première in Berlin of the Brecht/Eisler play "Die Massnahme" (The Measures Taken) Song of Supply and Demand from Die Massnahme. Writes Suite No. 1 for Orchestra op. 23. Writes choral music and kampflieder with texts by Brecht, Kurt Tucholsky and other leftist writers. Audio examples: Tucholsky's "Ballad of the Welfare System" in a 1930 recording by Ernst Busch RealAudio and Erich Weinert's "The Secret Deployment" in a 1960s recording, also by Busch RealAudio.
1931 Recording of "Song of the Cotton Pickers" (Traven) wins first prize at Leipzig Gramophone Exhibition. Eisler leads a study group on "Dialectial Materialism in Music" in Berlin, writes for the journal "Kampfmusik" (Music for the Struggle) and plays a leading role in the Militant Association of Worker-Singers. Second trip to USSR. Writes film music for "Niemandsland" (No Man's Land), directed by Viktor Trivas, and "Kuhle Wampe," directed by Slatan Dudow with screenplay and songs by Brecht—including "Solidaritätslied" (Solidarity Song), which becomes an instant militant hit RealAudio. "Kuhle Wampe" is banned from theaters by the Prussian government. Eisler writes music for Brecht's prophetic "Song of the SA Man" for performance at a workers' cabaret. In Spain, the monarchy falls and a Republican government takes power.
1932 Première of Brecht/Eisler "Die Mutter" (based on novel by Maxim Gorki) in Berlin. Eisler writes partly dodecaphonic Kleine Sinfonie op. 29 RealAudio. Writes music for Joris Iven's film "Song of Heroes." (Suite No. 4 for Orchestra is adapted from the score.) Eisler becomes committee member, International Music Bureau in Moscow (chair from 1935).
1933 President Hindenburg appoints Adolf Hitler Reich Chancellor in January. By chance, Eisler is in Vienna where Webern has invited him to stage "Die Mutter" and other political music. Brecht warns Eisler not to return to Berlin. As the Nazis begin to arrest leftist writers and artists, Brecht, Kurt Weill and many others flee for their lives. Eisler's exile in Vienna, London, Paris, Copenhagen, New York, Mexico City and Hollywood begins. Stalin begins to purge suspected opponents in the Communist Party: mass expulsions are followed by arrests and executions.
1934 Eisler composes stage music for "Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe" (The Roundheads and the Pointy-heads) by Brecht RealAudio, and the antifascist hit song "Einheitsfrontlied" (United Front Song), also by Brecht.
1935 Eisler's first trip to USA is sponsored by aid committee for exiled anti-Nazi artists. Eisler tours American cities, accompanied by baritone Mordecai Baumann, for recitals of his political songs. Begins work on the monumental German Symphony (Deutsche Sinfonie). Returns to Europe and organizes International Workers Music Olympiad in Strasbourg near the German border. There, the "Einheitfrontslied" (United Front Song) is premièred by a chorus of 5,000 members of the workers song movement.
1936 The Spanish Civil War begins. International Brigades, comprised mostly of Communist volunteers, arrive to support the Republican forces. Italy and Germany intervene on the fascist side.
1937 Eisler marries Louise ("Lou") Jolesch. Visits Spain to support the International Brigades, composes "March of the Fifth Regiment" and "No pasaran." Working visit with Brecht in Denmark. Begins work on the Lenin Requiem (text by Brecht) RealAudio and the twelve-tone Chamber Cantatas (Kammerkantaten, texts by Ignazio Silone) RealAudio.
1938 Stalin's purges reach their climax. One of the victims is avant-garde Soviet director Sergei Tretiakov—a close friend of Eisler and Brecht. Eisler moves to USA where he begins work as professor of composition and counterpoint at the New School for Social Research, New York. Composes String Quartet op. 75. RealAudio and film music for the epic Joris Ivens documentary on the Chinese-Japanese war, "400 Million." Because of visa difficulties, he leaves for Mexico. In September, International Brigades are withdrawn from Spain while fascist forces continue to advance.
1939 Guest professor at the Mexico City Conservatory. On April 1, Madrid falls to fascist troops and the Spanish Civil War ends. In August, Hitler and Stalin sign a "non-aggression" pact; Eisler's anger at Soviet-German cooperation is reflected in the sixth movement of his German Symphony. In September, Hitler invades Poland and World War II begins.
