Johannes Eisler was born in Leipzig in Saxony, the son of Rudolf Eisler, a professor of philosophy, and Marie Ida Fischer. His father was Jewish and his mother was Lutheran. In 1901, the family moved to Vienna. His brother, Gerhart, was a Communist journalist, and his sister, Elfriede, was a leader of the German Communist Party in the mid-1920s. After emigrating to America, she turned into an anti-communist, writing books against her former political affiliation, and even testifying against her brothers before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
At age 14 Eisler joined a socialist youth group.
Early years and Bertolt Brecht
Eisler in uniform, 1917.
During the Great War, Hanns Eisler served as a front-line soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army and was wounded several times in combat. Returning to Vienna after Austria's defeat, he studied from 1919 to 1923 under Arnold Schoenberg. Eisler was the first of Schoenberg's disciples to compose in the twelve-tone or serial technique. He married Charlotte Demant in 1920; they separated in 1934. In 1925, he moved to Berlin—then a hothouse of experimentation in music, theater, film, art and politics. There he became an active supporter of the Communist Party of Germany and became involved with the November Group. In 1928, he taught at the Marxist Workers' School in Berlin and his son Georg Eisler, who would grow up to become an important painter, was born. His music became increasingly oriented towards political themes and, to Schoenberg's dismay, more "popular" in style with influences drawn from jazz and cabaret. At the same time, he drew close to Bertolt Brecht, whose own turn towards Marxism happened at about the same time. The collaboration between the two artists lasted for the rest of Brecht's life.
In 1929, Eisler composed the song cycle Zeitungsausschnitte, Op. 11. The work is dedicated to Margot Hinnenberg-Lefebre. Though not written in the twelve-tone technique, it was perhaps the forerunner of a musical art style later known as "News Items" (or perhaps better characterized as "news clippings") - musical compositions that parodied a newspaper's content and style, or that included lyrics lifted directly from newspapers, leaflets, magazines or other written media of the day. The cycle parodies a newspaper's layout and content, with the songs comprising it given titles similar to headlines. Its content reflects Eisler's socialist leanings, with lyrics memorializing the struggles of ordinary Germans subject to post-World War I hardships.
Eisler wrote music for several Brecht plays, including The Decision (Die Maßnahme) (1930), The Mother (1932) and Schweik in the Second World War (1957). They also collaborated on protest songs that celebrated, and contributed to, the political turmoil of Weimar Germany in the early 1930s. Their Solidarity Song became a popular militant anthem sung in street protests and public meetings throughout Europe, and their Ballad of Paragraph 218 was the world's first song protesting laws against abortion. Brecht-Eisler songs of this period tended to look at life from "below"—from the perspective of prostitutes, hustlers, the unemployed and the working poor. In 1931-32 he collaborated with Brecht and director Slatan Dudow on the working-class film Kuhle Wampe.
After 1933, Eisler's music and Brecht's poetry were banned by the Nazi Party. Both artists went into exile. While Brecht settled in Svendborg, Denmark, Eisler traveled for a number of years, working in Prague, Vienna, Paris, London, Moscow, Spain, Mexico and Denmark. He made two visits to the US, with speaking tours from coast to coast.
In 1938, Eisler finally managed to emigrate to the United States with a permanent visa. In New York City, he taught composition at New School for Social Research and wrote experimental chamber and documentary music. In 1942, he moved to Los Angeles where he joined Brecht, who had arrived in California in 1941 after a long trip eastward from Denmark across the Soviet Union and the Pacific Ocean.
In the U.S., Eisler composed music for various documentary films and for eight Hollywood film scores, two of which — Hangmen Also Die! and None but the Lonely Heart — were nominated for Oscars in 1944 and 1945 respectively. Also working on Hangmen Also Die! was Bertolt Brecht, who wrote the story along with director Fritz Lang. From 1927 to the end of his life, Eisler wrote the music for 40 films, making film music the largest part of his compositions after vocal music for chorus and/or solo voices.
