Hanns Eisler: Music

Bullet Introduction to Eisler's music
Bullet Virtual Tour with RealAudio Samples
Bullet Virgil Thomson reviews Hanns Eisler
Bullet Peter Heyworth reviews Hanns Eisler

Playwright Bertolt Brecht

 
"I see [Eisler's] settings the same way as a performance is to a play: the test. He reads with immense precision."
 
Conductor Leon Botstein

 
"... Eisler and Weill ... sought to write a new kind of music that bridged the concert hall, the cabaret and the street."
 
Baritone Matthias Goerne

 
"Here was an artist comparable, in my opinion, to Brahms. The integrity, the consciousness of the times is so very great in Eisler that I was inspired to combine his songs with those of Schubert.... [O]ne might say that [Eisler's] 'Hollywood Liederbuch' is the 'Winterreise' of our times."

Because Eisler repudiated the idea of "art for art's sake" and believed that art had to be engaged in great social and political struggles, much of his music (especially the songs he composed for Brecht and other left-wing poets) is highly contextual and needs to be heard with an ear for history. It is perhaps not "timeless," although it still can instruct and even inspire today. Eisler's music is a window into a particular time and place. He cannot be understood apart from the titanic political struggles of the 20th century any more than Bach can be appreciated apart from his spiritual connection with Lutheran Christianity.

Schönberg always regretted his brilliant student's rejection of "pure" music: Eisler had missed out on his chance to become a great composer. But what is a "great composer?" In his notes for a performance of Eisler's "German Symphony," conductor Leon Botstein writes: "Greatness in music is often defined as an ability of a work of music to transcend origins and historical contexts. Tonight's concert suggests several alternatives. The music heard tonight is music that deserves more than the occasional performance. It does so not because it transcends its context, but precisely because it inspires future generations to make contact with history in a way that only music can accomplish." *

Eisler wrote music (particularly his concert lieder and more advanced chamber compositions) that can have a broad appeal (when audiences are allowed to hear him), and his ideas about the social function of music are still relevant. Moreover, the end of the Cold War permits us to look at the social and cultural context of Eisler's life and times with some critical detachment. The European revival of Eisler's music that followed the centenary of his birth in 1998 has yet to reach our shores—from which Eisler was expelled in 1947 as a cultural subversive. "It is a matter of regret to this reviewer ... to lose a workman so gifted, so skillful, so imaginative," composer Virgil Thomson wrote in the New York Herald Tribune on the eve of Eisler's forced departure. "Let us hope that ... his musical works may come to us regularly from Europe." More than 50 years later, we are still waiting.

* Also on the program was the Jewish Chronicle, a collaborative composition by Boris Blacher, Paul Dessau, Rudolf Wagner-Regény, Hans Werner Henze and Karl Amadeus Hartmann. The full text of Leon Botstein's review is on the American Symphony Orchestra website.

Life   Top   Virgil Thompson

Hanns Eisler Bertolt Brecht Arnold Schoenberg Kurt Weill Weimar Republic cabaret Leonard Bernstein Aaron Copland Hollywood Ten HUAC Hanns Eisler Bertolt Brecht Arnold Schoenberg Kurt Weill Weimar Republic cabaret Leonard Bernstein Aaron Copland Hollywood Ten HUAC Hanns Eisler Bertolt Brecht Arnold Schoenberg Kurt Weill Weimar Republic cabaret Leonard Bernstein Aaron Copland Hollywood Ten HUAC Hanns Eisler Bertolt Brecht Arnold Schoenberg Kurt Weill Weimar Republic cabaret Leonard Bernstein Aaron Copland Hollywood Ten HUAC Hanns Eisler Bertolt Brecht Arnold Schoenberg Kurt Weill Weimar Republic cabaret Leonard Bernstein Aaron Copland Hollywood Ten HUAC

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Eisler's music, writes critic Erik Levi, has a "transparent and often contrapuntal texture that gives prominence to harsh sounds such as the muted trumpet, saxophone and high-pitched clarinets." Eisler's distinctive use of the atonality he learned from his teacher Schönberg is characterized by "precision, clarity and wit."

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