Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 64:16 July 31, 1998 p14
The Hanns Eisler Centenary in New York
A Composer's Independence of Mind
930 words
by Leonard Lehrman
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU

On July 6, 1998 much of the world commemorated the 100th birthday of one of the great German-speaking composers of this century: Hanns Eisler (July 6, 1898-September 6, 1962)). His output, ranging from the most esoteric to the most (deceptively) simple, had been heard to effect in every country where music was needed as a commentary on or response to social conditions, from Republican Spain via the Soviet Union to the Long March in China, from the Weimar Republic in Germany to The New School in New York, to Hollywood, and finally the German Democratic Republic, whose national anthem he composed to a text by Johannes Becher.

Another work by Eisler and his most gifted collaborator, Bertolt Brecht, "Anmut sparet nicht noch Muehe," became a candidate for the national anthem of the re-united Germany in 1990. The song praises the German homeland as a country like other countries, neither over nor under them. But it was swept aside by the West German hymn, to the tune of "Deutschland ueber alles."

Here in New York, a handful of aficionados gathered July 6 at the Goethe Institute to view the international award-winning Rhombus Media- ARTE/ZDF film of 1996, Solidarity Song: The Hanns Eisler Story, directed by Larry Weinstein of Toronto, who hopes to be on hand for the film's first public showing here in September, courtesy of the Canadian Embassy, the Austrian Cultural Institute (although Eisler was born in Leipzig, of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, he grew up in Vienna and remained an Austrian citizen), Goethe House, the Brecht Forum, Erasmia Voukelatos and the West-Park Chamber Society, which plans an Eisler Centennial Concert September 26 at West-Park Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.

The film is a must-see for anyone interested in the life of this dynamic and in many ways tragic figure of socially-conscious music. Rare footage is shown of Eisler testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee after he refused to denounce his brother Gerhart, a German Communist Party functionary who had escaped from the Nazis using a false passport to enter the U.S. At the advent of the Cold War, Gerhart was arrested and scape-goated for refusing to name names of his supposed co-conspirators in alleged espionage.

Denounced by Eric Bentley (who pioneered in popularizing his own translations of Brecht-Eisler songs in the 1960s) in the latest issue of the Kurt Weill Newsletter as "an outright Communist film," Solidarity Song is actually much more than that. While vividly recounting Hanns Eisler's dedication to the ideals of socialism, and beginning and ending slightly ironically with the Brecht-Eisler song "In Praise of Communism" from Die Mutter, the film also makes clear the composer's independence of mind: Having made application to join the German Communist Party in 1926, he never paid his dues, and never submitted to Party discipline. And later, in East Germany, when his original opera libretto Johannes Faustus was relentlessly criticized forbeing too "modern" and "formalist" for the prescribed proletarian style of "socialist realism," he became so depressed as to abandon composing any music for the piece.

Well, almost any. There were a few sketches (many of them developed by the Theatermanufaktur in West Berlin which produced the piece as a musical play in 1979), some of which are reproduced in David Blake's Hanns Eisler: A Miscellany, published in 1995 by Harwood Academic Publishers in the United Kingdom as Volume 9 of a series entitled Contemporary Music Studies.

Blake was Eisler's only British student, and is the composer of works that deserve to be better known everywhere, especially his 1977 opera Toussaint, about the war of Haitian independence from the French. He has put together a loving 494-page tribute to his teacher, which includes original essays by John Willett (on The Measures Taken), Tim Howell (on Eisler's serialism), Erik Levi (on the Deutsche Sinfonie),and Gerd Rienaecker (on a single song from the Brecht-Eisler masterpiece The Roundheads and the Pointedheads), plus the first English translations of essays by Eberhardt Klemm, Guenter Mayer, Werner Mittenzwei, Harry Goldschmidt, Eisler himself (including his beautiful portrait of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg), his son Georg, and musicologist Georg Knepler.

In the most dramatic moment of the film, Knepler tries at first to defend the official restrictive criticisms of Johannes Faustus, in which he took part, and then falls apart on camera, nearly crying: "It's too difficult..."

[I remember meeting Knepler and his English-born wife in Moscow in 1971. Trying to explain all the difficulties the social order was obviously experiencing even then in the Soviet Union, she philosophized: "Well, you see, socialism wasn't supposed to come first in a backward country like Russia. It was supposed to come first to a nice industrialized nation like England, or Germany...." Perhaps only with a sense of irony, and humor, can the great sorrows and tragedies of history be viewed productively, or with any perspective.

Blake's own perspective is best summarized in the last two sentences of his "Recollections":"Observing the manic determination with which attempts are made to eradicate almost entirely everything the GDR stood for, not just ideologically and politically, but academically and artistically, seems to me not only madness, but extremely dangerous, breeding as it does resentment, hatred and bigotry which will reap its own rewards. One must hope that as the initial fervour and malice abates, that a sense of balance will return and a reasoned assessment can take place of what deserves to be salvaged from the GDR's forty years of existence."]

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