On 1 February 1940, he began work on the "Research Program on the Relation between Music and Films" funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which he got with the help of film director Joseph Losey and The New School. This work resulted in the book Composing for the Films which was published in 1947, with Theodor W. Adorno as co-author.
In several chamber and choral compositions of this period, Eisler returned to the twelve-tone method he had abandoned in Berlin. His Fourteen Ways of Describing the Rain — composed for Arnold Schoenberg's 70th birthday celebration — is considered a masterpiece of the genre.
Eisler's works of the 1930s and 1940s included Deutsche Sinfonie (1935-57)—a choral symphony in eleven movements based on poems by Brecht and Ignazio Silone—and a cycle of art songs published as the Hollywood Songbook (1938-43). With lyrics by Brecht, Eduard Mörike, Friedrich Hölderlin and Goethe, it established Eisler's reputation as one of the 20th century's great composers of German lieder.
The HUAC investigation
Eisler's promising career in the U.S. was interrupted by the Cold War. He was one of the first artists placed on the Hollywood blacklist by the film studio bosses. In two interrogations by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the composer was accused of being "the Karl Marx of music" and the chief Soviet agent in Hollywood. Among his accusers was his sister Ruth Fischer, who also testified before the Committee that her other brother, Gerhart, was a Communist agent. The Communist press denounced her as a "German Trotskyite." Among the works that Eisler composed for the Communist Party was the "Comintern March", including the words "The Comintern calls you / Raise high the Soviet banner / In steeled ranks to battle / Raise sickle and hammer."
Eisler's supporters—including his friend Charlie Chaplin and the composers Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein—organized benefit concerts to raise money for his defense fund, but he was deported early in 1948. Folksinger Woody Guthrie protested the composer's deportation in his lyrics for "Eisler on the Go"—recorded fifty years later by Billy Bragg and Wilco on the Mermaid Avenue album (1998). In the song, an introspective Guthrie asked himself what he would do if called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities: "I don't know what I'll do / I don't know what I'll do / Eisler's on the come and go / and I don't know what I'll do."
On departing from the U.S.
On 26 March 1948, Eisler and his wife, Lou, departed from LaGuardia Airport and flew to Prague. Before he left, he read the following statement:
I leave this country not without bitterness and infuriation. I could well understand it when in 1933 the Hitler bandits put a price on my head and drove me out. They were the evil of the period; I was proud at being driven out. But I feel heartbroken over being driven out of this beautiful country in this ridiculous way.
His most ambitious project of the period was the opera Johannes Faustus on the Faust theme. The libretto, written by Eisler himself, was published in the fall of 1952. It portrayed Faust as an indecisive man who betrayed the cause of the working class by not joining the German Peasants' War. In May 1953, Eisler's libretto was attacked by a major article in Neues Deutschland, the SED organ, which disapproved of the negative depiction of Faust as a renegade and accused the work of being "a slap in the face of German national feeling" and of having "formalistically deformed one of the greatest works of our German poet Goethe" (Ulbricht). Eisler's opera project was discussed in three of the bi-weekly meetings "Mittwochsgesellschaft" [Wednesday club] of a circle of intellectuals under the auspices of the Berlin Academy of Arts beginning on 13 May 1953. The last of these meetings took place on Wednesday, 10 June 1953.
Grave of Eisler and his third wife Steffy, as photographed on the 50th anniversary of his death. His grave is one of 800 graves of honor maintained by the authorities.
A week later, the workers' rebellion of 17 June 1953 pushed those debates from the agenda. Eisler fell into a depressive mood, and did not write the music for the opera. In his last work, "Ernste Gesänge" (Serious Songs), written between spring 1961 and August 1962, Eisler attempted to work through his depression, taking up the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union with its demise of the Stalin cult, as a sign of hope for a future enabling to "live without fear". Although he continued to work as a composer and to teach at the East Berlin conservatory, the gap between Eisler and the cultural functionaries of East Germany grew wider in the last decade of his life. During this period, he befriended musician Wolf Biermann and tried to promote him (but in 1976, Biermann would be stripped of his GDR citizenship while on concert tour in West Germany).
