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Hanns Eisler (1898-1962)


Prolific Marxist composer, whose pre-World War II songs for the masses blended criticism of capitalism with advanced musical techniques. A number of Eisler's songs were based on Bertolt Brecht's texts.

"When you are composing and you open the window, remember that the noise of the street is not mere noise, nut is made by man. For a time really try to do without inflated symphonic music, playful chamber music and esoteric poetry. Choose texts and subjects that concern as many people as possible." ('On the Situation in Modern Music', in Hanns Eisler. A Rebel in Music, ed. by Manfred Grabs, 1978)

Hanns Eisler was born in Leipzig, the son of Rudolf Eisler (1873-1926), a Neo-Kantian historian of philosophy, and Ida Marie (Fischer) Eisler (1875-1929), a butcher's daughter. Rudolf Eisler was from a Jewish family. In 1907 he founded with Max Adler the Vienna Sociological Society. His Kantlexikon (1930) is ranked among the best works of its kind. Hanns was the youngest of three children. His brother and sister became professional revolutionaries in Berlin.

The family moved in 1901 to Vienna, where Eisler grew up. During his school years Eisler attended with his brother Gerhart a socialist debate club. In 1916 Eisler joined the the Austro-Hungarian Army, and was wounded several times in combat. At that time he had already decided to become a composer and write songs in spite of the war and without the help of the piano, which he had learned to play at home. As a composer Eisler was largely an auto-didact.

After the war, Eisler started to study at the Neue Wiener Konservatorium under Karl Weigl. Disappointed in Weig's conservative teaching methods he sought eventually another teacher, Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951). In 1920 he married Charlotte Demant. Eisler's First Piano Sonata  premiered in 1923.

Eisler was the third and youngest of Schönberg's outstanding Viennese disciples  the two others were Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Schönberg taught Eisler without charge. He recongized Eisler's talents, but did not understand his political stand. "I did the expected: I broke ranks with him," Eisler recalled later. "I did this crudely, ungratefully, rebelliously, petulantly, despising his philistine attitudes, withdrawing from him contemptuously." Although Eisner left Schönberg's studio after four years and abandoned his teacher's dodecaphonic theory of composing, he remained faitful to Schönberg's expressionist techniques, which he combined with his own new form of socialist music.

Eisler moved to Berlin, where he wrote militant songs, marches and political ballads for communist choirs, such as Das Rote Sprachrohr (The Red Mouthpiece), and agitprop shows. One of the most well-known songs is the Kominternlied. Several of the pieces were recorded by Ernst Busch, the "Caruso of the barricades". Eisler's first composition for workers' choirs was made to words by Heinrich Heine. With Zeitungsausschnitte from 1926 he broke with "bourgeois concert lyricism". In 1927 KPD's (Communist Party of Germany) newspaper Die Rote Fahne started to publish Eisler's writings on music.

Eisner's works had radically original sounds and rhythms. His 'Kampflieder' (fighting songs) were straigtforward weapons of the class struggle but unconventional, performed often by half-professional workers' groups but based on sophisticated musical philosophy. Like his fellow agitators, Eisler believed that revolution would soon trumph. After trips to Vienna and Paris in 1926, Eisler wrote the Tagebuch des Hanns Eisler, a cantata for female trio, tenor, violin and piano, in which he stated self-critically: "Don't be so content with your sorrow; don't talk so much of your suffering in such damned interesting times!"

In Germany Eisler worked with such filmmakers and writers as Walter Ruttman, Bertolt Brecht, and Slatan Dudow. Eisler's first composition of a text by Brecht, 'Ballade vom Soldaten', was heard in Lion Feuchtwanger's play Kalkutta, 4. Mai. In tune with Brecht's theory of alienation-effects, he developed compositional methods designed to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play. 

