Perfect Sound Forever

Hanns Eisler, Marxist Polyglot

photo by Dr. Albrecht Duemling
Photo couresty of Stiftung Archiv der Akademie der Kunste Berlin

by Joy Calico (Sept 2002)


This essay is part of my personal crusade to spread propaganda about the music of Hanns Eisler (1898-1962). For those who know nothing about him, I begin with a thumbnail sketch of his life and music. For those whose interest is piqued, the remainder is an attempt to understand his virtual exclusion from the collective musical consciousness outside of Germany and particularly in the United States, and a cursory survey of his small, disparate but dogged following in popular music. His general neglect is due to two factors: Eisler was a Marxist, and he was a polyglot. 'Marxist' is self-evident; by 'polyglot,' I mean that he was fluent in more than one musical language and could switch easily between cerebral atonality for art music and an accessible if still pointed tonal language for political and theater songs (in his film music we see both). Eisler was once as relevant to academia and the classical concert hall as he was to Hollywood, workers' demonstrations and political theater. What happened?


Eisler's life is a fascinating microcosm of the elite of the twentieth-century German Left: intellectualism, activism, displacement, and disillusionment. He trained as a composer under Arnold Schoenberg, leader of the Second Viennese School and advocate of esoteric 12-tone music. Eisler began moving in leftist intellectual circles that included figures such as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and broke with his teacher to concentrate on composing songs for the workers' movement and for Brecht's plays. Like so many others, he emigrated once the Nazis came to power in 1933 and lived in exile until 1948, spending most of the 1940's in the United States. He taught at the New School for Social Research in New York, was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant to conduct research into film music with Theodor Adorno, and was twice nominated for an Academy Award for best film score (Hangmen Also Die and None But the Lonely Heart). The tide turned very suddenly after the war, when the United States plunged into panic over the Red Threat. The House Un-American Activities Committee forced Eisler to leave the country and he returned to Europe, settling in what would become the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949. With the poet Johannes R. Becher he composed the song later chosen as the East German national anthem, and lived out his days in a strained relationship with the ruling party. An excellent account of his life and music can be found in the video Solidarity Song: The Hanns Eisler Story, directed by Larry Weinstein (Bullfrog Films, 1997). I also recommend for audio clips, transcripts of Eisler's testimony before the HUAC, links to his FBI file, and a wealth of other information lovingly compiled and administered by Andy Lang and James K. Miller of the North American Hanns Eisler Society.

Eisler in Popular Music

The music of a Marxist polyglot is unknown and impractical in popular music today. Leftist politics have largely fallen out of fashion, and few musicians care to stake out an explicitly political position of any kind. Eisler's association with Brecht, a playwright who enjoys a reputation as a brilliant author but something of a killjoy, does not endear him to musicians churning out mindless entertainment for huge profit. Of the three popular areas in which Eisler excelled - film music, the workers' movement, and political theater - the last two are virtually extinct; certainly their modern incarnations bear little resemblance to the massive international phenomena for which Eisler worked. His book, Composing for the Films, is considered a classic by film theorists, but today's Hollywood scores suggest that it was not particularly influential in practical terms. Therefore we seek signs of life in jazz, pop, and rock, and in repertoires of musicians who identify themselves as eclectic, politically oriented, and/or intellectual. One such kindred spirit paid homage in 1998. English musician/activist Billy Bragg and country alternative band Wilco composed music for 15 songs by Woody Guthrie for the album Mermaid Avenue (Elektra). Among the hundreds of lyrics in Guthrie's estate they chose "Eisler on the Go," a poem written in response to the composer's appearance before the HUAC. Bragg played the song on tour, and a live version can be heard on the semi-bootleg Mermaid Avenue Tour (1999).

Eisler's most famous songs for the workers' movement were "Song of the United Front," "Solidarity Song," and "All or Nothing." English translations of these and 39 other songs are arranged for piano and guitar in The Brecht-Eisler Songbook, edited by Eisler's tireless advocate, Eric Bentley (Oak Publications, 1967; recently re-released). They are eminently singable and impossible to forget; it is not hard to understand how millions worldwide marched toward revolution with these songs on their lips. They are also superbly crafted. In addition to his hallmark driving bass lines and catchy tunes in the minor mode, one finds sophisticated harmonic nuance and rhythmic/metric variety that far exceed the minimum requirements for a protest or mass song. In the original German I recommend recordings by the incomparable singer Ernst Busch (also known as "The Red Orpheus"). "Song of the United Front" received a walloping big band treatment from Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra in their 1970 eponymous album, a work featuring virtuoso jazzers in fiery interpretations of anti-fascist music. The same song in Yiddish, "Tsu eyns, tsvey, dray," can be heard on Daniel Kempin's Mir Leben Eybik (We Live Forever, 1994; 1998). This version was performed in the Ghetto Theater in Wilna, a town known as the Lithuanian Jerusalem, during the Nazi occupation in 1943. Ebony Band, a collective from Holland organized and directed by Werner Herbers, recorded Music from the Spanish Civil War (Bvhaast, 1991-1993?), featuring Eisler's "Marcha de. 5. Regimiento." This recording also features two of Eisler chamber works commemorating the war, although they are not meant for mass performance: "Cantata on the Death of a Comrade" opus 64 and "War Cantata" opus 65.

