The Kaleidoscopic Contradictions of Hanns Eisler: 1898 – 1962
Few of the so-called ‘exiled composers’ were as controversial as Hanns Eisler. None since Wagner had written such copious and trenchant observations on society, politics and ethics in addition to writing about music. The debates still rage as to whether he was a victim, a pawn or a perpetrator: an agent of a repressive and undemocratic system of government. That such debates remain active only confirm that he was all of these things and even more, a composer with a voice that was unmistakeable and forged a path with courage and integrity through a modernist world that saw all models from the past as dangerously irrelevant. It’s pointless trying to impose normal bourgeois values on his relationships with friends, women or even his own son. Such long accepted norms, like those of tonality, were seen as exhausted and in need of renewal. He once observed that he enjoyed contradictions. His own biography bears this out. He remains impossible to pin down – a hero, a coward, a progressive, a traditionalist, an individualist and a collectivist; yet above all, he was a survivor. Yet as with everything in his life, even his means of survival were individual, offering no moral template for the future and taking none from the past.
(‘No More Peace’ Overtüre für 2 Klaviere)
Inevitably, the question that emerges from such complexity is what his specific musical contributions were. This is easier to answer. On a fundamental level, one could accredit him as the father of German agitprop, though personally, I see this as one of his least remarkable achievements. More important was his use of music in order to achieve a didactic synthesis of the very contradictions in which he lived and worked: it was nothing less than music as dialectic. Yet to achieve a synthesis, Eisler believed it necessary for the listener to understand both thesis and antithesis. These things were meant to be comprehensible for what he called the common working person. This quest for the comprehensible (Fassbarkeit) in music is ultimately what differentiated him from fellow modernists of his age.
The years he spent in East Germany have also been subjected to ideological debate, which has coloured assessments of his music. Was he a misguided idealist who simply couldn’t come to terms with the shortcomings of the system, while remaining true to the principals of Marxism, or was he a victim of Western hypocrisy, that in its anti-Communist hysteria, closed-off all opportunities of work except for those in the Soviet sector? Certainly, the move to East Germany did not hamper his creative flow. Some 17 or so stage works, with the same number of films, along with several volumes of songs and secular chamber cantatas were composed in the 14 years between his removal from the United States and death in East Berlin. He would have preferred to have stayed in America, but sought opportunities in Europe; he was neither an Austrian nor a German, but rather a Viennese in Berlin, or a Berliner in Vienna. His affairs were German, his wives were Austrian. He was a Communist, but never quite got around to joining the party – even when he lived in Communist East Germany and moved in their most elite circles.
Johannes (Hanns) Eisler was born in Leipzig, the youngest of three children. His father was Rudolf Eisler, author of the Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Expressions, a reference that remains in use today. Rudolf, son of wealthy Jewish Viennese merchants, was in Leipzig to complete his doctorate with Wilhelm Wundt. His wife, Ida Maria Fischer was the daughter of a local distributor to Leipzig butchers. Her three children cited her ‘proletarian’ origins as a badge of honour. It was, however, strategically wide of the mark. She attended university, but as a woman, was not permitted to enrol. Her family was active in left-wing politics and though not allowed to take a degree, she became a published essayist, journalist and poet as well as an informed and engaged assistant to her husband. Rudolf’s parents did not accept the relationship with Ida Maria until their marriage following the birth of their daughter Elfriede (called ‘Fritzi’ by her family) in 1895. Her brother Gerhart was born in 1897, Hanns in 1898.
Rudolf returned to Vienna with his young family in 1901. After initially settling in the city’s respectable Third District, circumstances forced a move to the so-called Matzos-Island of the Second District, Vienna’s Jewish working class quarter. Though Rudolf was denied a permanent professorial post at the University – ostensibly because of his declared atheism – the family appears to have been close-knit and happy. Rudolf played the piano and pounded his way through popular operas and operettas singing all of the roles himself. Hanns and Gerhart would play out the Nibelung legend with Elfriede a serviceable – though presumably reluctant – Brünhilde. Hanns’s grades at the Rasumowsky Gymnasium (high school in preparation for university entrance) were shocking, though do not appear to have concerned either him or his parents too much. One of his close friends from this period, Jascha Horenstein remembered a boy who was only interested in sports and indeed, it was in this subject that he achieved his highest marks.
By 1913, the Eisler siblings had progressed from pretend Nibelungs to active participants in a proto-socialist debating society called ‘Sprechsaal’(‘Open Floor’). Rudolf continued to publish important reference works while still denied an academic post at Vienna’s University. Though remaining in Vienna’s Jewish quarter, the family officially withdrew from the city’s religious Community in 1914, the same year, Elfriede joined the Socialist Workers’ Party and Gerhart distributed anti-war pamphlets. A raid on the family home saw Gerhart shipped to the Italian Front as part of a Croatian regiment. Hanns was also forced into a non-German speaking regiment in order to keep from propagating Socialist ideas amongst fellow soldiers. He at least managed to communicate with music, writing down the love- and folksongs of his comrades. Surprisingly, Gerhart returned a decorated war hero. Hanns’s war efforts were more modest.
Nevertheless, Eisler started an oratorio using a text by Li-Tai-Pe called Gegen den Krieg (Against War). It, along with other early works, was lost to a direct hit by an enemy rocket in Eisler’s trench. His first preserved works are songs with the titles Der Müde Soldat and Die rote und die Weiße Rose (The Tired Soldier and The Red and the White Rose) along with a setting of Christian Morgenstern’s Galgenlieder, or Songs of the Gallows.
Upon Eisler’s return to Vienna he, along with countless other returning conscripts, moved into disused military barracks in Vienna’s 18th District where he met and befriended Georg Lukás. He was accepted into Vienna’s Music Academy but found his harmony and counterpoint lessons with Karl Weigl unchallenging and by 1919, joined Eduard Steuermann, Erwin Stein, Erwin Ratz, Karl Rankl and Rudolf Kolisch as a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg was sufficiently impressed with Eisler – referring to him as his most talented pupil since Anton Webern and Alban Berg – that he taught him without fee.
(Five Early Works for Piano without opus)
‘The working man has no fatherland – he is excluded from the life of the nation.’ The Communist Manifesto thus implied that the worker was bound transnationally by class rather than nationhood. Following the First World War, during which the working classes were slaughtered in order to preserve the imperial houses of Habsburg and Hohenzollern, it was more obvious than ever that the disenfranchised could no longer be used as cannon fodder to maintain a system in which they had no voice. Communism, called ‘The International’, was originally seen as democratic and inclusive. Despite its often stereotypical portrayal of capitalists as Jews, it attracted many Jews who felt uncomfortable in the Church dominated Conservative and Christian Social Parties, which were openly anti-Semitic. It was Lenin who in 1919, succeeded in making Russia’s Revolutionary State synonymous with world Communism. Until then, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Otto Bauer saw it as international and resisted Russian attempts to dominate the global movmement. Russia may have had a successful Marxist revolution, but each country was different and the workers of industrial, highly literate Germany could not be compared with the peasants of agricultural, largely illiterate Russia. Revolution needed to come from within, rather than be directed from Russia. This international, democratising movement was what attracted young idealists and forms the context of Elfriede Eisler’s trajectory from Elfriede Friedländer, as she became following her marriage with Paul Friedländer, to Ruth Fischer. Her story is important in understanding Hanns’s.
Elfriede and her husband Paul Friedländer lost no time in founding the first Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union in 1918 – indeed, she held membership card ‘no.1’. The Friedländers were soon joined by Gerhart. Together they edited a number of Communist publications, including Die Rote Fahne – or The Red Flag and distributed propaganda as well as their own publication Weckruf! or Wake-up Call! At one point she led an armed ‘Red Guard’ occupation of Austria’s most influential newspaper Die Neue Freie Presse, ending with the first of several jail sentences. With the murder of Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin in 1919, Willi Münzenberg, a prominent figure within Germany’s nascent Communist Party, encouraged the Friedländers to move to Berlin where Elfriede was soon heading the Party’s Berlin chapter.
As Elfried Friedländer, she published The Sexual Ethics of Communism in 1920 but in 1921, she divorced Paul Friedländer, entered a sham marriage in order to remain in Germany and took the Ukrainian Arkadi Maslow as lover while reverting to her mother’s maiden name, henceforth calling herself ‘Ruth Fischer’. She was soon active in Germany’s Central Committee where she headed the ‘Left Faction’. Gerhart followed the Friedländers to Berlin but left the ‘Left Faction’ in order to steer a moderate middle course, resulting in a break between the siblings.
Hanns Eisler remained in Vienna and continued his studies with Schoenberg earning money conducting workers’ choruses and copy editing for the music publisher Universal Editions. In 1923, his op. 1 piano sonata, thanks to his teacher’s intervention, was published by Universal Editions and premiered by fellow Schoenberg pupil Eduard Steuermann.
(Sonata for piano op. 1, third movement: ‘Finale Allegro’)
Charlotte (Lotte) Demant was a piano pupil of Steuermann, studied theory with Anton Webern and ultimately had ambitions of becoming a singer. She was born 1894 in the then Ukrainian-Austrian city of Tarnopol before moving to Czernowitz, capital of Austria’s Bukowina province. With the Russian occupation of Czernowitz in 1914, the family fled to Vienna where following her studies, she became active as a performer of vocal works by composers within Schoenberg’s circle. She and Hanns married in 1920
Hanns Eisler’s political engagement was applied and practical rather than propaganda. He took over the music directorship of the Karl Liebknecht Workers’ Chorus in Vienna’s proletarian Floridsdorf district while giving lectures at the city’s Society for Common Music Education (Wiener Verein für volkstümliche Musikererziehung). In 1922 during a leave of absence from Schoenberg, he studied with Anton Webern. By 1923, Schoenberg had completed his ideas regarding 12 tone composition and began disseminating them to his pupils. It was the year that Eisler completed his studies with Schoenberg and signed a publishing contract with Universal Editions. His initial attitude to Schoenberg’s ideas – as seen by the comments in his diary above – were at best equivocal. Nevertheless, his own efforts with 12 composition came as early as 1924 with Palmström, based on texts by Christian Morgenstern and using the same ensemble (minus piano) as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire from 1912.
