Hanns Eisler

Hanns Eisler: A revolutionary in his time

About the communist composer and a life full of contradictions.

One needn't be a communist oneself, nor indeed does one need to have nostalgic feelings for East Germany, to be touched by Hanns Eisler's late song with the uninviting title »XX.­Parteitag« (20th Party Conference). Among all the famous 20th century German composers, Eisler was perhaps the most versatile, or should we say the most contradictory of Arnold Schönberg's outstanding pupils, who later enjoyed great recognition as the composer of the East German national anthem. He was an angry author of rabble-rousing workers' marches and a versatile film composer who wrote subtle scores to accompany experimental silent movies, as well as soundtracks to fit kitschy Hollywood productions.

Notwithstanding this versatility and his famous name, Hanns Eisler (1898–1962) is probably one of the most ignored composers nowadays. His work scarcely appears on concert programmes, and even an otherwise excellent music reference work like the widely distributed Rowohlt-Konzertführer only mentions him in a couple of oddly embarrassed sentences.

But many of these contradictions become easier to comprehend if we take a closer look at Eisler's life and thought. And they dissolve in astonishment if we listen to the best of Eisler's music: first and foremost, his songs. They are innumerable, and many of them are delightful, fluctuating in the wide landscape of song between the extremes of Franz Schubert and sarcastic cabaret.

26.–28. November 2021

The wealth of inner contradictions :Hanns Eisler was his own better half

Perhaps this Hanns Eisler was simply one of the mythical »spherical creatures« that Plato describes in his »Symposium«: the complete beings of ancient times whom the gods, feeling threatened by them, cut into two halves; since then, the half-being Man has longed to find his other half in order to become whole once more. The fact that Eisler was never cut in two would explain not only his inner contradictions, but also the conspicuous absence of the erotic element in his songs (or indeed in the sexually indifferent main character of his failed Faust opera, very much the opposite of Goethe's debauchee). Wolf Biermann in turn was not only thinking of outward appearances when he called his 1965 poem about Hanns Eisler »Die Anatomie der Kugel« (The Anatomy of the Sphere): »Where others suffered a broken back / There swells all cheerful his mighty paunch«.


»One had the overall impression that his suit was at once too tight and too big for him.«

Jascha Horenstein, conductor


But the best description of Eisler's appearance was probably the one written by the Ukrainian-Jewish conductor Jascha Horenstein, a lifelong friend of Eisler's: »One had the overall impression that his suit was at once too tight and too big for him. And as if that weren't enough, at the age of 13 he was already balding like a 40-year-old. If you imagine that there was a big head sitting on top of the rather stocky body, with a cheerful, moon-shaped face that always bore a smirk, and that this head revealed a bald patch at every abrupt movement, then it's not hard to understand why I cannot forget my first impression of Hanns more than 50 years later.«

Eisler's cheerfulness and his cheeky smirk helped him to withstand even oppressive circumstances. During his exile for example, which he chose to spend in the alien surroundings of the USA rather than in the Soviet Union, though the USSR was much closer to him ideologically speaking. In this respect he was very similar to his close companion Bert Brecht, albeit far more flexible. The latter quality, however, shouldn't be confused with spinelessness. Eisler simply spoke his pretty clumsy English with fewer inhibitions and greater joviality and wit than his fellow writer, who suffered from the language barrier. But this didn't stop Eisler from setting to music Brecht's self-tormenting Hollywood elegies, such as the famous poem:

Jeden Morgen mein Brot zu verdienen
gehe ich auf den Markt,
wo Lügen gekauft werden.
Reihe ich mich ein unter die Verkäufer.

(Every morning to earn my bread
I walk to the market,
where people buy lies.
Full of hope
I take my place amongst the vendors.)

Matthias Goerne sings »Jeden Morgen, mein Brot zu verdienen«

»Elbphilharmonie Explains«

Eisler expert Albrecht Dümling on the extraordinary composer, his contradictions and on music for a better world.

move from New York into the orbit of the dream factory in 1942: he took a room in a cheap L.A. hotel and hoped fortune would smile on him, suffering from boredom and from the heat. It has a bizarre appeal to imagine Eisler not only setting 28 poems by his beloved Brecht to music under these circumstances, but also verses by the ancient Greek lyric poet Anacreon, who generally appears in the idylls of the Rococo period.

