Introduction to Eisler's music
A Virtual Tour
Roaring Twenties in Berlin
Creative partnership with Brecht
Cast out by the Nazis
Interlude in Hollywood
Risen from the ruins
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Young student of Schönberg
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1923)
One of Arnold Schönberg's brightest pupils in Vienna, Hanns Eisler was strictly schooled in the traditional method of composers like Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Schönberg never "taught" his famous twelve-tone method to his students, but Schönberg protégés Berg, Webern and Eisler began to experiment with the new form in the early 1920s. Eisler would later abandon this style during his turn towards militant street music in the late 1920s, but return to it as an exile from Hitler's Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Click on the speaker icon for a brief excerpt from Eisler's first twelve-tone work.
Roaring Twenties in Berlin
Song of the Woman and the Soldiers (1928)
In 1925 Eisler moved from Vienna to Berlin, where he was swept into the revolutionary politics of the Weimar Republic. Berlin in those years between the end of World War I and Hitler's rise to power in 1933 was a laboratory for experimentation in music, theater, visual arts and literature. The German love affair with jazz, recently imported from the United States, was just beginning. The new technologies of radio, disk recording and the sound film were challenging traditional concepts of art. Politically, it was a time of extreme polarization: left-wing artists like Eisler believed they were living in the dawn of a new age. At this point Eisler rejected the aesthetic doctrine of "art for art's sake" and began to develop a style of music aimed at social transformation. The new idiom was called Kampfmusik (Music for the Struggle). Texts by radical poets like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Tucholsky were perfect material for the young composer: They looked at social reality from "below"from the viewpoint of prostitutes and prisoners, the unemployed and the hungry. Often aggressive and sarcastic, Eisler's songs from this period were sung in street demonstrations, public auditoriums and left-wing cabarets.
Red Wedding (1929)
Ballad of Nigger Jim (1930)
Ballad of the Welfare System (1930)
The Secret Deployment (1930)
Capriccio on Jewish Folk Songs (1931)
Song of the Banks (1931)
O Fallada, There You Are Hanging (1932)
Creative partnership with Bertolt Brecht
Song of Supply and Demand (The Measures Taken, 1930)
The personal friendship between Eisler and Bertolt Brecht began in the late 1920sthe final crisis years of the Weimar Republic. It was one of the most creative partnerships between a playwright and musician in the the 20th century. The year 1930 saw the première in Berlin of their first musical play, "Die Massnahme" (The Measures Taken), followed in 1931 by "Die Mutter" (The Mother). Eisler had no time for "pure" classical music: millions were unemployed, Berlin and other German cities were in the grip of revolutionary turmoil, street battles between Nazi and Communist paramilitary groups were a common event. The Brecht-Eisler "Solidarity Song" (from the 1931 film Kuhle Wampeor Who Owns the World?) became an instant revolutionary hit. But during a brief break between projects, Eisler wrote the "Kleine Sinfonie" (Small Symphony) which prefigures his later return to a simplified and more communicative form of the twelve-tone method.
Solidarity Song (Kuhle Wampe, 1931)
Präludium (Kuhle Wampe, 1931)
Theme with Variations (Small Symphony, 1931-32)
Cast out by the Nazis
Madam's Song (Roundheads and Pointy-heads, 1934)
Eisler was fortunately in Vienna when Hitler was named chancellor on January 30, 1933. Arrests of political opponentsincluding journalists and poetsbegan almost immediately. Brecht slipped out of the country and joined Eisler and thousands of other anti-fascist Germans in exile. Eisler continued to write protest songs and music for Brecht's plays but gradually returned to the twelve-tone style of Schönberg, his teacher. The "Lenin Requiem" of 1935 is written partly in that style, and so were many of his chamber works and cantatas from that period. But, attempting to build a bridge between classical and popular music, Eisler's unique approach to the twelve-tone method emphasized simplicity of expression. And almost none of this was abstract or "pure" music: Eisler continued to choose texts that directed the listener's attention to social reality. Many of his twelve-tone chamber compositions from this period were written originally as experimental film scores. During this first decade of exile Eisler also produced his only symphonic work on a grand scale: the choral "German Symphony."