Even here, one senses the doubts Eisler harboured in developments he saw as elitist and exclusionist. His conviction that new music must communicate to the ‘common man’ led inevitably towards a break with his teacher who saw music’s future and ultimate salvation in his new system. Eisler pointedly set Morgenstern’s L’art pour l’art in a subtle dig towards what he saw as a system that would, in his view, require generations before gaining general comprehension among dispassionate listeners. He later modified this view to the extent that he believed music must continue to develop. Only through taking music down a path that challenged accepted listening precepts could ideas evolve beyond the conventional.
In 1925, the break with Schoenberg had started and by 1926 it was complete. During a train journey in 1926, Eisler indiscreetly told Zemlinsky of his belief that Schoenberg was taking modern music away from the common man. Zemlinsky, as Schoenberg’s brother in law until his sister’s death in 1923, relayed Eisler’s misgivings to Schoenberg resulting in a letter to Eisler demanding an explanation. The stream of correspondence from his former teacher was accusatory, while Eisler remained respectful but resolute in his doubts. Schoenberg could not accept Eisler’s view of music as practical application rather than pure art form. Making his point less respectfully were Eisler’s op. 11 songs based on newspaper cuttings and self-penned poems intended as a parody of Schoenbergian ideas.
(Zeitungsausschnitte, Op. 11: No. 3. Heiratsannonce (Liebeslied eines Kleinburgermadchens) – Newspaper cuttings – marriage desires of a girl of humble origins)
Later in 1925, Eisler followed his siblings to Berlin and took up a teaching position at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory. He was armed with the Arts Prize of the City of Vienna and five-year publishing contract with Universal Editions. The relationship with Charlotte, who by 1927 was pregnant with their son Georg, evolved into a long-distance commute with Charlotte remaining in Vienna to tend Eisler’s elderly mother. The family rivalries between Gerhart and Elfriede, now known as Ruth Fischer had also become explosive. Ruth Fischer as leader of the Left Faction was the de facto head of the entire German Communist Party as well as holding a seat in parliament.
Gerhart was sidelined, yet managed to find work at the Soviet Embassy in Berlin. In 1926 during a visit to Moscow, Stalin had Fischer and Maslow detained for several months, expelled from the party and replaced as leader by Ernst Thälmann. With his sister’s removal, Gerhart assumed the position of head of Information within the executive committee of the German Communist Party or the KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) . Fischer and Maslow were eventually released and returned to Berlin where they established a left-wing opposition movement to the KPD. Just before his departure for Berlin, Hanns Eisler set three Heine poems for Anton Webern’s Working Men’s Chorus: Tendency – including a quote from the Communist Party anthem ‘the International’; the other two movements were entitled Utopia and Democracy. It was with works such as these that he demonstrated his belief in music as a means of practical expression, employing direct communication by participation, while rejecting the ‘elitisim’ of Schoenbergian pure art.
(‘Tendenz’ the first of three men’s choruses op. 10 (1925))
The move to Berlin provided a more dynamic environment for Eisler’s activism than Vienna. His first official contact with the Communist Party was in 1926, though either through neglect or distraction, he never completed his application for membership. Given the stresses within his family circle, it was possibly a diplomatic ‘oversight’. In any case, his party engagement was no less diminished by lack of official party card. In 1927 he joined ‘the November Group’, a federation of progressive artists, writers and musicians; collaborated with Erwin Piscator and John Heartfield, met Bertolt Brecht in Baden Baden at a performance of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and composed his first film score for Walter Ruttmann’s 1924 experimental Lichtspiel Opus III.
It was a visit of the Moscow political theatre ensemble ‘The Blue Blouse’ and their use of agitkas that galvanised Eisler’s view of how music and politics could fuse to create both propaganda and political agitation. The Berlin troupe ‘The Red Megaphone’ (‘Das Rote Sprachrohr’), was a German imitation of ‘The Blue Blouse’. From 1928, it provided Eisler his first platform for composing ‘fight songs’, the musical component within the broader political theatrics of agitprop. Parallel to this, Eisler was working as a journalist for Die rote Fahne (The Red Flag) contributing articles on music, society and culture while also lecturing at the Marxist Workers’ College. His first fight songs were his op. 13 written for mixed chorus based on his own texts parodying religion, love and nature and again quoting ‘the International’. For his even more confrontational op. 14 songs for men’s chorus, he suggested that they should be sung in a manner cultivated by Brecht and Ernst Busch: a cigarette in the corner of the mouth, hands in pockets and a look of unsettling belligerence.
The battles between the other Eisler siblings continued through 1928. Gerhart made it for a short period to membership of the Communist Party Central Committee while Ruth Fischer busied herself with the Lenin Federation, her left-wing opposition movement to the Comintern (the International Communist Party). By 1929, Ruth had given up on politics altogether and worked in social services in Berlin’s working class Prenzlauer Berg district. Meanwhile in 1928, Eisler lost his mother and gained a son, though neither development appears to have offered a life-changing emotional effect on him.
His relationship with Georg, born 20 April 1928, can be described as at best a distraction from more important matters and at worst, an irritation. That Georg would eventually become one of Austria’s most celebrated post-war artists was in spite of his father, rather than due to paternal support. Only in adulthood would Hanns start to acknowledge Georg’s accomplishments and develop any degree of rapport. Georg, as correspondence bears out, was never less than devoted to his father, and in letters, he begs for some acknowledgment or even a little financial support. Letters from Eisler to Georg were few and far between, answered in short sharp sentences and a view that his ability to paint would best be suited to studying something practical like engineering or perhaps architecture.
(The Ballade of the Wench and Soldier – Eisler’s first Brecht setting)
1928 would not only see Eisler’s first collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, but also his first collaboration with David Weber who also wrote under the name of Robert Gilbert. Auf den Straßen zu singen – To be Sung on the Streets quickly established itself as a favourite with workers’ choruses and political rallies. Paradoxically, the premiere of To be Sung in the Streets took place in a concert hall at Berlin’s Music Academy. It was nevertheless clear that Eisler was attempting music, that heard in the streets, that tracked down listeners rather than the other way around. The divide between listeners, performers and music needed to be demolished.
Altogether Eisler’s political opinions were more in keeping with Brecht’s than his previous collaborator Kurt Weill, who at most, had been a left of centre Social Democrat, uninterested in the more doctrinal and theoretical aspects of Marxism that fascinated and inspired both Brecht and Eisler. 1928 was the year when Eisler would decisively turn his back on the musical avant-garde and focus on the idea of music for the workers. Later he wrote that ‘a workers’ chorus should not see itself as a “collective Caruso”, that wishes with a delightful ditty to send friends and relatives into entranced rapture. A workers’ chorus must be just as aware of its responsibility when performing in front of a proletarian audience as a speaker is at a political rally’
The following year brought Eisler in contact with one of his most important interpreters, the actor and singer Ernst Busch who eventually was dubbed ‘The [Richard] Tauber of the Barricades’. Eisler was not initially taken with Busch when working with him on a production of Walter Mehring’s Merchant of Berlin directed by Erwin Piscator. Antipathy, however, turned quickly to admiration and resulted in a long and productive collaboration, indeed lasting until Busch’s retirement from the stage in 1957. Busch was the idealisation of the working class man: strong, handsome yet vulnerable and guileless. Rote Wedding, (Red Wedding – ‘Wedding’ is here in reference to a working class district of Berlin) was their first success.
In 1930, Eisler met Hedwig (Hedi) Gutmann, a young enthusiastic activist. They soon became a couple, living together in Berlin. Indeed, though still married to Charlotte (Lotte), Hedi was soon accepted by everyone as Eisler’s wife. Charlotte and Eisler were officially separated and divorced in 1935. Eisler’s time with Hedi corresponded to his own close collaborations with Brecht in Berlin. Together with Ernst Busch, Helene Weigl and Bert Brecht, Eisler described a life where no venue was too small, no concert hall too grand, no pub or bar too seedy for them not to perform. It was street theatre taken indoors, and serious theatre taken onto the streets.
Die Maßnahme – The Necessary Measure in 1930 was the first important theatrical collaboration between Brecht and Eisler. It was a work of ‘didactic theatre’ meant to instruct and educate in order to build a just and equitable society. Brecht had undertaken a similar ‘school opera’ der Jasager (He who says ‘yes’), with Kurt Weill, based on Japanese Nō theatre. As with Jasager his use of dramatic dialectic overshot the mark and rather than instructing through the device of outrage at exaggerated cruelty in the face of empathy, the opposite message was generally understood: that society must rid itself of anyone who is not a team player, even if for the most humane reasons, they unintentionally break the rules. In light of Stalin’s purges – still only a shadow on the not so distant horizone – it was withdrawn by Brecht and banned from future performances. Its premiere however was a major event that took place late at night at Berlin’s Old Philharmonie conducted by Karl Rankl on December 10th, 1930. Communism had become a secular creed with Marx and Lenin as its prophets. For that reason, it’s interesting to note the influence of liturgical music on overtly Marxist works. Eisler’s setting of Die Maßnahme is an obvious reference to Bach’s Passions. Later Eisler would compose secular, what he called, ‘chamber cantatas’, making the association even more pronounced.
