Hanns Eisler: Life and Art in Exile, Part III

Part III of our blog series on the tumultous life of composer Hanns Eisler - in this final instalment, Eisler find success in Hollywood before coming up against the first wave of McCarthyism. 

May 29, 2019 | BY: Sarah Brown & Jorge Ayala-Isaza

Portrait of Hanns Eisler by Stieglitz, 1940

After the Nazis came to power, Eisler first fled to Paris, which would be the starting point of an itinerant life that would take him to Spain, England, Denmark and Czechoslovakia. He continued composing works that reflected his musical and political interests: songs for the resistance in Spain, musical adaptations of texts by Bertolt Brecht and the Lenin Requiem and two movements of the Deutsche Sinfonie. He also organized the first Worker’s Music and Song Olympiad in Strasbourg in 1935.

In January 1938 he travelled on a visitor visa to the United States for a lecture tour. He was supported by the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom and soon after hen started teaching composition at New School for Social Research while continuing to write experimental chamber music. That same year, he wrote the music for the staging of the play A Song About America by Hofmann Hays, as part of a large festival to commemorate the Russian Revolution in Madison Square Garden organized by the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Since communist activity was grounds to revoke his temporary visa, Eisler used the pseudonym “John Garden.”  The opening song of the play, Sweet Liberty Land, became the unofficial anthem of the CPUSA.

At the end of October 1940, Eisler was granted permanent residence in the United States. His friend Bertolt Brecht had moved to California in 1941, and under his encouragement, Eisler decided to move to Los Angeles in 1942, where he took a teaching post at the University of Southern California as they renewed their working collaborations. So began Eisler’s "Hollywood ears”.

He began composing for documentary films and various Hollywood film scores including Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die and Clifford Odet’s None But the Lonely Heart – both of which were nominated for Oscars in 1941 and 1945 respectively. 2 Brecht worked alongside director Lang on Hangmen Also Die to write the script for the film. In working on this filmEisler’s score arose as the defining political voice compensating for the aspects of the narrative that Lang either cut or diluted due to concern for the film’s commercial success. 3 What Lang could not do with the script, Eisler surreptitiously achieved in the score.  

Eisler happened to be residing in the United States during the evolution of the Second Red Scare, a period occurring immediately after WWII that was preoccupied with the perception of communists infiltrating the US. The events of this time period, including several high-profile trials, surprised the American public, leading to a generalized fear over US National security and Communist influences. Popularly known as “McCarthyism” after its most ardent supporter, Senator Joseph McCarthy, the practice of making accusations of subversion of treason without proper regard for evidence became rampant during this time. 

Eisler was the first target of the House of Un-American Committee’s (HUAC) investigation into alleged Communist subversion in the motion picture industry. 4 The FBI’s overarching agenda was to prove that Eisler was a linchpin of an organized Communist conspiracy to infiltrate Hollywood, and the broader American population via America’s favourite pasttime- the movies.  He was one of the first artists to be placed on the Hollywood blacklist by film studio bosses. 5 

In two interrogations by HUAC he was accused of being the “Karl Marx” of music, and a Soviet agent in Hollywood. During these investigations Eisler had many supporters, including Charlie Chaplin and Igor Stravinsky, who helped raise money for his defense fund. His sister, Elfriede Eisler, now known as Ruth Fischer, testified before HUAC against him and his brother Gerhart.

During the hearings he admitted he had applied for membership in the Communist Party of Germany in 1926, but had never been an active member. On February 12, 1948, a warrant of deportation was issued by the Immigration Service and sent him into a new struggle to find a country to settle: he attempted to obtain visas for France, Germany, and was finally granted permits for Czechoslovakia for him and his wife. They eventually received Austrian passports.

In March 1948, Eisler and his wife Lou departed the US for Prague. Before he left Eisler read a statement which read (in part), “I leave this country not without bitterness and infuriation. A composer knows that music is written by human beings for human beings and that music is a continuation of life, not something separated from it. And I had to defend music.” 6 

In 1949 the Eislers settled in Berlin, now the capital of the German Democratic Republic (DDR), where he became a founding member of the German Association of Composers, was appointed to the Academy of Arts, and became a professor of composition at the Hochschule für Musik (Music School), which currently bears his name. Eisler continued to collaborate with Brecht, writing music for seventeen theatrical productions; until Brecht’s death in 1956. Eisler passed away, of a heart attack, in 1962.  

Hanns Eisler’s is one of the 20th century’s great lieder composers. The life and work of Hanns Eisler is explored  in Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook, co-presented by Soundstreams, which will be on stage June 19 – 23 at Harbourfront Centre for Luminato 2019. 

Listen to the Luminato curated Spotify playlist featuring works by Hanns Eisler and explore his music.

Wierzbicki, J. Hanns Eisler and the FBI, The OREL Foundation, 2008 
Hanns Eisler, Wikipedia   
Bick, S. A Double Life in Hollywood: Hanns Eisler’s Score for the film Hangmen Also Die and the Covert             Expressions of a Marxist Composer, 2010 
Lang, A. Hanns Eisler: A Composer’s Lifehttp://eislermusic.com/huac.htm
6  Lang, A. Hanns Eisler: A Composer’s Lifehttp://eislermusic.com/depart.htm


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