Hanns Eisler: Music

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Eisler in the 1950s
Eisler conducting a rehearsal in the 1950s in East Germany.

By Virgil Thomson
New York Herald Tribune
March 11, 1948

Hanns Eisler, who is leaving the United States today at the request of the Immigration Department, was the subject of a testimonial and benefit concert given Saturday night at the Town Hall. Composers of the highest distinction—Copland, Diamond, Harris, Piston, Sessions and Randall Thompson—sponsored the evening. Executant musicians of the first quality—including, among many others, Tossy Spivakovsky, Frank Brieff and Leo Smit—performed. The program gave us works by Mr. Eisler covering his entire career, from the String Quartet, opus 1, through his latest film scores. "Alien Cantata," planned for the occasion, was not given, since the composer had not been able to complete it. The text of this, by Mr. Eisler himself, was read at the end of the evening by Samuel L. M.Barlow, who charged that an unfavorable reference to this work had already appeared in "Time" magazine, though the staff of that weekly had had no access to the manuscript. The public was large, attentive and warmly disposed.

A composer's one-man show is a concert formula as definite as an omnibus book. It shows you all the chief facets of an author's mind and his whole repertory of techniques. Such a view of Hanns Eisler's work was particularly welcome to your announcer, and to many other among those present, since this composer has never been represented copiously on New York concert programs. This hiatus is due chiefly, of course, to the fact that his mature work, both his European and his American production, has largely been consecrated to the theater and its allied occasions. Even as a dramatic composer, he has not always been easy to come upon, since his music has usually been offered with productions of an advanced or recondite nature that a music reviewer cannot always get around to hearing before they go off the boards. This reviewer had heard, however, and with pleasure, Mr. Eisler's distinguished musical contribution to Experimental Theater's recent production of Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo." Viewed through this, as well as through last night's concert, Eisler's whole work becomes genuinely impressive.

The impressiveness is due less to any profound originality, as in the case of his master, Arnold Schönberg, or in that of his sometime model, the German-language works of Kurt Weill, than to his graceful and to his delicate taste. Eisler's music, whether the style of it is chromatic and emotional, diatonic and formalist, or strictly atonal in the dodecaphonic manner, always has charm. It has charm because the tunes are pretty, the textures bright and light, the expressive intentions thoroughly straightforward and clear. Eisler is that rare specimen, a German composer without weight. He uses no heaviness, makes no insistence. Alone among the works played last night, his Violin Sonata indulged, in its final movement, in climactic expansion and frank virtuosity. Everything else was gossamer, elf-like. Also, his rhythm was invariably alive; and this is perhaps his rarest virtue among German composers of our century, so notably lacking in metrical variety and rhythmic ease.

Two essays In film accompaniment were the evening's real novelty. Six excerpts composed to accompany Chaplin's "The Circus," scored for septet, offer chamber sonorities in place of the symphonic sounds usually employed to accompany photographic narration. The sounds are delicious, and the musical fancy is exquisite. Whether the expression is apt and whether the absence of volume variety monotonous in a theater one could not tell. Confrontation with the film itself would be the test. Such a test was provided in a short subject called "Fourteen Ways of Describing Rain," photographs of Amsterdam under precipitation. The music, strictly twelve-tone, is scored for flute, violin, clarinet cello and piano. Violin and piano are played to perfection in this recording by Rudolf Kolisch and Edouard Steuerman. The music sounds enough like rain, but the absence of narrative in the film prevents it from adding to this merely atmospheric effect a full emotional account of what rain can mean. As in the "Circus" excerpts the music was delightful for itself; but dramatic applicability remained uncertain. Dramatic subjects offer Eisler certainly a stimulus. But I suspect the interest of his film music is largely intrinsic. Its fancy and its taste, at any rate, are more convincing to me than its expressive accuracy. This was not true of his music for the spoken play, "Galileo," which performed a variety of dramatic functions more than satisfactory.

It is a matter of regret to this reviewer that the American theater is to lose a workman so gifted, so skillful, so imaginative. Let us hope that, pending revision of his case that might permit him to return to this country, his musical works may come to us regularly from Europe, where professional engagements galore, it would seem, await him.

American composer Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was music critic for the New York Herald Tribune from 1940 to 1954.

Concert of Hanns Eisler's Music, Saturday night at Town Hall. Participants: Jac Gorodotzky, Eugene Bergen, violin; Richard Dickler, viola; Luclan Laporte, cello; Julius Baker, flute; Clark Brody, clarinet; Chloe Owen, soprano; John Ranck, piano; Tossy Spivakovsky, violin; Jan Behr, piano; Leo Smit, piano; Frank Brieff, conductor; and the new Music Quartet (Broadus Erle, Sherman Goldscheid, vlolins; Walter Trampler, viola, and Claus Adam, cello).

The program: Eight Songs (Spring; Hotel Room II ; Hotel Room 1942; Nightmare; In the Garden; Pantry; To the Survivors; Hollywood Elegy VII); String Quartet in two movements; Sonata for violin and piano; "Fourteen Ways to Describe Rain" (film by Joris Ivens); Seven Piano Pieces for Children; Suite No. 2 for Septet (excerpts from score for Chaplin's "Circus").

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This reviewer had heard, and with pleasure, Mr. Eisler's distinguished musical contribution to Experimental Theater's recent production of Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo." Viewed through this, as well as through last night's concert, Eisler's whole work becomes genuinely impressive.