A number of Eisler’s most important fight songs came out of 1929/1930. In addition to Roter Wedding, Eisler composed Tempo der Zeit (The Tempo of Time); Stempellied (‘On the dole’ or Benefit Stamp Song); The Comintern Song as well as men’s choruses based on the prison poems of Joe Hill, a Swedish born hobo executed in Utah in 1914 for a murder he clearly had not committed.
The period of Brecht/Eisler collaborations reached its zenith during the years of greatest economic instability and in the immediate run-up to Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor. Many from the political right would hold the view that it was specifically the extremist agitation created by Brecht and Eisler that ultimately pushed Germany into the Nazi dictatorship. Street fights between Communists and Nazis were now a common bane of daily existence – and they were often bloody, even deadly. Eisler wrote the music for Victor Travis’s ‘Niemandsland’ starring Ernst Busch.
Eisler also headed-up an organisation with the provocative name of Worker’s Community of ‘Dialectical Materialism and Music’. All of this activity was seen as striving towards a greater good for the greater number, while at the same time, it remained unclear if the arguments would be won by the political left or right. Both were convinced they had the answers and propaganda flowed from both directions.
Brecht and Eisler collaborated on an adaptation of Gorki’s play The Mother, followed by what was called ‘the first ever exclusively proletarian movie’ with Kuhle Wampe oder wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?) directed by the Bulgarian Slátan Dudow. Again, the film starred Ernst Busch and due to fears of moral decency and possible political unrest, it was not allowed to be shown until a petition led to a recut version being approved. It certainly achieved political recognition while its critical and popular reception was not only positive but universal, running in cinemas as far afield as Moscow and New York. It ends with one of Eisler’s most iconic fight songs: The Solidarity Song – or Solidaritätslied.
In 1932, Eisler went to Moscow to work with the Dutch director Joris Ivens on a film called Heroes’ Songs. He was joined by Hedi who took a position at the German Broadcasting division at Radio Moscow. She chose to remain and did not return to Berlin with Eisler afterwards. This was Eisler’s fourth film and from each score he constructed a ‘concert suite’. Most are in a style familiar from Berlin’s theatre bands or with the possibility of broadcast in mind, meaning few, if any strings and the bulk of material given to brass and woodwinds. The mood is anti-Romantic and meant to lend, if not exactly jazz in the traditional sense, at least rhythmic tension with the shrillness of the orchestration musically complementing Brecht’s ideas of dramatic alienation.
(Overture to ‘Niemandsland’ or ‘No Man’s Land’ as the opening of Suite No. 2)
The Mother was a Brecht/Eisler collaboration that would undergo numerous re-workings and reflect the major stations and periods of their lives. The original 1905 play by Gorki dealing with the idealist proletarian mother Pelagaya Vlassova seemed the perfect antidote to the didactic miscalculation of Die Maßnahme. The Mother was their first joint attempt at Epic Theatre in which music was an active ingredient, propelling and providing commentary to the narrative. It opened on January 13, 1932 and Brecht later claimed it had been seen by 13,000 Berlin workers. It was directed by Ernst Josef Aufricht, who had directed the Three Penny Opera and featured Helene Weigel, Ernst Busch and Brecht’s then mistress Margarete Steffin. The play was re-worked for America in 1935, arranged as a cantata for Austrian Radio in 1949, expanded and re-staged with large orchestra for the Berlin Ensemble in 1951.
With the Nazi Party chalking up catastrophic losses in Germany’s general election of November 1932, Brecht and Eisler were convinced that they had won the argument and Hitler and his bandits would soon be consigned to history. His March into the Third Reich sung to Eisler’s arrangement of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and its refrain of ‘To the Third Reich, it’s a long way – it’s surprising how far’,was ill-disguised Schadenfreude at the Nazi’s electoral misfortunes. With Hitler’s ultimate assumption of power on January 30th, Brecht later admitted that he would have preferred the song to have sunk into the earth without trace. Ernst Busch recorded it on the 18th of January with all copies soon confiscated by Hitler’s police. By that time, Eisler had already left Berlin for Vienna. Brecht left in February 1933 while Ernst Busch remained in hiding until March when he and his wife fled to Holland.
Classified by racial profiling as ‘half Jew’, Nazi anti-Semitism would ultimately have made any attempt by Eisler to remain in Germany dangerous. Eisler returned to Vienna even before Hitler’s appointment as Reich’s Chancellor. Yet more threatening for Eisler, Brecht and their wider circle, was their Marxism.
The new Chancellor of Germany was the Austrian Adolf Hitler, and Austria’s parliament following the break-up of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, had already made known its desire for German annexation. It was only a question of time, when Hitler would set his sights on his former homeland. Conscious of this inevitability, parliament was dissolved in May 1933, and imposed an anti-Nazi dictatorship from the right-wing Roman Catholic Christian Social Party, led by Engelbert Dollfuß. Why Austria’s political establishment should have changed its mind over the intervening decade and a half is complex. It was a policy, however, that came from the political elite, rather than much (if not most), of the population. Right-wing opposition to Hitler is a forgotten chapter of European history. In brief, Austria saw itself as the victim of Prussian megalomania during the First World War and had positioned itself as a German nation within a Roman Catholic European bloc against the Protestant, secular north. Dollfuß’s regime gathered all political parties into the Fatherland Front and made no distinction between Socialists, Communists, Marxists or Nazis.
The separation between Charlotte and Hanns, along with the affair with Hedi made a return to the Eisler flat in Vienna impossible. With the imposition of Dollfuß’s dictatorship three months later, it was in any case dangerous for Eisler to remain. Charlotte turned the family home into a transit point for Austrian Communists escaping to neighbouring Brataslava. In the following February, Austria erupted into civil war with an attempted Nazi coup in July. It failed, but ended with the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuß, who was replaced by Kurt von Schuschnigg.
Until the Hitler/Stalin Pact, Eisler’s efforts were rechanneled into creating the ‘Einheitsfront’, a common left-wing front against Nazism. These became years of ceaseless travel, attending rallies and holding political speeches as well as composing some of his most powerful music. Meanwhile in Nazi Germany, the melodies of some of his popular fight songs were given new words and taken on as Nazi propaganda. Ruth Fischer and Maslow escaped to France where she entered into a second marriage of convenience in order to live under the name of Pleuchot. She and Maslow met with Trotsky and formed a local branch of the German ‘Gruppe Internationale’. Gerhart took the name ‘Edwards’ and moved to America to work undercover for the Comintern. The three siblings met briefly in Paris. Elfriede (Ruth Fischer-Eisler-Pleuchot) and Gerhart remained unreconciled.
Eisler’s life on the run became more of an act of propaganda than a search for refuge. At the request of Erwin Piscator in December 1933, Brecht and Eisler composed the Unity Front Song (Einheitsfront) that would help mobilise a common front of Socialists and Communists against Hitler. In June 1934, Eisler was elected honorary chariman of the International Music Office (IMO) of the Comintern in Moscow, whose primary mission was to aid efforts towards the establishment of the Unity Front. Attempts in Prague in 1935 were made to form an alliance between the IMO and the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) an organisation founded in 1922 largely by former Schoenberg pupils. The ISC’s decision to remain politically neutral meant Eisler’s efforts came to nothing. Even an invitation to Moscow for their next festival was rejected. Eisler was equally unsuccessful in establishing a cooperation with the Social Democratic organisation, International Singing Workers.
(das Einheitsfrontlied – the Unity Front Song)
Though the ISCM was not interested in politics, Socialists and Communists did cooperate at the ‘Strasbourg Olympics of Workers’ Music and Song’ organised by Moscow’s IMO in June 1935. It brought together organisations of all anti-fascist parties in a single music festival. More than 70 ensembles took part with over 3000 singers. Ernst Busch with Hanns Eisler opened the festival with The Song of the SA Man, The Unity Front Song and The Song of the Moor Soldier. The final ceremony brought together over 20.000 participants. The Strasbourg ‘Olympics’ were followed by another festival of Czech and Sudeten German workers’ in Reichenberg (Liberec) in northern Bohemia. It too ended with a ceremony involving 20,000 singers.
Eisler addressed them with the following words: “Music cannot feed the hungry nor warm the houses of the cold, […] but it can show the undecided who has stolen their food, their roof and their warmth – our songs can turn the weary into fighters!”
Eisler’s second wife, Louise Eisler-Fischer – or ‘Lou’ as she was known, did not live through the many men in her life, but allowed them to live through her. Louise Anna Gosztonyi von Abalechota was born in 1906 to a famiy of Jewish, Hungarian aristocrats living in Vienna. She grew up on the family estate in Slovakia (part of Hungary until 1918). By the time she met Eisler in 1933 on a trip to the Tatra Mountains, she had already been married twice. Following a visit to Eisler in Paris, she remained with him for the next two decades. In periods of hardship during their American exile, she took work as a cleaner and domestic. Returning in Europe, she was contemptuous of Stalin and disliked the Communism she saw developing in Eastern Europe. By 1953, she resolved not to join Hanns in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Her 1955 marriage to their close friend Ernst Fischer, a leading Communist intellectual, was without jealousy from either side, as indeed all Eisler’s relationships had been. Eisler stayed at the Fischers’ apartment when visiting or working in Vienna, and Fischer’s ex-wife, confusingly also named Ruth Fischer, worked with Eisler and Brecht at Wienfilm, Vienna’s film studios.