Eisler collaborated with Brecht until the latter's death in 1956. He never recovered completely from his friend's demise, and his remaining years were marred by depression and declining health. He died of a heart attack (his second) in East Berlin in September 1962, and is buried near Brecht in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery.
1919: Drei Lieder (Li-Tai-Po, Klabund); "Sehr leises Gehn im lauen Wind";
1922: Allegro moderato and Waltzes; Allegretto and Andante for Piano
1923: Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 1
1923: Divertimento; Four Piano Pieces
1923: Divertimento for wind quintet, Op. 4
1924: Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 6
1925: Eight Piano Pieces
1926: Tagebuch des Hanns Eisler (Diary of Hanns Eisler); 11 Zeitungsausschnitte; Ten Lieder; Three Songs for Men's Chorus (after Heinrich Heine)
1928: "Drum sag der SPD ade"; "Lied der roten Matrosen" ("Song of the Red Sailors", with Erich Weinert); Pantomime (with Béla Balázs); "Kumpellied"; "Red Sailors' Song"; "Couplet vom Zeitfreiwilligen"; "Newspaper's Son"; "Auch ein Schumacher (verschiedene Dichter)"; "Was möchst du nicht" (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn); "Wir sind das rote Sprachrohr"
1929: Tempo der Zeit (Tempo of Time) for chorus and small orchestra, Op. 16; Six Lieder (after Weinert, Weber, Jahnke and Vallentin); "Lied der Werktätigen" ("Song of the Working People"; with Stephan Hermlin)
1931 incidental music for "Die Mutter" (The Mother) by Bertolt Brecht (after Maxim Gorky), for small theatre orchestra
1931: "Lied der roten Flieger" (after Semyon Kirsanov); Four Songs (after Frank, Weinert) from the film Niemandsland; film music for Kuhle Wampe (texts of Brecht) with the famous "Ballad of the Pirates", "Song of Mariken", Four Ballads (with Bertolt Brecht); Suite No. 2, Op. 24 ("Niemandsland"); Three Songs after Erich Weinert; "Das Lied vom vierten Mann" ("The Song of the Fourth Man"); "Streiklied" ("Strike Song"); Suite No. 3, Op. 26 ("Kuhle Wampe")
1932: "Ballad of the Women and the Soldiers" (with Brecht); Seven Piano Pieces; Kleine Sinfonie (Little Symphony); Suite No. 4, Music for the Russian film Pesn' o geroyakh (Song of Heroes) by Joris Ivens with "Song from the Urals" (after Sergei Tretyakov); reissued as instrumental piece Op. 30 ("Die Jugend hat das Wort")
1934: "Einheitsfrontlied" ("United Front Song"); "Saarlied" ("Saar Song"), "Lied gegen den Krieg" ("Song Against War"), "Ballade von der Judenhure Marie Sanders" ("Ballad of the Jews' Whore Marie Sanders"), Songs from Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe; "Sklave, wer wird dich befreien" ("Slave, who will liberate you"; with Brecht); "California Ballad"; Six Pieces; Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H (string trio); "Spartakus 1919, Op. 43
1935: "Die Mutter" (The Mother) rewritten as cantata for chorus, solo voices and two pianos for a New York stage production
1935: Lenin Requiem for solo voices, chorus and orchestra
1956: Vier Szenen auf dem Lande (Katzgraben) ("Four Scenes from the Country", after Erwin Strittmatter); Children's Songs (after Brecht); "Fidelio" (after Beethoven)
1957: Sturm-Suite für Orchester; Bilder aus der Kriegsfibel; "Die Teppichweber von Kujan-Bulak" ("The Carpetweavers of Kujan-Bulak", with Brecht); "Lied der Tankisten" (text by Weinert); "Regimenter gehn"; "Marsch der Zeit" ("March of Time", after Vladimir Mayakovsky); Three Lieder (after Mayakovsky and Peter Hacks); "Sputnik-Lied" ("Sputnik Song", text of Kuba (Kurt Barthel)); film music for Les Sorcières de Salem (The Crucible)
Arnold Pistiak (2009). "Skovbostrand 1937: Nein und Ja. Erinnerung an Hanns Eislers Kantaten auf Texte von Ignazio Silone und Bertolt Brecht" [Skovbostrand 1937: No and yes. Remeniscences to Hanns Eisler's cantatas on texts by Ignazio Silone and Bertolt Brecht]. In Frank Stern (ed.). Feuchtwanger und Exil. Glaube und Kultur 1933 - 1945. "Der Tag wird kommen" [Feuchtwanger and Exile. Belief and Culture 1933-1945. "The day will come"]. Feuchtwanger Studies, Volume 2 (in German). Bern: Peter Lang (published 2011). pp. 305-331. ISBN978-3-03-430188-6.