In 1931 Eisler wrote the music for Dudow's famous propaganda film Kühle Wampe (1932), which was banned not once but twice soon after its release. The film included Eisler's march-like, rhythmically energetic 'Solidaritätslied' (Solidarity Song), which gained huge popularity and was sung in a place as far away as China by Mao Tse-Tung's Eighth Route Army. 'Einheitsfrontlied' (Song of the United Front) was rhythmically less intense or cabaret-like, but its text by Brecht had similar unimaginative didactic message: "The left, two, three! / Left, two three! / To your place, dear Comrade! / Join the united workers's front  / because you, too, are a worker." The song was composed at the suggestion of the International Revolutionary Theatre Association in Moscow.

With Brecht Eisler began a fruitful collaboration in the late 1920s; artistically and politically he remained close to Brecht. Eisler also played chess with him. Eisner's music was heard in Die Massnahme (1930, The Measures Taken), an overtly Communist play, and Die Mutter (1932, The Mother), based on Maxim Gorky's novel. With Joris Ivens, a Dutch pioneer of ciné-journalism, Eisler cooperated in several documentary films. Komsomol (1932), directed by Ivens, was made in Moscow and Siberia and contrasted folk songs with modern music.

After the Nazis seized power in 1933, composers like Schönberg, Kurt Weill, and Eisler were declared 'degenerate'. Eisler continued his career in Holland, Russia, France, and England. For a short time he headed the International Music Bureau in Moscow. In 1935 Eisler started to work on the German Symphony (Deutsche Sinfonie); its first public performance was in 1959. In 1937 Eisler married Louise Jolesch (née von Gosztonyi); they divorced in 1950.

Eisler visited the U.S. first time in 1935. He spoke in mass meetings and visited among other places Chicago's stockyards, Buffalo Bill's town, Denver, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studios. Later in Moscow Eisler recalled his impressions of Hollywood in an article written for Deutsche Zentralzeitung: "It is no exaggeration to say that film artists, not only film personel, but actors, scenarists and directors are turning to the left, despite the fact that some are highly paid... They are turning to the left because they are disgusted with their work, because they know it's the end of any art if its only aim is to make profits for the film industry." Eisler also mentioned Charles Chaplin, who planned a film on The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek, starring Peter Lorre. The idea was never realized.

In 1937 Eisler traveled to the Spanish front, where he composed songs for International Brigades  volunteers from Europe and the United States fighting against the Nationalists  and arranged concerts. At the outbreak of WWII, Eisler moved to the United States, where he was appointed professor at New York's New School for Social Research. For a short time, before he was admitted to the U.S. as an immigrant, he was a visiting professor at the State Conservatory in Mexico City. Eisler's breakthrough into the film industry was an advertising film, Pete Roleum and His Cousins (1939), directed by Joseph Losey.

In 1942-43 he worked on Hollywood Songbook with texts by Brecht, Anacreon, Hölderlin, Goethe, Rimbaud, and others. Eisler also composed for Broadway plays and after moving to California for Hollywood films, such as Hangmen also Die (1943), directed by Fritz Lang, and None but the Lonely Heart (1944), directed by Clifford Odets and starring Gary Grant. For both films Eisler received an Academy Award Nomination. Hangmen also Die was a wartime propaganda film about the assassination of "Hangman" Heydrich, the Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia. Lang and Brecht, who had settled in Santa Monica in 1941, wrote the script. In Brecht's play Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkrieg (1941-1943), for which Eisler composed the music, the characters of Hitler, Göring, and Himmler and others were made to sing. The play was not produced until in 1957; it perhaps inspired Mel Brooks' first feature The Producers (1968).

Because of its substantial German intellectual refugee population, Santa Monica was sometimes called "Weimar on the Pacific". On Sunday afternoons  many of the distinguished members of the refugee community met at the Santa Monica home of Salka Viertel.  Charles Laughton befriended there Brecht and Eisler, and hired him as his German accent coach for the film Arch of Triumph (1948), based on Erich Maria Remarque's novel. Viertel introduced Charles Chaplin to Eisler; he acted as musical advicer in Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947). In a letter to the playwright Clifford Odets, one of the guests at the Viertels, he said of Chaplin: "He has very rudimentary notions about music and composes vocal numbers and songs himself which do not please me at all. I don't see how I could work with him. But he is a marvellous chap and it is always a pleasure to spend an evening with him." (Composing for the Film, 1994; new introduction by Graham McCann, p. xvii)

With the social philosopher Theodor Adorno, who had studied music with Alban Berg in Vienna, Eisler wrote Composing for the Films (1947). Adorno had a deep theoretical  understanding of the art of composing for the screen, but no practical experience. The book was largely based on Eisler's project financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which he had started in 1940. It was first published under Eisler's name, since Adorno tried to avoid the attention Eisler enjoyed due to HUAC hearings.