Bertolt Brecht also left Berlin and in December 1933 retreated to the Danish island of Fünen to the village of Svendborg. From there, he provided Eisler with a number of anti-Hitler song-texts such as the The Song of the House Painter Hitler. Eisler became a welcome, but for Brecht, far too infrequent visitor. Their first large-scale anti-Hitler work would be The Roundheads and Pointed Heads, a politically adapted satire on Nazi race policies. After listening to a Hitler rally on the radio, Brecht added the subtitle, A Gruesome Fairy tale. (Premiere in Danish on 4th November, 1936 at the Riddersalen Theatre, Copenhagen) Eisler was not only active in writing the script, but contributed a total of 17 musical numbers. In the clip below, Eisler accompanies himself singing Die Ballade vom Wasserrad – The Ballade of the Water Wheel from ‘The Roundheads and Pointed Heads’.
Invitations for film work came Eisler’s way from the film director of Niemandsland, Victor Trivas with whom he had worked in 1931 and the Dutch director, Joris Ivens who had directed the Soviet film Heldenlied in 1932. In Trivas’s film Dans les rues, Eisler made extensive use of what he called ‘dramatic counterpoint’, meaning if fast action was shown on screen, the musical underlay was slow, and also, the other way around. The song mon oncle a tout repeint was recorded by the Berlin chanteuse Marianne Oswald as a popular ‘hit’. Though the film was considered weak, Eisler thought the music some of his best and used it as the basis of his Orchestral Suite no. 5. In the film Nieuwe Gronden, Eisler employed the opposite technique by internsifying the visual action through the music. Both of these techniques are treated in his book, written later in the United States with Theodor W. Adorno Composing Music for Films.
In addition, to film work in Paris, which also included Dans les rues, Le grand Jeu, and the propaganda movie directed by Jean Renoir and Henri Cartier-Bresson (amongst others) La vie est à nous, Eisler worked in London consulting on the music for a cinema version of Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci called The Bajazzo with Richard Tauber. To make this rather bizarre project even stranger, Brecht arrived in London in order to work on the script following recommendations by Eisler and script co-author Fritz Kortner. Brecht, unlike Eisler, took the work seriously but was unable to write suitably commercial material and was paid off. Eisler also worked on Abdul the Damned, which was directed by Karl Grune and starred Fritz Kortner. It was lavishly big-budget but did only moderately well with its story line of despotism in the dying days of the Turkish empire.
Paris and London were not the only temporary stops since fleeing Berlin and Vienna. There was paid work also in Czechoslovakia and Holland, in addition to a succession of political rallies and lecturing. As Brecht described in his poem To the Yet Unborn, (I paraphrase): during these pre-war years, everytime we took our shoes off, it was in a different country. With the referendum in the Saarland that led to its return to Germany following French occupation since 1918, life for Communists, Social Democrats, not to mention Jews, had become dangerous. Many had fled and were living as refugees. In addition to drumming up support for the Unity Front, Eisler now found himself raising funds for Saarland refugees.
It was for such a lecture, fund-raising tour that Eisler was invited to the United States from February to May 1935. The rallies attracted thousands and brought Eisler many important North American contacts such as Lee Strasberg, Charlie Chaplin and Charles Seeger. Most importantly, it brought him into contact with Alvin Johnson who offered Eisler an invitation as visiting lecturer on ‘the Crisis of Modern Music’ at the New School of Social Research for the winter semester.
The first thoughts on what he intended to call Concentration Camp Symphony came to him during one of the endless successions of lectures while in Chicago. It must be remembered that in 1935, as with Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s 1934 Miserae dedication, to his ‘hundreds of murdered friends in Dachau’, the camps were seen as vast prisons for the many political opponents of Hitler. Their use for eradicating European Jewry was an unimaginable horror still to come. In retrospect, it highlighted a fallacy in the tactics of the Left which continued to believe the debate was fundamentally one of political philosophy. They had yet to realise that with Hitler and the Nazis, they were dealing with irrational, genocidal maniacs who were convinced that rather than politics, they had science on their side. It was Viktor Klemperer in his diary who noted that during the Spanish Inquisition, the murder of Jews was ‘merely’ a question of religion – now, it was one of zoology. At the end of the war, it was clear that Eisler’s original concept needed considerable broadening. The ‘Concentration Camp’ symphony was subsequently cast to deal with the wider tragedy of the German nation and renamed Deutsche Sinfonie.
Eisler travelled to Spain where the democratically elected Social Democratic government was pitched in an unequal battle for survival against a Fascist coup attempt, clandestinely facilitated by the democratic West. When the coup instead turned into a bloody civil war, western democracies imposed non-intervention policies while Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany supplied Franco with weaponry and support. Only Stalin was prepared to help the Republicans, and as George Orwell reported, they simply initiated a second civil war within the anti-Franco coalition, thus handing victory to the Fascists. Nevertheless, young idealists from all over the world ignored their governments and from 1936 to 1939 came to fight as part of the International Brigades. Hanns Eisler visited troops in both Madrid and Murcia together with Ernst Busch. His ‘Canciones de las Brigadas Internacionales’ No pasarán! and Marsch des 5. Regiments were a return to his earlier format of fight-song: simple four in a bar melodies that heard once, remained in the ear. These were songs meant for rallies, marching and if necessary, fighting.
Eisler’s politics gave his music a unique sense of purpose. He saw himself as a contemporary composer with a modern message, constantly seeking a balance between writing challenging music that spoke directly to the proletariat while avoiding a difficult to understand ‘bourgeois avant-garde’. Eisler wanted to write modern music that was uncluttered by artifice or aesthetic obfuscation and was unique to the proletariat; it should not only avoid what he felt to be l’art pour l’art narcissism of the avant-garde, but also the facile superficiality of popular music. Indeed these goals were contradictory and could only be synthesised through Eisler individual use of dialectics.
In his early Viennese years, Eisler would have been aware of two developments that were artistically influential. One was the series of workers’ concerts organised by David Josef Bach and the other was Schoenberg’s circle of private performances. The one was inclusive and politically motivated whereas the other offered performances of modern works in an environment that was detached, intellectually challenging and artistically elite. Eisler’s ambition was to achieve a synthesis of the two. Yet it is in his ‘exile-works’, written in isolation without didactic, politically instructive agendas, simply shoved into drawers or suitcases with no immediate thought of performance, that come closest to achieving it.
(‘An den kleinen Radioapparat’ – ‘To the Portable Radio’)
In 1937, an arcane debate was launched amongst German exiles in various publications such as Das Wort, Internationale Literatur and die neue Weltbühne that would offer a foretaste of Stalinist artistic ideals. The Expressionist poet and writer Gottfried Benn (as a young man, the lover of the noted German Jewish poetess Elsa Lasker-Schueler), published an article that supported Nazi criticism of Expressionist art. Benn, who remained in Germany, initally welcomed and supported National Socialism. Georg Lukás and Alfred Kurella, both well known to Eisler and Brecht, wrote that they saw Expressionism as ‘formalistic’ and with its departure from realism, it was essentially a facilitator for Nazism. To an extent, their points must have rung sympathetically with at least some of Eisler’s own anti-elitist instincts. Yet both Lukás and Kurella were laying the ground for Socialist Realism, or art that was explicitly positive and communicative. Eisler, Ernst Bloch and Brecht responded that one should not reject the critical qualities of creativity and inventiveness that came from what Lukás and Kurella denounced as ‘bourgeois avant-garde’. The attacks and debate grew unpleasant and partisan. Stalin’s purges were just beginning. Sergei Tretjakov, author of the book on which the film Heldenlied was based, and already an associate of Eisler, was one of its first victims, executed in July 1937.
What was happening in Moscow affected Eisler’s immediate family. The 1936 ‘Trial of the 16’ had pronounced Ruth Fischer and Maslow guilty of attempting to assassinate Stalin. They were sentenced to death in absentia and knew that wherever they hid, Stalin’s agents would be looking for them. Charlotte was working in Moscow editing the vocal music of Prokofiev and Georg recalled how teachers and friends of his mother simply vanished and were not spoken of. Their visas to remain in the Soviet Union were not extended in 1938, forcing a relocation to England, where they settled in Manchester. Ultimately, it saved their lives. From 1938, and following Hitler’s later attack on the Soviet Union, Germans – whether refugees or not – were rounded up and either sent to camps or worse. Hedi Gutmann was one such victim, Carola Neher the actress, friend of the Eislers and wife of the designer Caspar Neher, was another. Eisler remained frustratingly ambivalent on the subject of show-trials and purges and in one or two cases, even expressed approval. Gerhart was out of harm’s way, working in the foreign department of the Central Committee and based in Prague. It would not stay that way. After heading the Republican Broadcaster in Valencia in Spain, he was arrested in France and interned at le Vernet. Ruth Fischer and Maslow left Paris with its surrender to Hitler in 1940 and headed towards Portugal in the hope of getting to America.
(Eisler’s only String Quartet composed in 1938)
Hanns Eisler and Lou decided that it was necessary to be married in order to emigrate to the United States. They received official notification from Alvin Johnson that entitled them to ‘non-quota’ visas. Despite this, visas were held up, resulting in two years of immigration uncertainty. At issue was Eisler’s open support of the Communist Party. When they first arrived in the United States, they spent three weeks interned on Ellis Island before being issued short-stay permits. Even intervention directly from the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt could not help.
Mexico was already accepting many well-known left-wing refugees and in April 1939, the Eislers moved to Mexico city where he taught at the Conservatorio Nacional. It was during this period that the Hitler/Stalin Pact was signed, followed by war. A two month visa allowed a brief return to teach at the New School, but a warrant for the their arrest issued several months later, meant a return to Mexico. A non-quota visa was finally issued in the remote border crossing at Calexico, where local US officials were ignorant of Eisler’s previous difficulties.
