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Fri Jul 11 09:00:29 MDT 2003
NY Times, July 11, 2003
A Welcome Tribute to a Lost Composer
By JEREMY EICHLER
THE German composer Hanns Eisler wrote music of terse expressiveness,
sharp wit and often immaculate craftsmanship. If, more than 50 years
after his death, his work is little remembered today, it is largely
because he spent his career prostrate to the faltering God of socialism,
seeking an elusive wedding of progressive music and progressive politics
and ultimately lending his formidable gifts to history's losing side.
Arnold Schoenberg gave Eisler his technique, and the heady culture of
Weimar Berlin gave him his musical voice — sometimes compared to Kurt
Weill's — as well as the grounding for his radical politics. His Marxist
worldview infused his work as a composer, and he tirelessly strove to
find a musical language that could play its part in the epic battle
against the fascism of his day.
After fleeing Hitler in 1933, Eisler eventually settled in the United
States for a productive 10 years of exile before he was notoriously
called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and driven
from the country in 1948. He settled in East Germany, where he wrote the
country's national anthem but was later condemned for his Western
"formalism." He died in 1962, his great opera unwritten, his faith in
the socialist ideal tempered by his firsthand confrontation with the
bureaucratic machinery of the state.
Opportunities to consider Eisler at any length are rare these days, so
the tribute work called "Eislermaterial," by the German composer Heiner
Goebbels, is a welcome addition to this year's Lincoln Center Festival.
It will be performed by the Ensemble Modern on Sunday at 7 p.m. at La
Guardia High School.
This tribute notwithstanding, Eisler's legacy today is peculiar. His
music seems to be perpetually on the brink of a revival that never
arrives. Even the end of the cold war did not bring the stream of Eisler
scholarship or performances in the United States that one might expect.
To be sure, Eisler's output was widely varied and uneven. It included
symphonies, choral works, art songs and chamber music but also protest
songs, film scores and music to accompany the plays of his most frequent
collaborator and political soulmate, Bertolt Brecht.
Last night PBS aired "Solidarity Song," a documentary on the life of
Marxist composer Hanns Eisler(1898-1962). In tandem with last week's
back-to-back profiles of Dashiel Hammett and Lillian Hellman, it gives
you a glimpse into the kind of programming that was its original
mandate. Created during the Vietnam War, PBS was intended to fill a gap
in commercial programming for unpopular subjects. No other subject than
the career of Hanns Eisler seems better suited for such programming.
Eisler was the son of a Jewish philosophy professor and his German
working-class wife. Belief in socialism was shared by every member of
the household, including Hanns's brother Gerhard who would become a
powerful symbol in his own right of the clash between bourgeois society
and the freedom to advocate unpopular ideas.
Eisler fought in the infantry during WWI and was seriously wounded. When
he recovered, he started studies with Arnold Schoenberg, the father of
12-tone composition. While it is commonly understood that Alban Berg and
Anton Webern were Schoenberg's most gifted followers, some musicologists
include Eisler in this group. The reason that he is not is related to
his break with what he considered "bourgeois" music. He turned his back
on the world of the recital stage and began writing left-wing songs for
the revolutionary movement. He said that the composer must not be a
"parasite" but a "fighter".
Eisler's earliest collaborations were done with left-wing singer Ernst
Busch. The songs were written for Communist Party rallies in the late
1920s in Germany. Eisler played the piano and Busch sang about the need
for solidarity and resisting fascism. Goebbels commented that Eisler's
music was one of the best propaganda weapons of the CP and urged the
Nazis to find a way to counter him. Interestingly enough, the answer
came in the form of Nazi marching band music that was copied from
American Ivy League football rallies, which Hitler heard on records
brought back to Germany from one of his henchmen who had been at Harvard.
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