Hanns Eisler: Life and Art in Exile, Part I

Based on Hanns Eisler's song cycle, Hell's Fury, The Hollywood Songbook, a new work of musical theatre presented in 2019 by Luminato, explores the exciting and controversial life of Austrian composer Hanns Eisler. In the next weeks, we will examine the historical context surrounding Hanns Eisler's life in exile.

Jan 21, 2019 | BY: Jorge Ayala-Isaza

“Brecht and I created far more during our exile than at any time before in our lives. That doesn’t mean we encourage emigration as a source of creation, but this fact should be mentioned”

Johannes “Hans’ Eisler was born open July 6, 1898 in Leipzig, Germany to Rudolf Eisler, a petit bourgeois Jewish-Austrian and Marie Ida Fischer, a German Lutheran. He was raised alongside his sister Elfriede and brother Gerhart in their father’s native Vienna. Fin-de-siecle Vienna was a hotbed of intense creativity and intellectual creation and attracted artists, musicians, scientists and politicians of a wide-range with names such as Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Adolf Loos, among others. During his youth, the family experienced serious economic hardship: Rudolf Eisler was continuously denied a permanent post at Vienna’s University due to his atheist beliefs. Hans showed musical talent from a very young age, learning how ho play the piano from his father, and completing his first composition at the age of ten.

In 1913, the Eisler siblings had joined socialist-leaning debating society called “Sprechsaal’ (‘Open Floor’), and in 1914 Elfriede had joined the Socialist Worker’s Party. In 1916, the two brothers were drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. Gerhard was shipped to the Italian front, and Hans, who was branded “politically unreliable” due to memberships in socialist organizations, was forced into a Hungarian regiment in order to discourage him from propagating his Socialist ideas. Nevertheless, he continued composing music in his spare time and started writing an oratorio called Gegen den Krieg (Against War), which was lost before the war’s end. 

In 1918, Eisler returns to Vienna and shortly after he was accepted into Vienna’s Music Academy. Soon after, his talent got him noticed by composer Arnold Schoenberg, and went on to become his pupil from 1919 to 1923. Eisler would be the first of his alumns to compose in the dodecaphonic or twelve-tone technique, and his first published work, the atonal Piano Sonata No.1, was dedicated to Schoenberg himself.

In 1924, Eisler wins the Artis Prize (Künstlerpreis) of Vienna, and sees his first articles published. By 1925, disenchanted with the musical conservatism that permeated the city, he moves to Berlin where he joins his siblings Gerhard and Ruth, both active Communists by then. The following year, Hanns registers his membership in the German Communist Party, but due to his lack of funds, never pays his membership dues and thus was never a member in good standing. The revolutionary politics and open atmosphere of the Weimar Republic in Berlin inspired him to go in a new direction, moving away from 'art for art’s sake’ approach to composing, and finding new inspiration in jazz and cabaret music. He expressed his new musical attitude in a letter to his mentor: "I am bored by modern music, it is of no interest to me..". He starts writing Kampfmusik (Music for the Struggle) as well as for cabaret, agitprop groups such as Das Rote Sprachrohr (The Red Mouthpiece), and films. His first foray into film music was his 1927 score for Walter Ruttmann's Opus 3.

In 1927, Eisler married Charlotte Demant, and it's around this time that the became more deeply preoccupied with Marxist theory and increased his participation in socialist activities. His son George, who would become a recognized artist on his own right was born in 1929. It's around this time that Hanns Eisler starts collaborating with Bertolt Brech, whom he had meet after his arrival in Berlin, in a time of great political and economic instability that culminated with Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor.

[To be continued....]

Hell's Fury, The Hollywood Songbook, is co-presented by Soundstreams and will be staged on June 19-23 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre. 

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