Thanks to his sister's political denunciation of her brothers, Eisler was among the first Hollywood personalities to be called to testify in the 1947 hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Richard Nixon declared that the case of Hanns Eisler is "perhaps the most important ever to have come before the Committee." Eisler argued that although he had applied for membership to the KPD in Berlin, he never became a true member. His brother Gerhart and sister Elfriede  she used the maiden name of her mother, (Ruth) Fischer  were already active in the party in the 1920s; Elfriede was a founder of the KPÖ, the Communist Party of Austria. The chief interrogator labelled Eisner as the "Karl Marx of communism in the musical field". Eisler was declared an unfriendly witness.

In spite of the pleas by Eisler's famous friends, among others Charles Chaplin, Thomas Mann, and Leonard Bernstein, the government did not drop the case, and Eisler returned to Europe. "As an old anti-fascist it became plain to me that these men represented fascism in its most direct form," Eisler said of the prosecutors. Brecht, who also appeared before the committee, in pretended innocence admitted that he had played chess and discussed politics with Gerhart Eisler.

Eisler first settled in Vienna, and then, from 1950, in East Berlin. He scored films and composed music for workers' choruses, concert pieces, and also the national anthem of DDR, 'Auferstanden aus Ruinen'. For Brecht's Turandot oder Der Kongress der Weisswäscher, produced in Zurich in 1970, Eisler provided the music. In 1950 Eisler was appointed professor at the German Academy of Music in Berlin. He also took over a Master Class for Composition at the Academy of Arts. Next year he started to work on Johann Faustus. The Faust legend also inspired Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus (1947), in which the talented Adrian Leverkühn makes a pact with the devil to become a great composer. Possibly the novel partly influenced Eisler's choice of subject. Eisler's libretto was published in 1952. After attacks on his Faustus Eisler said that he had no longer any desire to go on writing music. He left Berlin and stayed for a time in Vienna before returning to DDR.

Eisler married in 1958 Stephanie Zucker-Schilling (née Peschl). Officially Eisler was a celebrated cultural figure, but his musical avant-gardism was rejected by Communist authoritries. In 1948 in the Soviet Union, the Central Committee of the Communist Party condemend "formalism" in music. However, Eisler was twice awarded the National Prize of German Democratic Republic, first in 1950 and again in 1958. Before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, Eisler occasionally escaped the oppressive atmosphere of his new home country to visit the bars of West Berlin. In 1959-61 he completed his cycle of songs to the texts of 36 poems by the German essayist, critic, and poet Kurt Tucholsky, who committed suicide in 1935. Eisler died in East Berlin on September 6, 1962. In the West his music was found again by the New Left in the 1960s. Gisela May, actress at the Bertolt Brecht's Berliner Ensemble, popularized Eisler's songs on concert tours.

For further reading: Hanns Eisler, "Johann Faustus": Das Werk Und Seine Aufführungsgeschichte by Irmgard Schartner (2003); Musik und Literatur im Exil: Hanns Eislers dodekaphone Exilkantaten by Kyung-Boon Lee (2001); Hanns Eisler: Eine Biographie in Texten, Bildern und Dokumenten by Jürgen Schebera (1998); The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz (1994); Hanns Eislers "Deutsche Sinfonie": Ein Beitrag zur Ästhetik des Widerstands by Thomas Phleps (1988); Hanns Eisler by David Blake, et al. (1985); Hanns Eisler: Political Musician by A Betz (1982); Hanns Eislers "Johann Faustus" und das Problem des Erbes by Karl-Otto Maue (1981); Hans Eisler by Eberhardt Klemm (1973); Fragen sie mehr über Brecht. Hanns Eisler im Gespräch by Hans Bunge (1970)