1940 Composes twelve-tone Kammersymphonie (Chamber Symphony) RealAudio, perhaps the earliest classical work to use electronic instruments. Also, Fünf Orchesterstücke (Five Pieces for Orchestra) and Suite for Septet No. 1.
1941 Composes twelve-tone quintet "Vierzehn Arten den Regen zu beschreiben" (Fourteen Ways of Describing the Rain) RealAudio. In December, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and Hitler declares war on the U.S.
1942 Eisler moves to Los Angeles and is reconciled with Schönberg, who lives nearby. Brecht also settles in southern California and the two artists renew their partnership. Begins to compose art songs based on poetry by Brecht, Goethe, Hölderlin and others. (Cycle later named the "Hollywood Songbook.") RealAudio. Friendship with Charlie Chaplin begins.
1943 Composes twelve-tone Piano Sonata No. 3 RealAudio. First Oscar nomination for score to "Hangmen Also Die," director Fritz Lang.
1944 Eisler completes with co-author Theodor Adorno the now-classic textbook, "Composing for the Films." Second Oscar nomination for score to "None But the Lonely Heart," starring Cary Grant, directed by Clifford Odets. Chamber composition, "Fourteen Ways of Describing the Rain," premières at Schönberg's home in California at the celebration of the elder composer's seventieth birthday.
1945 Eisler writes stage music for Brecht's "Private Life of the Master Race." Composes film music for Harold Clurman's "Deadline at Dawn." Hitler commits suicide in late April and Germany surrenders a few days later. In August, U.S. atom bombs destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the war ends in the Pacific.
1946 Eisler composes film music for "The Woman on the Beach" by director Jean Renoir.
1947 Eisler writes stage music for "Galileo" (Brecht) and Septet No. 2. The latter is projected as film music for Chaplin's movie "Circus" but never completed because political troubles interrupt Eisler's work in Hollywood. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) begins hearings in Washington and Los Angeles on alleged Communist influence in the film industry. Congressman Richard Nixon says the Eisler case is "perhaps the most important to have come before this committee." The composer testifies twice, in May and September, and is publicly branded "the Karl Marx of Communism in the musical field." Charges against Eisler in the American press escalate, including allegations that he is the Communist agent in charge of the infiltration of artistic circles in Hollywood. Eisler becomes the first victim of the Hollywood "blacklist" and is no longer able to find work as a composer.
1948 Despite a campaign by supporters Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Roger Sessions, Thomas Mann and others, Eisler is forced to leave the USA. In February, he attends a farewell concert of his music in New York sponsored by Copland, Bernstein and Sessions. Woodie Guthrie composes a ballad deploring the composer's deportation: "Eisler on the Go."
1949 Eisler moves to East Berlin. Composes Rhapsody for Large Orchestra with Soprano Solo (Goethe-Rhapsodie), film music for "Rat der Götter" (Council of the Gods) by director Kurt Mätzig, and the National Anthem of the German Democratic Republic ("Auferstanden aus Ruinen") RealAudio to text by Johannes Becher.
1950 Eisler becomes a member of the German Academy of the Arts and professor at the German Academy of Music (Deutsche Hochschule für Musik) in East Berlin. Wins the GDR National Prize (First Class). Composes music for Becher's Neue deutsche Volkslieder (New German Folksongs).
1951 Eisler begins work on the libretto for his planned opera, "Johann Faustus." Attends International Peace Congress in Vienna.
1953 The Faustus libretto is sharply criticized in the GDR as an offense against German national culture. Deeply depressed, Eisler abandons the project and departs for Vienna. Meanwhile, Stalin's death on March 5 signals the beginning of a political and cultural thaw. In June, violent demonstrations by workers spread from East Berlin to other cities in the GDR. Soviet troops suppress the uprising and alleged "Western agents" are arrested, but cautious reform begins. Brecht criticizes the government's arrogance and writes of the "justifiable demands" of the workers. In September, Khrushchev becomes First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. In October, still in self-imposed exile in Vienna, Eisler writes the SED (Communist Party) Central Committee defending his music but affirming that his place as an artist is in "that part of Germany in which the foundations of socialism are being laid."
1954 Eisler returns to work in Berlin. Stage music for the tragic play "Winter Battle" (Becher). Lectures at the Berlin Academy of Arts in Schönberg's honor to celebrate his teacher's 80th birthday—and to defend Schönberg's music against ideological attack by Communist bureaucrats.