In 1939 Eisler presented his idea of a book on film music composition to Oxford University Press – the house publisher of the New School – in the hope that it would augment his tiny salary from the New School. The Rockefeller Foundation had been financing research in propaganda and media since 1938. Film director Joseph Losey worked as an advisor for the Foundation and arranged a grant for a film music research project to be headed by Hanns Eisler, based at the New School, starting in January 1940. A budget of $20,160 was settled for the initial two year period from which Eisler drew a salary of $3,000. With the help of a young sound engineer, Eisler set about composing, recording and synchronising music for several specially made films as well as for clips taken from other films already on commerical release. Recordings were conducted by his old friend Jascha Horenstein and Eisler also managed to involve at various times, Brecht, Schoenberg and Adorno, with whom he had already worked on a radio project, and who would co-author the book that summarised the Film research in 1944. The short clip below from Joseph Losey’s A Child Went Forth offers an idea of the sort of material Eisler presented as part of the project.
In the course of the Rockefeller Project, Eisler set music to three short documentaries, a number of newsreels and a clip from John Ford’s cinema version of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Specifically in the sequences of Grapes of Wrath, Eisler’s ideas of dramatic counterpoint are made particularly clear as he demonstrates that altering the underscore, alters the emotional dynamic of the characters and reactions to events taking place on the screen. He also underscored a short silent film by his old friend Joris Ivens called Rain, using Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire instrumentation, which he entitled 14 Ways of Describing the Rain. It was dedicated to Schoenberg and presented to him as a 70th birthday present and peace offering. Eisler considered it one of his best chamber works, though Ivens was unaware of it until after Eisler’s death.
Eisler was unavailable to work with Joris Ivens on the 1937 documentary The Spanish Earth about the Spanish Civil War and suggested his student Marc Blitzstein. It involved Ernest Hemmingway, Lillian Hellman, John dos Passos and Orson Welles. After that, Eisler himself collaborated again with Ivens on the 400 Million, a film on Chinese Resistance to Japan’s 1937 invasion. Ivens was delighted with Eisler’s strict 12 tone score and using material from sequences of Mao Tse Tung’s long march, he later compiled theme and Variations for Orchestra as well as Five Orchestral Pieces. For Joseph Losey’s cartoon propaganda film commissioned by the oil industry, Pete Roleum and his Cousins, Eisler provided an up-beat score conducted by Gershwin’s close friend Oscar Levant. Upon the unexpected death of the Mexican composer Silverstre Revueltas, he interrupted the Rockefeller Project to provide music to Herbert Kline’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Forgotten Villiage. Using only nine instruments, Eisler created a score that recalled the ethnic heritage of Mexico and from which, he later compiled his second Nonet.
Returning to the idea of Communism as a secular creed in 1937, Eisler wrote nine ‘chamber’ or secular ‘cantatas’. These were accessible 12 tone works and most were based on texts by Ignazio Silone; one however was by Brecht and paradoxically carried the title God be with us. After Brecht’s death in 1956, Eisler took two poems from 1929 and 1938 and set them as tonal, yet edgy chamber cantatas in response to the 20th Communist Party Congress in Moscow in February 1956 in which Khrushchev denounced the personality cult and dictatorship of Stalin. The concept of secular cantatas would also form the basis of his Deutsche Sinfonie.
Brecht arrived in Hollywood via Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Vladivostok. He and Eisler had not seen each other for four years. With Schoenberg and other colleagues and friends also now based on the West Coast, the Eislers needed little persuasion to leave New York. Eisler wrote for a number of Hollywood films and received two Oscar nominations. It’s difficult to make a generalisation about Eisler’s film work, other than the fact that most of his colleagues were sympathetic to his political views. Indeed, the perceived political subversion of writers, directors and actors involved in Eisler’s Hollywood projects is the only tenuous unifying feature between such disparate genres as the ‘film noir’ Deadline at Dawn and the techno-colour swashbuckler, The Spanish Main. Unlike his Viennese colleagues Erich Korngold or Max Steiner, Eisler remained on the margins of Hollywood’s mainstream, making his Oscar nominations all the more remarkable. By Hollywood standards, most of the films were artistically advanced with strong social and political subtexts, occasionally falling foul of Hollywood’s commissions charged with the enforcement of decency and morals. Though he dismissed these years as mere hack-work, his film music was revolutionary and contrasted sharply with the lush ‘Hollywood Sound’ then in vogue. He also continued to work with Brecht in the theatre with plays such as Galileo, The visions of Simone Machard, The Private Life of the Master Race as well as the film Hangmen also Die.
The move to Hollywood in 1942 provided Eisler with the first sense of stability since his departure from Berlin in 1933. Surprisingly, his sister had received a two year scholarship and was also living in America, though Maslow while waiting for a visa in Havana was discovered dead under circumstances that could not be explained. Ruth Fischer who had been scrupulous about not telling anyone of their hiding places started to suspect Hanns and Gerhart of informing Stalin’s secret agents. She had contacted Hanns in 1941 when she needed money and he was the only person who knew of their Cuban location. Gerhart, still working for the Communist Party, had managed to free himself from French internment and after three months on Ellis Island, entered America where he lived under the name of Hans Berger, publishing and editing a newspaper called The German American. In England, son Georg was studying painting with Oskar Kokoschka in London. Hanns, his father, remained unimpressed and thought studying art a waste of time.
The interconnecting circles of émigrés in Los Angeles brought many otherwise incompatible people together. Some like Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger and Franz Werfel arrived with fame and a secure income; others such as Arnold Schoenberg, Max Reinhardt, Bertolt Brecht and Heinrich Mann, arrived with fame but neither money nor the opportunity to rebuild previous careers. A third group of actors, actresses, directors and composers achieved greater recognition working in Hollywood than in Europe. Zealous new Americans, Zionists and radicals lived and worked together. Some embraced America’s artistic tastes while others, such as Ernst Krenek, clung to the avant-garde as their source of European identity. Uniting them all, was exile in a city so far away, it feared the Japanese more than Hitler. Eisler and Brecht moved in most émigré circles but tended to remain closest to old friends such as Salka and Berthold Viertel, Fritz Kortner, Peter Lorre and Theodor Adorno.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Eisler’s exile years is the apparent synthesis of his conflicting musical priorities. These years are further characterised by an extraordinary lack of artistic mooring and a sense of constant geographical and cultural displacement. He inevitably spent much time composing for himself and seems to have encountered greater freedom to write music that could remain true to his political and humanist values while sacrificing nothing to the musical demands on performers and listeners. The two most important works to come out of this period were his Deutsche Sinfonie and the volume of songs that later received the title ‘Hollywood Songbook’. With texts primarily by Brecht, but also settings by Pascal, Anakreon, Hölderlin, Mörike and others, it offered a multifaceted coming to terms with the artistic and intellectual displacement of exile. Brecht’s Hollywood Elegies, with their cynical observations on the naked commercialism of the city, exposed in short-sharp observations, the gulf between the intellectual values of European progressives and the financial realities of surviving in America.
(‘Diese Stadt hat mich belehrt’ – Elegy no. 4 ‘This City has Taught Me’)
Eisler already knew Jean Renoir from their collaboration on La vie est à nous from 1936 in Paris. It would be through Renoir that he would work with Alain Resnais on their important Auschwitz documentary, Nuit et brouillard in 1955. Renoir made several visually stunning films in Hollywood following his immigration in 1941. One was The Woman on the Beach, a multi-layered story of a love-triangle between a beautiful mysterious woman and two traumatised men. Censors cut the original version to just 71 minutes confusing the original storyline to the bafflement of critics and public. Renoir in his memoirs recalls that the only decent thing to come out of the work was Eisler’s purely instrumental score.
The Hollywood films on which Eisler worked elicit several points: one is the fact that with films such as Deadline at Dawn and Jealousy, Eisler was involved in ‘film noir’ with relatively high production values. The same could be said of None but the Lonely Heart which earned him a second Oscar nomination, starring a young Cary Grant. Eisler ventured into more commercial territory with A Scandal in Paris, which director Douglas Sirk considered one of his best films. Eisler even employed dramatic counterpoint by creating a counter-intuitive score that offered stability in visual chaos and chaos in visual stability. When adding Hangmen also Die, it becomes clear that experimental films were being made on the periphery of Hollywood’s main studios. Even Eisler’s 1947 score for the British film So Well Remembered with John Mills, his uncredited baby daughter Hayley and Trevor Howard, explored political events that would have resonated with Eisler and not necessarily implied a sacrificing of artistic scruples.
One movie that seems inconsistent with Eisler’s other work is The Spanish Main, a swashbuckler from 1945 in the style of Earl Flynn’s early films with scores by Erich Korngold. That the offer to score the Spanish Main should come in the middle of working with Brecht on an off-Broadway production of Fear and Misery of the Third Reich was in Brecht’s eyes, nearly unforgiveable. Eisler was desperate for the income that the work would generate and left Brecht with only a few songs to use. The play was not a success. For one thing, it opened just after the Nazis had surrendered, making its subject seem irrelevant. The director Erwin Piscator argued with Brecht and left the project mid-rehearsals, with Berthold Viertel jumping in at short notice. Eisler’s abandonment of their work mid-way through only confirmed Brecht’s view of Hollywood as a monstrous, all-consuming cesspit.
Brecht’s play Das Leben des Galilei was premiered in Zurich in 1943. In Hollywood, Brecht struck up a friendship with the actor Charles Laughton and together they translated it for performances in English called Galileo. It was directed by Joseph Losey and Eisler supplied the music. Galileo opened at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles in 1947 and from there moved to New York. In Los Angeles, it was respectfully received. Laughton was well regarded in Hollywood circles and many admired his ambition to establish himself as a stage actor. In New York, the critics were puzzled and unfavourable. Brecht believed American audiences too corrupted by the realism of cinema and culturally incapable of understanding his theatrical ideas. He rewrote the play later in East Germany in light of science’s questionable contribution of the atomic bomb. At its premiere in New York and Los Angeles, both Brecht and Eisler were caught up in the net of congressional investigations by the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC). The symbolism of the play could hardly have been more strategically planned.