Eisler's music theater collaborations with Brecht produced dozens of perfect little songs - tuneful, alternately biting and poignant, the ideal settings of aphoristic texts. In many of these pieces, as in the Kampf and Massenlieder noted above, the political message is bold and urgent and can feel quite dated, like something from a Cold War time capsule. Furthermore, these songs are not escapist; they are designed to engage the audience, rousing them to critical thought and ultimately to action. If your criteria for great music are "timelessness" and "passive emotion," many of these songs are not for you. In the original German, I recommend the resplendent Gisela May, who worked with Brecht and Eisler in the GDR and whose diction and interpretation are above reproach. In English, the quintessential recording is Sylvia Anders Sings Hanns Eisler (Labor Records, 2001). Anders, a German actress and cabaret singer, performs greatest hits from several shows. The Roundheads and the Pointedheads contains some of Eisler's best music, including a witty commentary on the aphrodisiac effects of lucre in "Nothing Quite Like Money." Eisler's brilliant setting alternates crass honky-tonk piano with quotations of Richard Wagner's famous Tristan chord: in the base world of capitalism, only money elicits the type of genuine love once associated with the sublime. Eisler wrote several lyrical songs for Schweyk in the Second World War. "Song of the Moldau" features another masterful musical quotation, this time from Smetana's symphonic poem The Moldau, while minimal accompaniment underscores a mother's regret at having encouraged her son's Nazi activities in "Song of the German Mother." In "The German Miserere" a soldier's orders to conquer the world are sung to the sounds of an ominous march, highlighted by dissonant interludes and ending in a prayerful hymn. These miniature masterpieces reward repeated listenings. They are also not technically difficult to perform and for the musically inclined, amateur or otherwise, they represent a treasure trove of untapped material. Most of them can be found in Bentley's Brecht-Eisler Songbook.

On recordings, music theater songs are often grouped with selections from Eisler's masterful collection The Hollywood Songbook (this is the case with the Anders recording). These art songs treat the agonizing theme of exile and feature texts by several poets, Brecht primary among them. As its poignant subject suggests, the tone of The Hollywood Songbook is a good deal more intimate and, some might say, more sincere, than that of most of the theater pieces. These songs are the perfect bridge between the academic concert hall and popular/populist audiences because they range from tonal mellifluence to angular atonality, depending on the poem, and thus they have found a home in the repertoire of a wide range of performers. Kamikaze Ground Crew performs an extended jazz version of "Easter Sunday 1935" on Covers (2000). Classical singer Matthias Goerne's exquisite interpretation of the collection is not to be missed (Decca, 1998). For a powerful and entirely different connection to these songs, listen to Dagmar Krause's English version on Tank Battles (1989, 1995; also released in German as Panzerschlacht). Krause is a veteran of leftist political musical projects with Slapp Happy, the Art Bears, and Henry Cow, whose drummer Chris Cutler coined the expression RIO (rock in opposition), and her empathy for these songs is wrenching, palpable.

"To the Little Radio" is a haunting, wistful gem, and the most frequently performed of The Hollywood Songbook. Theo Bleckmann covers it in German on Origami (2001), but it has enjoyed its greatest success under another name: Sting wrote new lyrics to Eisler's music as "The Secret Marriage" (Nothing Like the Sun, 1987). The official Sting website quotes him on this topic: "What I'm trying to do is to look for the roots of popular music before the 1950's. I don't think pop music started with Elvis Presley. That's why I included this song 'Secret Marriage' which was adapted from a melody by Hans [sic] Eisler. Kurt Weill, Eisler, and those people were classically trained musicians, students of Schoenberg, who crossed a bridge to Broadway shows, to popular music. That bridge still exists. So I'm going from pop music, finding out about them and how they wrote chromatically, and hopefully bringing it back. There's a source here that is not used."