^Lang, Andrew (2005). "Hanns Eisler: Life: Eisler in the McCarthy Era". eislermusic.com. North American Hanns Eisler Forum. Retrieved 2012. To the rising anticommunist star Richard Nixon, then serving his first term as a U.S. Congressman, "the case of Hanns Eisler" was "perhaps the most important ever to have come before the committee."
^Schebera, Jürgen (1978). Hanns Eisler im USA-Exil: zu den politischen, ästhetischen und kompositorischen Positionen des Komponisten 1938-1948 [Hanns Eisler in the US-American Exile. The positions of the composer regardting politics, estetics, and composition from 1938 to 1948] (originally written as 1976 PhD thesis) (in German). Berlin (GDR), and Meisenheim an der Glan (FRG): Akademie Verlag, and Hain. ISBN3-445-01743-3. Includes a German translation of the HUAC hearings
^Hearings regarding Hanns Eisler. Hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress, first session, Public law 601 (section 121, subsection Q (2) ) Sept. 24, 25, and 26, 1947. United States. Congress. House. Committee on Un-American Activities. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. 1947. pp. iii, 209 p., 23 cm. LCCN48050031. OCLC3376771.CS1 maint: others (link)
^Redaktionskollegium "Neues Deutschland" (14 May 1953). "Das "Faust"-Problem und die deutsche Geschichte. Bemerkungen aus Anlaß des Erscheinens des Operntextes "Johann Faustus" von Hanns Eisler" [The "Faust"-Problem and the German History. Remarks occasioned by the publication of the opera text "Johannes Faustus" by Hanns Eisler]. Neues Deutschland (in German).
^Transcript of those sessions together with related documents in Bunge, Hans (1991). Brecht-Zentrum Berlin (ed.). Die Debatte um Hanns Eislers "Johann Faustus": eine Dokumentation [The debate on Hanns Eisler's "Johann Faustus": a documentation] (in German). pp. 45-248. ISBN978-3-86163-019-7.
^Biermann, Wolf; Hanns Eisler and Gerhart Eisler (October 1983). "Hanns Eisler: Life: Interview with Wolf Biermann". eislermusic.com (Interview). Interviewed by James K. Miller. North American Hanns Eisler Forum. Retrieved 2012. Eisler is part of the most precious legacy which they must appropriate. And if I can contribute something to that, by telling people here (in America) about Eisler - from my very limited perspective, of course - then it's a good thing and I'm happy about it. Ja. - Originally published in "Communications", Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 21-35, International Brecht Society.
Weber, Horst (2012). "I am not a hero, I am a composer". Hanns Eisler in Hollywood (in German). Hildesheim: Olms Verlag. ISBN978-3-487-14787-1.
Wißmann, Friederike (2012). Hanns Eisler - Komponist, Weltbürger, Revolutionär [Hanns Eisler - Composer, Cosmopolitan, Revolutionist] (in German). Preface by Peter Hamm. München: Edition Elke Heidenreich bei Bertelsmann. p. 300. ISBN3-921402-17-4.