Brecht had no American audience and disliked his American colleagues, whom he saw as wedded to cinematic realism. They, for their part, could not understand Brecht’s dramatic devices. Consequently, Brecht could not understand Eisler’s loyalty to Hollywood. Indeed Visions of Simone Machard was Brecht’s only Hollywood ‘success’: he and Lion Feuchtwanger collaborated on an adaptation; Feuchtwanger sold the option to MGM and paid Brecht $20,000. The film was never made. Brecht too was ordered before the HUAC. Unlike the notorious ‘Hollywood Ten’, he decided to cooperate as a ‘friendly witness’. Brecht was largely unknown to most Americans and totally unknown to the members of the committee. He rehearsed his appearance scrupulously and managed to give evasive, though never untrue answers. When quizzed about his relationship with Eisler, he reminded the committee that they had been fighting fascism together since the 1920s. On being asked about the Marxist message of Die Maßnahme, he promptly explained his other work, Der Jasager. He put his poetry’s alleged Communist content down to mistranslation. When the hearing was finished, he was thanked for his exemplary cooperation; he shook hands with the committee and took the next available flight back to Europe.
The Eislers met Charlie and Oona Chaplin in 1942 and became friends almost immediately The closest Eisler ever came to scoring a Chaplin film was Monsieur Verdoux, when Chaplin hummed the music and Eisler, out of friendship, transcribed and orchestrated it. Circus, the Chaplin film for which Eisler was officially engaged as composer, was interrupted by the hearings at the House of Un-American Activities. Remnants of the work were adapted as his Second Septet. Events surrounding Eisler’s expulsion from the United States persuaded Chaplin, as well as many other prominent émigrés, such as Thomas Mann and Salka Viertel to return to Europe. Many were still smarting from being declared ‘Un-German’ by the III Reich. Hearing the same formula being turned around and used again in their new homeland seemed a familiar and worrying development. Even if the Nazis were defeated, it was not clear how much of their worldview remained. J. Edgar Hoover barred Chaplin from re-entering the United States in 1952.
(Septet No. 2, “Zirkus” (“Circus”)
After the murder of Trotsky and the unexplained death of her companion Arkadi Maslow in Havana shortly after her arrival in America in 1941, Ruth Fischer became an active anti-Stalinist. She believed Gerhart to be partially responsible for the execution of Nicolai Bucharin and therefore, not above carrying out the death sentence issued on her in absentia in 1936. In 1944, she wrote her two brothers a threatening letter warning them off such plans. In 1947, she published Stalin and German Communism and in Journalism American, as well as in subsequent HUAC hearings, she denounced both brothers, leading to the arrest of Gerhart and the eventual expulsion of Hanns. Chaplin described the Eisler household as something out of one of Shakespeare’s history dramas.
At Harvard University, Ruth Fischer published studies of Communism. In fact, she saw herself as a ‘true’ Communist. Paradoxically, by the mid 1950s, she feared the McCarthy Committee and left America for Paris. Her own son Gerard from her first marriage with Paul Friedländer had lived with Charlotte Eisler until 1929. From 1933, he lived in England where he became a maths professor. The only other member of the family with whom she had contact was a late acquaintance with Georg, a relationship that Georg kept secret from his father.There had been a number of investigative committees in the American House of Representatives investigating various definitions of treason since the First World War. In 1945, the committee was made permanent or ‘standing’ and in 1947, began investigating Hollywood’s production of pro-Soviet films made at the request of the White House during the time the USSR was an American war ally. Roosevelt was now dead and Congress’s mood was populist, paranoid and nationalistic. Veiled denuniations of Hanns Eisler had already appeared in print as early as 1946. With Ruth Fischer’s denunciation of her two brothers, Eisler and Brecht were drawn into what became America’s answer to Soviet show-trials, starting with the notorious hearings of the ‘Hollywood Ten’. Eisler’s first unofficial session was in Los Angeles in May with Washington hearings starting in April. Committee member Richard Nixon, stated that the case was ‘the biggest so far’. Despite many attempts, no proof of Communist membership or indeed ‘subversive’ activity could be established. The HUAC still proceeded with its recommendation of forcible deportation. Eisler offered a demonstration of how to alienate the very people he needed to win. He was arrogant, evasivie, dismissive and sarcastic. In the montage of his hearing below, a voice overdubs in German a later commentary from Eisler in which he says the investigators were not interested in what he had to say, but only in charging him with perjury – he felt like ‘an aborigine trying to fight an Atomic weapon with a bow and arrow’.
A sentence of guilt, based on the fact that his brother Gerhart had already been found guilty was protested by many prominent refugees and Americans. An open petition was handed to the White House signed by amongst others, Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein. Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, who also started the committee, ‘Justice for Hanns Eisler’, mounted a farewell concert at New York City Town Hall. From Paris came the protests of Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso. All attempts to leave America quietly and legally were blocked by the HUAC which did not wish their high-profile removal of the Eislers to be thwarted. At precisely this time, Composing for the Films was published – but at Adorno’s request, his name as co-author was removed.
Gerhart Eisler was arrested and sentenced for contempt and passport offences in 1947. His former wife and sister Ruth Fischer testified against him and he was released on bail. In 1949, he was arrested again and evaded prison by going on hunger strike on Ellis Island before stowing away on a Polish freighter. He was not released to the Americans when the freighter docked in Great Britain, allowing him to make his way to the Soviet Sector of occupied Germany. While under-going his hearings in America, he was made professor in absentia in Leipzig and with his arrival in East Germany, he was elected to the Executive Committee of the Socialist Unity Party and subsequently appointed head of the Communications’ Department of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) government. With Stalin’s increasing paranoia, and as the brother of the notorious Ruth Fischer, he found new horrors waiting for him and from 1951, he was politically and socially isolated. Only Stalin’s death in 1953 would save him from the inevitable show trial. It was Gerhart’s ability to operate under the noses of the American authorities without suspicion, his guilty sentence and untimate evasion of punishment, that made the HUAC even more determined to make an example of his brother Hanns.
Hanns Eisler, despite everything, was very sorry to leave the United States. He had not only started to gain a serious reputation as a film composer, his ideas may have transformed the way Hollywood juxtaposed image to music had he been allowed to remain. Since 1946, he held a professorship at the University of Southern California – the same University where Schoenberg had taught. Upon his departure, his statement to the press was ‘I feel heartbroken over being driven out of the beautiful country in this ridiculous way. […] But in leaving […] I take with me the image of the real American people whom I love.’
Upon Eisler’s arrival in Vienna in March, he was met by Charlotte who was now teaching voice at the Conservatory and eager to find an opening for her ex-husband. Eisler also met Georg for the first time in fifteen years. In May he travelled to a Congress of composers and critics in Prague where at the same time, he finalised plans to write the music for Křížová trojka. Upon his return to Vienna, he met Ernst Fischer, who would have been familiar to him as editor of die Kommunistische Inernationale, the German language publication of the Comintern. Certainly Eisler was familiar to Fischer. They became close friends, and Fischer went on to describe how his first meeting with Lou was like being struck by lightning. Their relationship became intimate and by 1953, Lou decided not to join Eisler in East Berlin. She and Fischer were married in 1955.
Eisler had the Czech film project Křížová trojka (Cross Three), waiting for him upon his arrival in Europe. However both he and Lou wished to find a home in Vienna. Viktor Matejka, a Communist city council member, tried to encourage him to come to Vienna upon learning of the first attempts to discredit Eisler in 1946. Friedrich Wildgans, the composing son of the poet Anton, also tried to find a permanent position for Eisler at either the Conservatory or the Music Academy. Vienna, like Berlin was divided into four sectors, each administered by one of the allies. Eisler was disadvantaged by being a Schoenberg pupil, returning to a city that was dominated by the musical conservatives Joseph Marx and Egon Kornauth. Having been deported from America, he also found himself on a black list that prohibited taking employment in any sector other than the one administered by the Soviets. Initially, this was not as restrictive as it may have appeared. Wienfilm, Vienna’s film studios and the Scala Theatre, the forerunner of Brecht’s Berlin Ensemble, were both in the Soviet sector. In the year of his return to Vienna, he scored a production of Nestroy’s Höllenangst – Infernal Fear for the Scala.
The Scala Theatre would continue as one of Vienna’s principal stages until the withdrawal of all occupying forces. With the departure of the Soviets in 1955, the local district refused to renew its lease – no doubt, a politically motivated decision – and it was eventually torn down. Eisler had in any case relocated the centre of his activities to East Berlin.
Perhaps mindful of Andrei Zhdanov’s denunciation of ‘Formalism’ in music – a denunciation that would have been aimed at many of Eisler’s own works – he composed his 1949 tribute to Goethe in a style that was suitably representative of Socialist Realism. His Rhapsodie für Großes Orchester und Sopran – Rhapsody for Large Orchestra and Soprano (below in a recording of parts one and two), uses instrumental music from Křížová trojka.
In November of 1948, Erwin Ratz introduced Eisler to Steffy Wolf, an attractive former conservatory student who was married to Otto Wolf. As Wolf was Jewish, the couple had fled to France following the Anschluss. Wolf was initially interned, then freed. He and Steffy, now mother of their daughter Michèle, joined the Resistance. After the war, they returned to Vienna, joined the Communist Party and divorced. By the mid-1950s, Steffy had married Rudolf Zucker-Schilling and was working at Wienfilm where she met Eisler regularly. She divorced Zucker-Schilling in 1957. She and Eisler were married in 1958.
