Hanns Eisler: Music

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Piano Sonata No. 1 Op. 1 RealAudio Buy
Performed by Christoph Keller.

Eisler in Vienna
Eisler as a young student in Vienna in the early 1920s.

Eisler's first mature work was also one of his first experiments with atonal music. Reflecting the influence of his teacher, Arnold Schönberg, it is also marked by qualities that characterized Eisler's entire work: energy, good humor and simplicity of expression. Writes musicologist Günter Mayer in a review of this work: "Eisler here couples traditional forms and techniques with the new, atonal material. This is his way of approaching the inner logic of formal coherence, which had become a problem with the loss of key-relationships.... Here then was audible proof of how soundly Schönberg's model pupil had mastered his musical craft."

Eisler performed the sonata for Schönberg on in March 1923 and then, with his teacher's support, the work was premièred by the Prague Society for Private Musical Performance in April. The composition was a brilliant arrival for the young student in the world of concert music: just five years before, he had been a front-line soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army. In the next three years the sonata was performed more than 25 times—in Moscow, New York and Paris—and in 1925 earned Eisler the Arts Prize of the City of Vienna.

Over the next few years Eisler continued to explore the twelve-tone system in chamber works and art songs, but differences between his style and Schönberg's began to emerge. Eisler was clearly not composing according to his teacher's emotional subtext of personal suffering, loneliness and fear. Instead, he began to choose themes that reflected the critical spirit of left-wing radicalism in postwar Europe: contempt for the existing social order coupled with a fervent belief that the poor would rise up and change the world. It was this external, social orientation in Eisler's music—dismissed by Schönberg as fashionable coffee-house radicalism—that resulted ultimately in their painful break in 1925. At the same time, Eisler gradually abandoned concert music and the bourgeois audiences that patronized it and began to write political songs for demonstrations and left-wing cabaret shows along with jazz-influenced scores for the new technology of sound films. But the breach with Schönberg and the twelve-tone system was only temporary: Eisler returned to the style in the later 1930s, though he continued to choose texts that were "social" in content. And the student and teacher were reunited when both arrived in southern California in the early 1940s as exiles from Nazi-dominated Europe.

Music sample is © 1989 Accord. Commentary by Andrew Lang.

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