Hanns Eisler: life-long struggle against oppression. Two-day symposium in Amsterdam and Hilversum

Hanns Eisler in 1940 – photo by C. M. Stieglitz (from Wikipedia)

Who was Hanns  Eisler? He may be a celebrity in Germany and Austria, but in the Netherlands his music is seldom heard. Nevertheless, his work is still highly topical. Throughout his life he fought against oppression, just as today people in Hong Kong and Venezuela continue to fight for their freedom.

His name is inextricably linked to that of Bertolt Brecht, with whom he defended the communist cause. Eisler set his wry lyrics to inflammatory music, infused with jazz and folk elements. Everything to make the oppressed masses climb the barricades. He fled from the Nazis to America, where he became the victim of communist hunter McCarthy.

In Holland Eisler has almost been forgotten. But he finds strong advocates in the Hanns Eisler Foundation, that has initiated an ambitious symposium in the weekend of 28-29 September. It’s chockful of music, lectures, a discussion with composer Kate Honey, and a presentation of Eisler scores in the broadcasting archives. A unique opportunity to get (re)aquained with life and music of this passionate composer.

From Viennese Conservatory to Arnold Schönberg

Eisler was born in Leipzig in 1898 as the son of the philosopher Rudolf Eisler. When he was three years old, the family moved to Vienna, where a piano was rented – if there was any money. Unfortunately this was often lacking, and Hanns learnt how to compose from books and scores. Already during his studies at the grammar school he wrote his first works. In this period he and his brother Gerhart joined a progressive youth club .

During the First World War Hanns Eisler fought in a Hungarian regiment, suffering several injuries. On his return he enrolled as a composition student at the Vienna Conservatory. However, he was dissatisfied with their teaching. In 1919 he turned to Arnold Schönberg, who taught him for free for four years. During this period Schönberg developed his twelve-tone music, which Eisler initially embraced. The best-known result is the short song cycle Palmström, which, with its jumpy ‘Sprechgesang’, is closely related to Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire.

From twelve-tone music to agitprop

Eisler soon abandoned Schönberg’s atonal style when he moved to Berlin in 1925. He was open to influences from jazz and popular music and developed a Marxist vision of society. Brother Gerhart had become a communist journalist; sister Elfriede (a.k.a. Ruth Fischer) was co-founder of the Communist Party. Although Eisler supported the movement, he later declared never to have been an active member.

Gradually Eisler became somewhat estranged from his teacher, whose music he considered to be too remote from the common people. In turn Schönberg was horrified by the ‘vulgar’ traits in the work of his former pupil.

But Eisler was convinced music should be at the service of social change. Therefore he joined the agitprop group ‘Das rote Sprachror’ (The Red Announcer). Soon he began to compose marching songs and incendiary choral works, which were sung by left-wing trade unions throughout Europe. When Eisler met the singer Ernst Busch in 1929, his career gained momentum. Busch brought his socially critical songs to the fore with a poignant intensity.

Bertolt Brecht

It was a matter of course that Eisler would one day cooperate with the left-wing radical playwright Bertolt Brecht. They got to know each other in 1930 and forged a lifelong friendship, in which they worked together in many productions. Famous examples are the plays Die Massnahme and Die Mutter, and the film Kuhle Wampe that included the Solidarity Song. This became an international hit.

Together with Brecht, Eisler sharply denounced the hypocrisy of the ruling classes. The ordinary man is exploited and used as a pawn to satisfy their craving for power. A splendid example is Das Lied vom SA-Mann, an extremely fierce indictment of war. The text poignantly relates how, as a soldier, you are essentially shooting at your brother – who is a victim of the powers that be just like you.

After cominng to power in 1933, the Nazis banned the work of Eisler and Brecht for being ‘entartet’. Eisler wandered through Europe and America for a number of years before finally settling in America in January 1938. Brecht also initially stayed in Europe, where he lived in various Scandinavian countries before following Eisler to the United States in 1941.

Reconciliation in exile

Eisler’s name as a composer of socially critical pieces in a hybrid classical-popular style was now firmly established. Gradually he developed a synthesis between his former atonal music and his later style inspired by jazz and cabaret. He also began to use texts by other writers. In 1937 he composed the Roman Cantata on a text by the Italian anti-fascist poet Ignazio Silone, a fervent indictment of Mussolini’s dictatorship.

In 1938 Eisler became a lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York. Two years later he received a grant from the Mexico University to investigate into the function of film music. He moved to Hollywood in 1942. There he again met up with Bertolt Brecht. In addition to several films, they made the plays Furcht und Elend des dritten Reiches and Galileo.

In Hollywood, Eisler moreover reconciled with Arnold Schönberg, who he brought into contact with Charlie Chaplin and Bertolt Brecht. The latter even wrote a birthday cantata for Schönberg, which Eisler set to music.

From ‘Entartet’ to ‘Un-American’

Eisler thought he was safe from the Nazis in the Land of the Free, but was deceived. In 1947 he had to appear before Senator McCarthy’s notorious Committee on Un-American Activities. The latter accused him of cherishing communist sympathies and called his brother Gerhart a ‘communist spy’. Eisler reacted furiously:

‘I am accused of being the brother of Gerhart Eisler, whom I love and admire and whom I will continue to defend. Does the committee believe that brotherly love is un-American? More importantly, the committee hopes that by persecuting me, it will be able to intimidate many other artists in America whom it may dislike for various unworthy reasons.’

‘The committee hopes to hunt down every liberal, progressive and socially aware artist in this country, and to subject their works to unconstitutional and hysterical political censorship. It is horrible to think what will become of American art if this commission is to judge what art is American and what is Un-American. This is the sort of thing Hitler and Mussolini tried. They were not successful, and neither will be the House Committee on Un-American activities.’

Socialist Utopia

Thanks to international protests, Eisler was not convicted, though he was expelled from the country. Via Vienna he eventually settled in East Berlin, the capital of the brand new GDR. Here, Eisler contributed with dedication to the construction of the socialist Utopia. He was convinced he would serve the cause best by composing ‘applied music’ for film, theatre, television, cabaret and public events. He even wrote the East German national anthem.

Eisler may have been very committed to the socialist cause, even in the GDR he clashed with the authorities. When he published his self-written libretto Faust in 1953, the apparatchiks accused him of harbouring an antisocialist, pro-American attitude. Eisler however was convinced having just written a ‘Nationaloper’ in which the exploitation of the common people was denounced. The accusations are particularly harsh given his exile from the US and his voluntary return to the GDR.

(K)ein Leben ohne Angst

Nevertheless, Eisler remained loyal to East Germany. He even wrote a so-called ‘Canossa letter’, in which he humbly pledged to comply with the wishes of the State. In 1962 he completed his last work, Ernste Gesänge (Serious Songs) on texts by various poets. In this work he seems to take stock of his life. The phrase ‘Leben ohne Angst zu haben’ (Living without fear) from the sixth song speaks volumes in this respect.

Hanns Eisler completed this work in 1962, and died shortly after. It was not until a year later that his Ernste Gesänge were premiered. One of these will be performed at the Muziekcentrum van de Omroep in Hilversum, where various Eisler arrangements are stored. A worthy conclusion to the two-day Eisler Days.

*On Saturday 28 March I will speak with Kate Honey and Monique Krüs about their relationship with Eisler, University Theatre Amsterdam.

Info and tickets here.

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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