Despite the efforts of Matejka, Wildgans and Charlotte, it became clear that Vienna had nothing to offer Eisler. Too many of the old guard were still in place and Eisler was restricted by American black-listing. In Austria, the Communists were powerless to provide anything more than a temporary grace-and-favour apartment. An invitation to a Peace Conference in Berlin in October 1948 brought about a meeting with Ernst Busch, who now ran a publishing company and recording label. With a sign of interest from Humbolt University and the prospect of Brecht running his own ensemble, Eisler decided to move permanently to East Berlin in 1949.
With the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, the Soviet Sector of Germany was also forced into becoming a sovereign state, calling itself from the 7th of October 1949, the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The writer and politician Johannes R. Becher was responsible for encouraging many returning German and Austrian writers, such as Arnold Zweig , artists and intellectuals to the new state to contribute to a modern Socialist Germany. The publishing house ‘Aufbau’, (meaning in this case ‘to re-build’ or ‘build-up’), offered opportunities to writers who once were banned, or who still found no voice in the West. With the cities Potsdam, Weimar, Leipzig, Dresden, Halle and half of Berlin within its borders, it saw itself as the true continuation of German enlightened culture. Suspicions that the consolidated Social Democratic and Communist parties (now called the ‘Sozialistische Einheitspartei’ or United Socialist Party) were effectively turning the GDR into a one-party, totalitarian state were dismissed. The Federal Republic, ‘West Germany’, was seen as the continuation of defeated Nazism, with several former Nazis in Adenauer’s government. The huge number of former Nazis who chose to stay in ‘East Germany’ had miraculously now transformed themselves into anti-fascists. Becher procured rooms in the still remaining wing of the Hotel Adlon for the Eislers until a small villa in Berlin Pankow could be procured in 1950. The house was generous, offered a large garden and was near Arnold Zweig and Ernst Busch. The Eislers became members of the East German elite but perhaps sensing that the euphoria could not last, kept their Austrian passports.
The legend of Eisler’s composition of East Germany’s national anthem relates that Eisler sat at Chopin’s piano and rattled off the melody to Becher’s poem Resurrected from the Ruins, while on a state visit to Poland. In reality, it was chosen in a public competition over Ottmar Gerstner’s work. Gerstner was in any event compromised by having been associated with the Nazi Reichsmusikkammer in 1933. The new Anthem received its premiere at the Berlin State Opera on the 7th of November 1949. The following year, Becher and Eisler were awarded the GDR National Prize. Nine years later, Peter Kreuder sued for plagiarism, maintaining the Anthem was taken from his 1939 cinema hit-song Goodbye Jonny. The West German press was triumphant at this humiliating propaganda coup and Eisler’s music remained effectively banned until around 1970.
(East Germany’s National Anthem ‘Auferstanden aus Ruinen’)
Socialist Realism and Music presented Eisler with a dialectical contradiction: ‘It needed to be realistic and rational, while remaining music’. He then goes on to mention that realism is not a term easily used with music, though it obviously suits literature and painting. For that reason, Socialist Realism was still to be created within music, though he felt that works that moved or provoked perhaps came closest. He used these views as further ammunition at attacking an elitist musical culture he saw springing up in the West with the resulting abyss between high and low art. Eisler fought with polemic and a devastating use of language. His appeals for accessible new music did not apply for greater tolerance of popular music in a Marxist society. Indeed, he dismissed popular music with the view that those who believe it would eventually lead the masses to good music may as well believe that garden gnomes would in due course, lead the masses to Classical sculpture.
(Mitte des Jahrhunderts – Schlusschor “Sei gegrüsst, Partei” Middle of the Century – Finale ‘Oh Party, be greeted!’)
The new Germany needed a new mythology. The new mythology accorded with the ideas that lay behind Socialist Realism: music that was accessible, uplifting, empowering and politically motivational. With these values in mind, Becher and Eisler set about creating a folk music ‘tradition’ with a volume of ‘New German Folksongs’. Becher had already supplied the text to Eisler Socialist Realistic Mitte des Jahrhunderts – Middle of the Century. Adding to the treasury of freshly minted ‘traditions’ was Eisler’s setting of Brecht’s texts for ‘new children songs’, including Anmut sparet nicht noch Mühe –Spare neither Grace nor Effort which was dubbed ‘The Children’s Anthem’. All of these works were intended to empower the creation of a new, ‘better’, Socialist Germany.
(Kinderhymne Anmut sparet nicht noch Mühe – Childrens Hymn: ‘Spare neither Grace nor Effort’)
Eisler would receive two professorships in the GDR: On 24th of March, 1950, East Berlin opened the Academy of Arts as the continuation of the Prussian Academy of Arts, founded in 1696. Its president was Arnold Zweig following the unexpected death of Heinrich Mann. In 1954, the West Berlin Academy of arts was also opened. The two institutions would have virtually no contact throughout the decades of the Cold War. The East Berlin Academy asked Hanns Eisler to lead its composition master class, thus succeeding his own teacher Arnold Schoenberg, who had held the same position from 1925-1933. A month later, Berlin’s Music Academy, today called the Hanns Eisler Academy of Berlin, was also opened and run by the Austrian musicologist Georg Knepler. His first act was immediately to offer Eisler a professorship of composition. During this period, Vienna had only hinted at the possibility of a lowly post, teaching music theory at the conservatory with little prospect of a firm offer coming through.
The ‘Faustus Debate’ at the Academy of Arts turned into a quasi-show trial that was, if possible, even more surreal than Eisler’s experience with the HUAC. Zhdanov’s denunciation of Formalism in 1949 played into additional, specifically East German agendas. The years running up to Stalin’s death were riddled with fear and paranoia. Gerhart Eisler was disgraced and removed from his positions; Ernst Busch was not allowed to perform and his recordings were withdrawn. Eisler’s own works, including new songs commissioned by Busch, were also blacklisted. The mood in East Germany was increasingly nationalistic and populist. Show trials followed by immediate executions had taken place in Czechoslovakia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. At precisely this time, Eisler published his libretto to what he intended to become the opera Johann Faustus – setting the story of Faust as class warfare at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1524. Thomas Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger praised it before Eisler sent it for publication to Aufbau. Ernst Fischer reviewing it for Sinn und Form suggested that it could become the national opera of Germany. Unwittingly, Fischer from the safety of Vienna, had unleashed forces of East German doctrinal authoritarianism, the likes of which had only been hinted, during the notorious Expressionism Debate of 1937. Goethe’s Faust was sacred ground for the still culturally insecure GDR. An avant-garde ‘Formalistic’ spin was unthinkable with party newspapers printing outraged letters and editorials. Misunderstood was Eisler’s attempt to redefine Socialist Germany’s home-produced mythology. He had achieved something similar with his collections of ‘new’ children- and Folksongs. A series of three weekly debates at the Academy of Arts in May and early June left Eisler humiliated and officially in the cold. Stalin had died the previous month yet the cultural policies that demanded positive, inspiring art for everyone were being dictated from above and those who were seen to waver, were in danger of isolation or worse. The debate was summarised by Walter Ulbricht in the press with a damning indictment of Johann Faustus and Eisler. The opera would never be composed.
The demonstrations on the 17th of June, 1953 took place coincidentally the day after Ulbricht denounced Eisler in the press. East Germans were confronted with the reality of Soviet occupation rather than Soviet liberation. Soviet tanks were brought in and many demonstrators throughout the GDR were killed. On June 18th, Eisler wrote a letter to the East German news service, expressing alarm at developments and calling for reflection. It remained unprinted and on June 19th, a new and bitter attack was launched in the paper Neues Deutschland at proposed suggestions mostly made by Brecht and Eisler. The headline read: “On Legitimate Criticism and on the Appearance of Opportunism in the Arts”. Eisler returned to Vienna to work on a film version of Fidelio with Walter Felsenstein. Brecht retreated to his house in Buckow to write his Buckower Elegies, which contain his only criticism of East Germany’s Communist regime: “Would it not be simpler for the government to dissolve its electorate and vote itself a new one?”
Eisler’s return to Vienna was hardly more encouraging. Lou informed him that she would be leaving him to live with Ernst Fischer. Eisler tried to compose music for Johann Faustus, but found work difficult. Brecht came to Vienna to prepare a performance of The Mother at the Scala with Ernst Busch and Helene Weigel. Eisler was in a state of paralysed depression, drinking more than he should and unable to compose. Assurances were made regarding a critical edition of his works to be financed by the GDR. This resulted in a letter to the Central Committee, in which Eisler explained how the Faustus attack had left him unable to work, but expressing self-criticism, he ended with the comment that he saw his ‘rightful place as an artist only in that part of Germany where the foundations of Socialism have been laid.’ He was offered an invitation to lecture on his teacher Arnold Schoenberg at the Academy of Arts, a sure indication that a thaw was underway. He used his Schoenberg lecture to question the means by which he was attacked without ever referring to the charge of ‘Formalism’. His points appeared to have been understood. Upon his return to Berlin, he composed the music to Johannes R. Becher’s Winterschlacht – The Slaughter at Winter, about the Wehrmacht defeat at Moscow. He later compiled the individual numbers into a suite with narrator.