1955 Film music for French production of the Holocaust documentary "Nuit et Brouillard" (Night and Fog), director Alain Resnais.
1956 Eisler completes stage music for Brecht's "Schwejk im Zweiten Weltkrieg" (Schweyk in the Second World War) Song of the Moldau. He is awarded Jean Vigo Prize in Paris for the score to "Nuit et Broulliard." In Moscow, the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU signals a break with Stalinism. Brecht dies, and Eisler describes the loss as "a blow."
1957 Eisler composes stage music for "The Carpet Weavers of Kujan-Bulak" (Brecht).
1958 Eisler marries Stephanie ("Steffi") Peschl. Tapes interviews for GDR radio with Hans Bunge and Nathan Notowicz. Wins a second GDR National Prize (First Class).
1959 Eisler composes music for "Tucholsky Lieder" at the request of Ernst Busch. World première of his massive German Symphony in Berlin on April 24—three decades after its composition German Symphony. It had been too political for the West; too avant-garde for the East.
1960 Eisler's first heart attack.
1961 The GDR government seals off the border with West Berlin and begins construction of the Berlin Wall.
1962 Eisler is in London for the British première of the German Symphony. His last work, the elegiac "Ernste Gesänge" (Serious Songs) for baritone and small orchestra, is completed Sadness from the Serious Songs. He dies in Berlin on September 6. Memorial service in the German State Opera on the Unter den Linden, burial near Brecht and Helene Weigel at the Dorotheenstadt Cemetary. Hanns Eisler Archive established at the GDR Academy of Arts.
1964 The "German Academy of Music" in East Berlin is renamed the "Hanns Eisler Academy of Music" (Hochschule für Musik "Hanns Eisler").
1967 Twenty years after the HUAC hearings, the "Brecht-Eisler Song Book" (Eric Bentley, editor) is published in New York. It is the first major translation of texts for Eisler's songs in the USA.
1968 Eisler Gesammelte Werke (Eisler Collected Works, or EGW)—a critical edition of his more than 600 compositions—begins to appear in the GDR. After German unification, the International Hanns Eisler Society will continue the project as the Hanns Eisler Gesamtausgabe (Hanns Eisler Collected Edition, or HEGA).
1987 Acknowledging Eisler as a "bridge" between classical and popular music, pop star Sting records Eisler's melody for "To My Little Radio" with new lyrics for the album "Nothing Like the Sun." Later that year he sings songs by Eisler and Weill in a concert with the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra.
1996 Edel's "Berlin Classics" label begins reissuing for world distribution a series of Eisler CDs—digitally remastered from the archives of Deutsche Schallplatten, the former GDR state recording company. Revival of interest in Eisler's music leads to new performances or recordings by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Berlin Staatskapelle, German Symphony Orchestra, Magdeburgische Philharmonie, American Symphony Orchestra and a number of chamber groups.
1998 The centenary of Eisler's birth is commemorated in Germany and several other countries with performances, conferences and lectures. The composer's bust, dismantled after the disintegration of the GDR, is restored to the entrance of the Berlin music conservatory which continues to bear his name. The documentary "Solidarity Song: The Hanns Eisler Story" by director Larry Weinstein, is broadcast on German, British, Canadian and U.S. television. First performances of "Eislermaterial," a stage revue of Eisler's songs and chamber music conceived by German composer Heiner Goebbels. Leon Botstein conducts the U.S. première of the German Symphony with the American Symphony Orchestra in New York. British folk star Billy Bragg composes music for Woody Guthrie's 1948 ballad, "Eisler on the Go," and records the song on the album "Mermaid Avenue." Second wife Louise ("Lou") and son Georg, a noted painter, both die in Vienna.
2000 Rehearsals begin for a revival of the first Brecht/Eisler political play, "Die Massnahme," at the Schauspielhaus in Dresden. Eisler's sister-in-law Hilde Eisler, wife of Gerhart Eisler, dies in Berlin.
2002 Breitkopf & Härtel announce in Germany publication of the first volume of the Hanns Eisler Collected Edition—a definitive version of the Brecht/Eisler play, "Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe" (The Roundheads and the Pointy-heads). The Berlin Ensemble announces a revival of Brecht/Eisler "Die Mutter" to commemorate the anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg's murder on January 15, 2003. U.S. première of the revue "Eislermaterial" announced for December 2003 in Los Angeles.

Written by Andy Lang.

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