And Brecht himself was disconcerted at first that Eisler not only based music on genuine BB texts like the cryptic allegory about watering the lawn (»Vom Sprengen des Gartens«), but also had regular recourse to odes from the pen of Friedrich Hölderlin, the high priest of German pathos. Eisler even turned Hölderlin's »Gesang des ­Deutschen« into a song, albeit filtered, rethought and shortened without inhibition, and published under the title »Erinnerung« (Memory).

There is a total of six Hölderlin songs in Eisler's »Hollywood Songbook«, whose more than 50 pieces do not form a self-contained cycle, but rather a sort of musical diary from whose treasures a singer can choose freely.


»The ›Hollywood Songbook‹ is a mixture of Schubert's ›Winterreise‹ and insipid blues heard at a hotel bar.«

Friedrike Wißmann, Musicologist


There is hardly a singer who will leave out a shattering song like »Über den Selbstmord« (About suicide), which musicologist Friedrike Wißmann describes in her very worthwhile Eisler book as »a mixture of Schubert's ›Winterreise‹ and insipid blues heard at a hotel bar.« Another musicologist, Fritz Hennenberg, who knew both Brecht and Eisler personally, brought out as the most notable feature of the Hollywood songs their often irritating amd abrupt endings: disjointed, unresolved and uncertain . Or, as Wißmann puts it: »Eisler's songs draw us in, but at the end, if not before, they spit us out again together with any sentimentality we may have developed.«

Eisler wrote from Hollywood to his second wife Lou, who had stayed behind in New York, the following lines about his new home: »There are two types of people here. One group is corrupt, while the rest of them are depressed because nobody wants to corrupt them.« He nonetheless found his way on the West Coast. In New York he had written some exceptionally subtle chamber music to accompany Joris Ivens's beguiling experimental silent film »Regen« (Rain) of 1929, and this was to remain one of his finest instrumental scores. It is far too seldom performed in the concert hall. »Fourteen ways to describe rain« is art for art's sake in its purest form, something that Eisler had angrily rejected in the past. But in a country where the ubiquitous campaign music was not trying to encourage a workers' revolution, but to »get people to buy Coca-Cola«, Eisler suddenly saw such music without any point as an act of non-conformity, if not of downright resistance.

Hanns Eisler/Joris Ivens: »Regen« (1929/1941)

But Eisler also showed himself from a conformist side in Hollywood and wrote soundtracks to films ranging from Jean Renoir's »The Woman on the Beach« to the pirate story »The Spanish Main«. And the tormented Brecht may have been just as disconcerted by the ease with which Eisler dashed off such pieces as by his contemporary's weakness for Hölderlin. Here, however, we must not omit to mention that Brecht and Eisler also worked together in Hollywood on one occasion, namely on Fritz Lang's anti-Nazi film »Hangmen Also Die«.

Early contradictions in Vienna

But then Hanns Eisler had a talent for alienating people. His teacher Arnold Schönberg, whose counterpoint class Eisler joined in Vienna in 1919, was annoyed few years later by his gifted pupil's political affectations, and thought about giving Eisler »a good spanking« to cure him of his socialist leanings.

Unlike Schönberg and his other top twelve-tone students Alban Berg und Anton Webern, however, Eisler didn't want to accept the strict separation of sublime art and despicable everyday life. ­Revolution in art and in politics! – this was his motto. In a 1928 article for the Communist Party newspaper »Rote Fahne« he reproached modern music, which was his own background, as »petit-bourgeois pulp« and »fashionable nihilism«. And he attacked festivals of contemporary music (some sceptics may see parallels to the present day here) in the following caustic description: »Before a random audience entirely indifferent and uninterested, orgies of inbreeding full of idle activity are celebrated.«

Arnold Schönberg / Bild von Richard Gerstl
Arnold Schönberg / Bild von Richard Gerstl © Wikimedia Commons

There it is once again, the spherical creature that unites blatant contradictions under his round paunch and refuses to let himself be intimidated by Schönberg's threat of a good hiding. Contradictions were already in evidence at the outset of Eisler's life: he was born in 1989 to Jewish parents – a Viennese philosopher and the daughter of a Leipzig butcher. He saw his mother as the great talent in the family – a talent that remained tragically unlived. Then he was christened Johannes – a name like a long brushstroke that he rounded off into Hanns at an early age. The shortened name also sounded much more apt in the context of the proletarian struggle which Eisler effectively embraced, even though he was a hopelessly over-qualified twelve-tone composer.

Just a few years after his first piano sonata – still a gripping score today – met with an enthusiastic reception from Schönberg, the rebellious pupil was writing hearty workers' choruses and communist battle songs such as »Roter Wedding« (Wedding is a district in Berlin) or the famous »Solidaritätslied«. The communist singer Ernst Busch was Eisler's most important partner after Brecht. Listening to this blaring music today, one is surprised not only how rousing it is (in keeping with the genre, of course), but also by the original syncopation and bristly changes of time.