Introduction (Lenin Requiem, 1935)
Praise of the Fighter (Lenin Requiem, 1935)
String Quartet (1938)
Roman Cantata (1938)
Invention (Chamber Symphony, 1940)
Fourteen Ways of Describing the Rain (1941)
Piano Sonata No. 3 (1943)
Präludium (German Symphony, 1935-1957)
Interlude in Hollywood
To My Little Radio (Hollywood Songbook, 1938-43)
Eisler and his wife, Lou, spent the last five years of their exile in southern California, where he supported his family by composing film scores for RKO Studioswinning Oscar nominations in 1943 and 1944. One of his most remarkable worksa cycle of art songs, or lieder, titled the "Hollywood Songbook"was completed in this period. In a mixture of styles (twelve-tone, romantic, blues), the cycle is based on poems by Brecht, Goethe, Shakespeare, Mörike and Hölderlin. As a whole, they confirm Eisler's reputation as one of the most able composers of lieder in the 20th century. Like his other work, the songs are communicative and directsome of them last no more than one or two minutes. Free of sentimentality, they nevertheless express a concentrated emotional clarity. (German baritone Matthias Goerne offers this admiring assessment: "For me, this chance discovery of this huge body of work by a real 20th century composer was a revelation, in that here was an artist comparable, in my opinion, to Brahms. The integrity, the consciousness of the times is so very great in Eisler that I was inspired to combine his songs with those of Schubert.... [O]ne might say that the 'Hollywood Liederbuch' is the 'Winterreise' of our times.")
Easter Sunday (Hollywood Songbook, 1938-43)
The Son (Hollywood Songbook, 1938-43)
Sprinkling the Garden (Hollywood Songbook, 1938-43)
The Treasure Hunter (Hollywood Songbook, 1938-43)
Risen from the ruins
National Anthem of the German Democratic Republic (1949)
After World War II, Eisler was the first target of the House Un-American Activities Committee's probe of alleged Communist subversion in Hollywood. As a leftist, and certainly pro-Communist artist of foreign birth, Eisler's position was particularly vulnerable. Deprived of the opportunity to work as a composer, Eisler and his wife left in 1948 for Europe. In 1949, he settled in East Berlinthe capital of the German Democratic Republic. The music of the last twelve years of his life represents a shift away from both twelve-tone method and the aggressive militant style of the 1920s and early 30s. Eisler continued to write political music, but the style was often gentler, the texts less aggressive. He now rarely used the march tempo in songs (except as a parody): marching music, Eisler believed, had been debased by the Nazis and was no longer an acceptable idiom for postwar Germany. In 1949, he wrote the rather florid music of the GDR national anthem ("Risen from the Ruins") but was condemned by the Communist cultural bureaucracy a few years later for a libretto that, in their view, violated the canons of "socialist realism." In 1959, Eisler completed work on his last musical setting for a play by Bertolt Brecht: "Schweyk in the Second World War." He continued to compose for film and stage and, shortly before his death in 1962, wrote his "farewell to music"a collection of concert songs titled Ernste Gesänge (Serious Songs).
In the Flower Garden (1955)
To Those Born Later (1955)
Way the Wind Blows (1955)
Des Mannes Wandeln (Vorbild, 1957)
See Our Sons (1957)
And What did the Nazi Soldier's Wife Get? (Schweyk, 1959)
Song of the Moldau (Schweyk, 1959)
Song of the Little Wind (Schweyk, 1959)
Ideal and Reality (Tucholsky Lieder, 1959)
Sadness (Serious Songs, 1962)
Written by Andy Lang.
Hanns Eisler Hans Eisler Bertolt Brecht Arnold Schoenberg Kurt Weill Weimar Republic Neue Sachlichkeit cabaret film scores lehrstueck lehrstück epic theater chamber music world music Kurt Weill Ernst Busch Gisela May Hanns Eisler Bertolt Brecht Clifford Odets Leonard Bernstein Aaron Copland Charlie Chaplin Fritz Lang Thomas Mann Lion Feuchtwanger Matthias Goerne Wolfgang Holzmair Leipzig Gewandhaus Hollywood Ten blacklist McCarthy Era HUAC Un-American Activities
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In Berlin during the Roaring Twenties, Eisler temporarily rejected concert music to develop a particularly aggressive form of militant music for performance by proletarian choirs and jazz bands in cabarets, musical theater and street demonstrations. After Hitler's rise to power, Eisler (during his exile in New York and Hollywood) returned to the style of atonal and twelve-tone music learned from his teacher Schönbergsome of his best chamber works and art songs date from this period. After his return to Germany in 1948 he finally abandoned both militant and twelve-tone music and composed in more traditional forms for radio, film and theater.