(Prelude to ‘Die Winterschlachtsuite’ 1954)
In 1955, while working on the film Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti – Mr Puntila and his Man Matti, he met Stephanie Wolf again, now Stephanie Zucker-Schilling, who worked at Wienfilm as a translator. Paul Dessau composed the songs for the play, which had been premiered in Zurich in 1948. Brecht enjoyed working with Dessau: he was less invasive than Eisler, younger and took on Brecht’s texts without alterations. The folksong character of the play’s songs were felt to be inappropriate for the more commercially conceived film. The director was a non-German speaking Brazilian and when released, much of the original edge had been removed. Indeed, its release among a number of other local Austro-German productions barely stood out. Only when Dessau took the decision to compose his Puntila opera, did Brecht comment that he felt the music from the film version to be more in keeping with the concept of an opera than the original stage songs.
The four years (1953 – 1957), between Lou’s departure and Eisler’s marriage with Steffy were fraught with depression and excessive drinking. He cobbled together the music for a film version of Karl Millöcker’s Gasparone, composed music for a staging of Hamlet, as well as a number of songs. Some were Brecht settings while others were for Ernst Busch who presented Eisler with Kurt Tucholsky texts from the 1920s. Der Smokingmann (on whom Busch modelled himself for his appearances), Ideal und Wirklichkeit – Ideal and Reality and Zuckerbrot und Peitsche – Carrot and Stick. Brecht’s play Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkrieg – Svejk in the Second World War came the closest to an ‘opera’ that Eisler could manage. The lowest point came when Eisler was picked up drunk in West Berlin. Police dumped him at the border and the next day, West German newspapers whooped with derision. A Central Committee chaired by Walter Ulbricht warned Eisler that he was in danger of losing his right to remain in the GDR. Ulbricht was irritated that Eisler remained an Austrian citizen, but ultimately let him off with a warning, did not insist that Eisler change his citizenship and allowed him to continue to travel. Eisler was harshly reminded of his foreign status and lack of party membership, when Ulbricht and the other members of the Committee markedly addressed him as ‘Herr Eisler’ rather than ‘Comrade’.
(Ernst Busch sings ‘Zuckerbrot und Peitsch’ – ‘Sugarbread and Whip’ – in the sense of ‘Carrot and Stick’)
Hedi Gutmann’s sudden and unexpected return to Berlin in 1957 poses many unanswered ethical questions. Brecht received a letter addressed to the Berlin Ensemble in February 1956 from the Siberian Gulag where Gutmann had spent the previous 16 years. Together, he and Eisler pulled as many political strings as necessary to have her returned to Berlin. Brecht did not live to welcome Hedi back. He died of a heart attack in August 1956. Eisler had Hedi stay in his home in Berlin Pankow until the East German government had her sign an oath of secrecy and supplied her with a small flat. The death of Brecht, the return of Hedi and his marriage to Steffy opened a new chapter for Eisler.
Alain Resnais’s Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) was one of the few examinations within the first decade after the war of Nazi atrocities. A veil of silence was drawn that would not be lifted until the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. The Nurnberg Trials took place when the world was still reeling from the after-shock of war, and with the on-set of the Cold War, Nazi criminals were often rehabilitated by the West in the fight against Communism. In1955, ten years after its liberation by horrified Soviet troops, Auschwitz stood abandoned and overgrown. It was a monstrosity of humanity that both East and West hoped would be reclaimed by nature, and swiftly forgotten. In truth, Nuit et Brouillard is not specifically about the genocide of the Jews, though they are mentioned in passing as one of the many groups murdered at Auschwitz. Nacht und Nebel, the translation of Nuit et Brouillard – Night and Fog is a German expression meaning ‘without trace, in secret’. Hitler’s political opponents, partisans, saboteurs etc. were to vanish ‘without trace’. Resnais inter-spliced gruesome historic black and white photographs with colour footage, shot in blazing sunshine. The narration was written by Jean Cayrol, with German translation by Paul Celan. Resnais was familiar with Eisler from their joint collaboration with Jean Renoir. When asked if Eisler would work on the project, his reply was terse: ‘I’m on my way’. The film, at only 30 minutes, still arguably remains the most powerful documentary on Auschwitz. Despite international protests, it was barred from the 1956 Cannes Festival at the request of the German government. Eisler’s score complements Resnais’s understatement. His dramatic counterpoint comes to the fore, as it is impossible to imitate in music the horrors one sees on the screen. Instead, he amplifies the visual by employing musical opposites, unafraid to underscore with melodies of deliberate banality – perhaps anticipating Hannah Arendt’s observation on Eichmann: ‘The banality of evil’. The clip below shows only the closing sequence.
(Deutsche Sinfonie – Präludium ‘Oh Deutschland, bleiche Mutter’ – ‘Oh Germany, pale mother’)
No work encapsulates Eisler more completely than his Deutsche Sinfonie: its 11 movements combine melodic 12 tone sequences, quotations from fight songs and The International with the theatricals of street music, creating in a sense, a latter-day Passion. Despite taking 28 years to complete, it is a product of exile. Its movements 8 and 9, entitled Peasant Cantata and Workers Cantata make up the core of the work. The final movement, Epilogue, is taken from his cycle War Primer and reflects life as a returning immigrant, living amongst the perpetrators even within an anti-fascist state. It offers a rare hint of disillusionment.
(Bauernkantata – Peasants’ Cantata)
(Arbeiterkantata – Workers’ Cantata)
The work’s performance history mirrors German 20th century history: in 1936 the ISCM committee in Paris felt two movements proposed by Eisler to be the strongest material thus far put forward. In 1937, angry German delegates insisted that the performance be cancelled. The jury suggested a compromise could be reached if the sung lines were replaced by saxophones. A similar situation arose in London in 1938. Eisler withdrew the work rather than remove the texts. As most of the texts came from Ignazio Silone, a Communist renegade and critic of Stalin, the work was not only dismissed as ‘Formalistic’ in the GDR, but deemed politically unacceptable. Eventually it was given a single performance in East Berlin in 1959 conducted by Walter Goehr. Eisler considered it his most important work. With Goehr’s death attempts were made to persuade Jascha Horenstein to conduct the British premiere. Horenstein admitted to having an ‘allergy’ to anything with the word ‘Deutsch’ in the title. Adrian Boult also showed an interest and despite being a frequent supporter of progressive causes and music, he found the texts disturbing. Eventually, Alexander Goehr, Walter’s son, procured the services of Lawrence Leonard, a young conductor who had already performed works with the BBC of Kurt Weill. The Performance took place on January 6th, 1962; Eisler was dead nine months later. It was not heard in West Germany until 1983 in a performance conducted by the Dutch conductor Harke de Roos. No German conductor was prepared to take it on. Eisler’s timeline is the timeline of Germany’s tragedy – and it is a timeline he has managed to capture in music, as Brecht once said, ‘like a fly in amber’.
(Epilogue – Deutsche Sinfonie)
Gerhart was never ‘officially’ rehabilitated, but tacitly reintegrated, eventually even becoming a member of the Central Committee and Chairman of East German Broadcasting. He also became a popular broadcaster with a regular weekly programme. He and Hanns, with their respective wives remained close until Hanns’s death in 1962. Gerhart died while on holiday in Yerevan, Armenia (USSR) in 1968.
Eisler suffered a heart attack in 1960 and was not in god health. He continued to travel and lead the privileged existence of an Austrian in the increasingly paranoid and controlled environment of East Germany. East Berlin’s sealing off of West Berlin with its high wall, mines, barbed wire and gun towers on Auguest 13th, 1961 resulted in an angrey open letter from Günter Grass and Wolfdietrich Schnurre written in the name of the Authors’ Guild. Eisler’s answer printed on 30th August in Die Weltbühne was evasive, sarcastic and confrontational ending with advice that ‘when bringing up such subjects as “democracy”, not to mention “freedom”, one needs serious debates instead of open letters that only offend and upset.’
Elsewhere on this blog, I have written on the debates surrounding Eisler’s plausible ‘guilt by association’. The debates attempt to mitigate, mediate, explain and/or condemn ; they’re largely carried out by Germans who still identify themselves as coming from the West or the East: https://forbiddenmusic.org/2013/11/01/hanns-eisler/
The truth lies somewhere in between. Eisler was a child of his time and fought against the injustices he encountered. That Marxism as implemented after the Russian Revolution seemed to offer answers to these injustices, as well as a template for a utopian ideal that would render future injustices impossible. We now understand these ‘answers’ to have been delusional. Our knowledge, however, comes with a hindsight that Eisler did not have. Early Christians did not foresee the Crusades or Spanish Inquisition – nor did the earliest Marxists foresee the purges and show trials of Joseph Stalin and his Eastern European satellites. Yet Eisler’s ‘messages in a bottle’ slipped into such works as his Serious Songs or his deliberate settings of Silone must be weighed against outwardly expressed approval of the show-trial and execution of Bucharin and indeed the purges of 1937, despite losing close friends and associates. The so-called ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ soon became just another dictatorship. Nevertheless, his setting of Berthold Viertel’s ‘to live a life without fear’ in his final work, Serious Songs, he qualified later in conversation with the observation, that it was in reference to the Hitler years, ‘but everyone should feel free to choose whichever decade they believe most appropriate’.
The GDR accorded Eisler a state funeral, with his body laid out at the opera house and queues of visitors. An orchestra performed Auferstanden aus Ruinen, the East German National Anthem, of which he was the composer. Speeches were made by Walter Ulbricht, who only a few years earlier had reminded him that he was neither a member of the party nor an East German citizen. Another eulogy was read by Alexander Abusch, his principal prosecutor during the Faustus debate. Such paradoxes as his funeral were merely consistent with the other kaleidoscopic contradictions that made up this highly complex and fascinating 20th century personality. The West barely noticed his passing with only an inside-page, short obituary in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung by H.H. Stuckenschmidt, who along with Eisler had once been a member of the progressive ‘November Gruppe’.