Ernst Busch sings the »Solidaritätslied«

Late resignation in East Berlin

In 1948, at the onset of the McCarthy era with its hysterical anti-Communism, Hanns Eisler and his wife Lou were deported from the United States, and returned to Vienna. But Eisler didn't manage to gain a foothold there, and his marriage was also going through a crisis, so he moved to East Berlin, which was declared the capital of East Germany not long after. He later found happiness in his private life there with his third wife, Stephanie. But his public image was tarnished, even though he was awarded important prizes and wrote the music to Johannes R. Becher's poem »Auferstanden aus Ruinen« (Risen from Ruins), which was declared the East German national anthem in 1950. The fact was, there was no place in the new workers' state for many of Eisler's works, featuring what was stigmatised as late bourgeois, »elistist« avant-gardism à la Schönberg. While in West Germany, there would have been a place for his music, but his reputation was ruined as an alleged figure of significance in the Communist Party.

By the same token, Eisler's ambitious project to write a large-scale opera based on the Faust story was torn apart by the socialists as being much too pessimistic: the score was never written. In 1959, though, a different major work of his had its first performance: the »Deutsche Sinfonie«, a monumental cantata, whose colossal dimensions make it unique in Eisler's work. It was largely composed back in 1935 and was originally to bear the title Konzentrationslager-Sinfonie« (Concentration Camp Symphony). The composition date explains in part why the focus is on the imprisoned and murdered resistance fighters, whereas the persecution of the Jews doesn't appear at all in Brecht's texts. (In a highly upsetting film classic of 1956, for which Eisler likewise wrote the music, the Holocaust plays a central role, but without expressly mentioning the Jews as the main victims (with one exception): the epoch-making concentration-camp documentary »Nuit et brouillard« (Night and Fog) by French director Alain Resnais.)

Easy as it is to explain the »Deutsche Sinfonie« in the context of its time, by 1959 it must have seemed somewhat unsatisfactory and difficult. And that is all the truer today, especially when one compares it with certain other works also composed around 1960, e.g. the late Shostakovich symphonies, where the Holocaust plays an important role.

Hanns Eisler: »Deutsche Sinfonie« :Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France / Myung-Whun Chung


Despite the large-scale premiere and the official honours bestowed upon him, Eisler's last years in East Germany seem to have been marked by loneliness and growing helplessness. Today's reader will be taken aback to say the least by his silence or even approval of the political crimes of 17 June 1953 (the Soviet suppression of the workers' uprising) and of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. But Eisler's final compositions may affect us all the more, displaying as they do their own special type of deep sorrow: full of resignation, yet still cheerful, even optimistic: one final contradiction that couldn't be survived.

The »Ernste ­Gesänge« (Serious Songs) that Eisler completed in 1962, the year of his death, are perhaps the most moving thing he wrote. These sad pieces should not be suffocated by sad singing, the composer requested; rather, they should be sung as if reading out loud from a Baedeker guide. Four of these eight short songs in turn are based on texts by Hölderlin. (There is a noteworthy link here to contemporary music in the West, whose young representatives circa 1960, Boulez and Stockhausen for example, treated Eisler with as much ignorance as he did them. And for Luigi Nono and Bruno Maderna, and later Holliger, Kurtág and Zender, Hölderlin of all writers became extremely important.)

Eisler: »Ernste Gesänge« :Matthias Goerne / hr-Sinfonieorchester / Andrés Orozco-Estrada

In the oppressive song »XX. ­Parteitag« (20th Party Conference), which refers to Khrushchev's secret address on de-Stalinization in 1956, the text talks of »happiness hardly dreamt of: a life free of fear«. This handful of words seems to sum up an entire terrible century, and at the same time a disrupted, perhaps even failed life within that century, namely the life of Hanns Eisler. In the »Epilog der Ernsten Gesänge« Stephan Hermlin wrote »He praises what will flourish even without him, certain of future happiness«, and this embodies both the palpable proximity of death and the defiant hope in the music. The word »gewiss« (certain) is repeated three times in the song, reminding us of the final »ewig« (eternal) in Gustav Mahlers »Lied von der Erde«. But we can hardly help hearing a question mark behind the very last »certain«. Desperately sad, perhaps, but in no way sentimental.

Text: Albrecht Selge
English translation: Clive Williams

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