Hanns Eisler 1898 -1962

He was born into a  Jewish family. Eisler’s political awareness was shaped at by poverty in which he grew up,  and by his older brother and sister, both of whom were later active in the Austrian and German Communist Parties. Eisler began composing at secondary school.  In 1916 he  was called up and served in a Hungarian regiment of the Austrian army. Despite being wounded and hospitalised several times, he continued  to compose.

After the war he  became a private pupil of Arnold Schönberg between 1919 and 1923. Later he remarked that it was only through Schönberg that he learnt “true musical understanding and thinking.”

By 1923 Eisler had composed Piano Sonata No. 1, his first acknowledged opus. Further instrumental, piano and vocal compositions appeared in the following two years, confirming Eisler’s position as the most promising of Schönberg’s pupils after Webern and Berg.

In 1925 Eisler left Vienna to settle in Berlin and became  drawn to radical politics, joining the Communist Party.. In 1927 he became the music critic of the Communist periodical  The Red Banner,  which  gave him the a public forum with which to develop his political theories. He also joined the Berlin Agitprop group, the Red Megaphones, serving as its composer, pianist and conductor.

In 1927 Eisler witnessed the premiere in Baden-Baden of the Mahagonny Songspiel by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Inspired by this work, Eisler began to write political songs and ballads for chorus.

Weisler and Brech now worked together, producing The Measures Taken (1930) based upon the Bach Passions.  He wrote  incidental music for The Mother, (1931), which Brecht adapted  from Maxim Gorky’s novel, and the score to Kuhle Wampe(1931), a powerful film about unemployment and social deprivation in a Berlin suburb in which the militant and stirring ” Solildarity Song” plays a central role.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Eisler was in Vienna. He did not return home,   but  spent the next fifteen years moving between Denmark, London, Paris and the United States. In this difficult period he continued his fruitful collaboration with Brecht, pouring much of his energy into the fight against fascism. He also composed  his largest and most ambitious work, the Deutsche Sinfonie, conceived as a protest against the Nazis, and is a highly original sequence of orchestral and vocal movements which includes  Brecht’s poems about the desperate fate of Germany

Eisler eventually found his way from New York to Hollywood, where he wrote scores for Fritz Lang and Clifford Odets in the early Forties In 1946 he began a collaboration with Charlie Chaplin on the film Monsieur Verdoux and also  wrote the incidental music to Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo.

He was twice summoned before the Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and  deported in 1948.  He told the press  “I feel heartbroken over being driven out of this beautiful country in this ridiculous way. As I listened to their questions, it became plain to me that these men represent fascism in its most direct form.”

Eisler settled in Berlin in East Germany  but it was not plain sailing. His proposal to write a full-length opera on the life of Johann Faust  fell foul of the East German authorities and was never composed. In 1959 the first performance of the Deutsche Sinfonie  took place.  He died on 6 September 1962.