Eisler, Hanns

Period: Early 20th Century

Born: Wednesday, July 6, 1898 in Leipzig, Germany

Died: Thursday, September 6, 1962 in Berlin, Germany

Nation of Origin: Germany

Major Works:
Die Massnahme (Op. 20)
Die Mutter (Op. 25)
Kantate auf den Tod eines grossen Mannes (Op. 59) - to words by Brecht
In unserem Lande (Op. 59) - to words by Silone

Other Information:
Quick Facts

Andy Lang, one of our learned readers and one of the authors of the Hanns Eisler Home Page offers these thoughts about Hanns Eisler. The reader is encouraged to view the Hanns Eisler Home Page (see the link below) for further information about Eisler.

(1) Eisler rejected the 12-tone method after an argument with Schoenberg in Berlin in the last few years of the Weimar Republic, but returned to the method in exile. So there are a number of fine 12-tone works from the period 1934-1944. However, he always strove for a "communicative" style that perhaps makes him unique among the second generation of Schoenberg's disciples. Also, in accord with his principle of "applied music," some of the best of these compositions were originally written as experimental film scores. The two most outstanding are the chamber works "Fourteen Ways of Describing the Rain" (for quintet, 1940, premiered in Schoenberg's home in Hollywood during the celebration of Schoenberg's 70th birthday) and the Chamber Symphony (also 1940). Both were written as descriptive scores for documentary films. Also, there a number of chamber cantatas from this period in the 12-tone style, plus the partly-dodecaphonic "Hollywood Songbook"--a cycle of concert lieder written to texts by Brecht, Hoelderlin and Goethe. The oratorio "Lenin Requiem" belongs to this period as does the only large-scale symphony Eisler wrote: the 11-movement Deutsche Sinfonie (texts by Brecht and Silone).

Eisler, after he returned to Europe and settled in East Berlin, continued to fight for recognition of the 12-tone method in opposition to the Stalinist doctrine of "socialist realism" which consigned modern music to the rubric of "formalism" (and therefore decadent, bourgeois, etc.). In particular, he defended his teacher, Schoenberg, with whom he had been reconciled during their exile together in southern California. But Eisler--though this last, East German period was one of his most productive--never again wrote 12-tone music.

His objection was not so much against dodecaphony per se--although he had temporarily abandoned the method in the late 20s and early 30s when he was writing militant street music for workers' choirs and small bands--but against the idea of music abstracted from reality. So, when he returned to the 12-tone style, these compositions often had either a concrete political function (the Lenin Requiem, Deutsche Sinfonie, chamber cantatas, Hollywood Songbook, for example) or a specific application to film ("Rain," Chamber Symphony, etc.). There are a few exceptions: "Prelude and Fuge on B-A-C-H" was a teaching composition designed to show students how to work with tone rows, and a small number of chamber compositions are probably as close as he ever came to "art for art's sake." They're quite interesting and enjoyable, but don't represent the center of gravity of his work.

General Bibliography:
Slonimsky, Nicolas, Music Since 1900, Schirmer Books, July 1994, ISBN: 0028724186

Salzman, Eric, Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction, Pearson, October 2001, ISBN: 0130959413

Slonimsky, Nicolas and Kuhn, Laura; Editors, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Gale Group, December 2000, ISBN: 0028655257

Sadie, Stanley and Tyrrell, John; Editors, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Groves Dictionaries, Inc., January 2004, ISBN: 0195170679

Rutherford-Johnson, Tim, Kennedy, Michael, and Kennedy, Joyce The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford University Press, 6th Edition, 2012, ISBN: 0199578109

Links to essays at other sites:

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Biographical essay from Wikipedia
Hanns Eisler Home Page