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Hanns Eisler: Life and Art in Exile, Part II

As he moves away from his Vienna's burgeois intellectual circle, Hanns Eisler dives in Weimar Berlin's revolutionary social and artistic avant garde, and starts his collaboration with Bertolt Brech.

Mar 27, 2019 | BY: Jorge Ayala-Isaza

Hanns Eisler left his privileged position from Arnold Schoenberg’s composition studio in Vienna to immerse himself in the revolutionary atmosphere of Berlin, the intellectual, cultural and political center of the Weimar Republic (the unofficial historical designation for the German State between its 1918 World War I defeat and Hitler’s rise to Power in 1933). The city and its creative energy served as the backdrop where the life-long friendship between Eisler and author Bertolt Brecht was forged.

Eisler started collaborating with Brecht in 1928, inspired by their shared interest in Marxist theory. Eisler had moved away from the musical avant-garde and grew interested in music that created social awareness and was accessible to proletariat audiences. Eisler summed up his thoughts in a lecture in Düsseldorf in December 1931:

“The function [of music] has become exclusively the provision of momentary stimuli. This is the only way in which the last fifteen years can be explained. The stimuli wear off very rapidly and in the latest period of bourgeois music, where the function has remained the same, there has been a continuous need for new methods in music. These do not arise from a general change in the function of music within society, but from the urge for change while maintaining the same function – entertainment.” 

Their first major theatrical collaboration, Die Massnahme, a Lehrstück (piece of didactic theatre) for tenor, three speakers, chorus, and orchestra was performed for the first time in Berlin, on December 13, 1930. Later on, they collaborated on an adaptation of Maxim Gorki’s play The Mother, a piece of Epic Theatre which used music as a device to advance and comment on the narrative. It opened on January 13, 1932 and was directed by Ernst Josef Aufricht, who had directed the Three Penny Opera. Brecht and Eisler reworked the piece through the years, and rearranged it for American audiences in 1935, as a cantata for Austrian Radio in 1949, and expanded it for a large orchestra for the Berlin Ensemble in 1951.

Brecht wrote the screenplay for Kuhle Wampe oder wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?), a film directed by the Bulgarian Slatan Dudow and starring Ernst Busch, music score provided by Eisler. It is considered the most significant document of the proletarian redeployment of the cinema in Germany. Due to its direct political message, the movie was banned, and only allowed to run again after a re-edited version was approved for distribution. Eisler wrote the music score. The film was widely acclaimed, and its ending song, The Solidarity Song, became one of Eisler’s most iconic fight songs.


In early 1933, Eisler traveled on assignment to Vienna as musical director for the staging of The Mother in that city. When news reached him that Adolf Hitler had assumed power as Chancellor on January 30th, Eisler realized that returning to Berlin would be extremely dangerous. Thus began his long exile.

[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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