  • Composing for the Films, 1947 (with Theodor Adorno) - Komposition für den Film (rev. ed., 1949)
  • Johann Faustus, 1952 (libretto)
  • Hanns Eisler: eine Auswahl von Reden und Aufsätze, 1961 (edited by Winfried Höntsch)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1968-1988 (7 vols., edited by  Stephanie Eisler und Manfred Grabs)
  • A Rebel in Music, 1978 (edited by Manfred Grabs)
  • Hanns Eisler: Kompositionen - Schriften - Literatur, 1984 (edited by Manfred Grabs)
  • Gesammelte Schriften: 1921-1935, 2007 (edited by Tobias Fasshauer and Günter Mayer)
  • Briefe, 1907-1943, 2010 (edited by Jürgen Schebera und Maren Köster)

Film music:

  • Opus III, 1924 (short film, dir. by Walter Ruttmann)
  • Niemandsland, 1930 - No Man's Land (with Kurt Schröder, dir. by Victor Trivas)
  • Kühle Wampe, 1932 (dir. by Slatan Dudow, script by Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Ottwalt)
  • Pens o gerojach, 1932 - Komsomol, or Song of Heroes (dir. by Joris Ivens)
  • Nieuwe Gronden, 1934 - New Earth (dir. by Joris Ivens)
  • Le Grand Jeu, 1934 - Card of Fate ( Jacques Feyder, starring Françoise Rosay, Pierre-Richard Willm)
  • Abdul the Damned, 1935 (dir. by Karl Grune, starring Fritz Kortner, Adrienne Ames, Nils Asther)
  • The 400,000,000, 1939 (dir. by Joris Ivens)
  • The Forgotten Village, 1941 (dir. by Herbert Kline, screenplay by John Steinbeck, narrator Burgess Meredith)
  • Hangman Also Die, 1943 (dir. by Fritz Lang, starring Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Anna Lee)
  • None but the Lonely Heart, 1944 (dir. by Clifford Odets, starring Gary Grant, Ethel Barrymore, Barry Fitzgerald)
  • Jealousy, 1945 (dir. by Gustav Machaty, starring John Loder, Nils Asther, Jane Randolph)
  • The Spanish Main, 1945 (dir. by Frank Borzage, starring Paul Henreid, Maureen O'Hara, Walter Slezak)
  • A Scandal in Paris / Thieves' Holiday, 1946 (dir. by Douglas Sirk, starring George Sanders, Signe Hasso, Carole Landis, Akim Tamiroff)
  • Deadline at Dawn, 1946 (dir. by Harold Clurman, starring Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas, Bill Williams)
  • The Woman on the Beach, 1947 (dir. by Jean Renoir, starring Robert Ryan, Joan Bennett, Charles Bickford)
  • So Well Remembered, 1947 (dir. by Edward Dmytryk, starring John Mills, Martha Scott, Trevor Howard, based on James Hilton's novel)
  • Unser täglich Brot, 1949 - Our Daily Bread (dir. by Slatan Dudow)
  • Herr Puntila und Sein Knecht Matti, 1955 - Mr. Puntila and His Servant Matti - Iso-Heikkilän isäntä ja hänen renkinsä Kalle (dir. by Alberto Cavalcanti, starring Curt Bois, Heinz Engelmann, Maria Emo, Erika Pelikowsky, original play by Bertolt Brecht and Hella Wuolijoki)
  • Bel Ami, 1955 (dir. by Louis Daquin, based on a story by Guy de Maupassant)
  • Nuit et Brouillard, 1955 - Night and Fog (dir. by Alain Resnais)
  • Fidelio, 1956 (sc., musical adapt. only, dir. by Walter Felsenstein)
  • Les Sorcières de Salem, 1956 - The Witches of Salem / The Crucible (dir. by Raymond Rouleau, starring Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Mylene Demongeot, original play Arthur Miller, adaptation by Jean-Paul Sartre)
  • Les Arrivistes, 1960 (dir. by Louis Daquin)

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