For those too young to remember when East German women dominated Olympic swimming and the national anthem was played at each medal ceremony, it can be heard on many commercial recordings. Renditions range from the historically respectful to the quirky (the American Brass Band, the Band of the Royal Grenadiers, The Regimental Band, and Son of Kraut). After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were several attempts to combine the national anthems from the respective Germanys into one song as a musical symbol of unification. "Deutschland Remix" by Lars, Diana and Neumi (1990) is one such synthesis of the two anthems, a not entirely successful early techno interpretation. Many would argue that reunification has not been entirely successful either, and as resentment about the inequitable realities of the process simmers in the former GDR, the anthem continues to resonate with that population.

Eisler in Academia and Classical Music

Various forces have conspired to exclude Eisler from American universities and concert halls. The absence of his music from academia is particularly conspicuous because pedigree alone should have guaranteed him a place in the pantheon: he was a pupil of Schoenberg. The master himself identified Eisler as a member of the student triumvirate, listing Berg, Webern, and Eisler as his three great students. The hallowed status the academy has bestowed upon his two colleagues and their teacher is a fait accompli, and yet the same institution, the last bastion of atonality and the guardian of high modernism, does not recognize Eisler. I concede David Blake's pragmatic point that scores and recordings of Eisler's music were not easy to come by during the Cold War, but I would argue that tracking and interpreting rare material is precisely the purview of academics.

Such neglect cannot be entirely attributed to his particular political persuasion either; after all, universities are notoriously indulgent of the Left, affording Marxism the same refuge extended to atonality. Rather, it stems from his overt political engagement in music, a flaunting of the cardinal rule of the Second Viennese School: art is art for art's sake. "If it's art, it isn't for everyone, and if it's for everyone, it isn't art." Useful, accessible music with an ideological orientation can easily cross the line into mere propaganda, which is not only potentially dangerous but dilutes music for public consumption. There is a sense that Eisler compromised his musical integrity with his willingness to write deliberately accessible music and to put his extraordinary musical talents at the disposal of the revolution. He appears to have exercised poor judgement in the use of his prodigious talents, squandering them on functional music instead of furthering the noble cause of absolute music, far above the fray of real life and, some would say, relevance.

Even if one takes the draconian position that music associated with Communism has no place in the post-Cold War era, painting Eisler's entire oeuvre with that red brush excludes a body of brilliant, beautiful art music written for a different purpose and in another tongue. While composing persuasive protest and workers' songs and songs for Brecht's plays in an accessible language, he continued to cultivate a sophisticated atonality for art music. This polylingualism, which enabled him to write in various styles, also excludes him from the academic canon. He is not easily classified according to style or even style period, and therefore he does not fit the classical mold. The North American Hanns Eisler Society website posts a substantial list of recordings and information about Eisler's art music, so I refer the curious and the adventuresome to them. For the uninitiated, Fourteen Ways to Describe Rain, which is derived from his score for Ivens' film Rain, and the massive Deutsche Sinfonie are both in Eisler's distinctively tonal 12-tone voice, and prove once and for all that atonality is not necessarily synonymous with ugly.


In the opening paragraph I posed the rhetorical question, what happened? David Blake's assessment that no composer has suffered more from the ravages of the Cold War than Eisler rings true. Perhaps I shouldn't expect music so committed to its own time to have a life span beyond that of the composer, but I submit that times haven't changed that much. Even if the Left in the United States is moribund, the less militant yet socially committed will find his trenchant settings of Brecht's numerous anti-war, anti-fascist cautionary tales as relevant in the current climate as they were 60 years ago (although the reification of Brechtian performance practice and a certain "Brecht fatigue" in theater circles may endanger his survival in that forum). That the songs are covered by a wide array of artists, thus taking on lives of their own quite apart from their original plays, bears witness to his mastery of the genre. And there is change afoot in the realm of art music, as the critique of modernism and its hierarchy of high and low art infiltrates academic music departments and concert halls. Ever increasing numbers of teachers, scholars and performers blur the distinctions between art/absolute and popular/functional in their classes, research and concerts each day. It is my hope that Eisler will occupy a space in the reconfigured postwar landscape. Numerous new scores and recordings were released in Germany in 1998 as part of the celebration of Eisler's centennial, making his music more accessible than ever (see the North American Hanns Eisler Society for specifics). This wealth of material is now available to all who dare to "change the world - it needs it."

Special thanks to Andrew Lang for his assistance

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