Hanns Eisler: composer as revolutionary

The cultural worker:

“How necessary music is and how important it can be in the greatest struggles for a new world”

– Hanns Eisler



By his own design, composer Hanns Eisler’s politics were nothing if not obvious. The composer/activist’s artistic output was, as early as the 1920s, already matching the intensity of Bertolt Brecht’s.

Eisler was born in Leipzig on July 6, 1898. As a young man he became a student of the Modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg and this prepared him for a lifetime of rebellion through music. He was moved not only by the new music of Europe, but by American jazz and theater music, and the workers’ songs and cabaret music so relevant during the years of the Weimar Republic. In addition to the influence of radical music, his politics were also shaped by brother Gerhard, a noted leader of the German Communist Party (KPD).

Following a period as musical director of the Berlin-based leftist theater company The Red Megaphone and music reviewer of the KPD newspaper, Eisler came to the attention of Brecht. Brecht/Eisler collaborations would go on to include such notable works as “The Measures Taken,” “The Mother,” and a brilliant statement on segregation, “The Round-Heads and the Point-Heads.”

The message of class struggle was unbridled and could be found as clearly in the music of their productions as in the words. Minor-key laments, brash marches, throbbing work songs and harshly discordant cabaret numbers filled their theater works. One could say that Eisler the composer was birthed under Hitler, experienced childhood in view of Kristalnacht, and entered adolescence in spite of both Goebbels’ artistic oppression and the tragedy of genocide. Of this Eisler said, “Our militant art was forbidden by Hitler and all of its supporters were rigorously prosecuted, so that Hitler could rid himself of a dangerous enemy. But revolutionary music cannot be forbidden … the forbidden songs go illegally from mouth to mouth.”

And the songs were, indeed, remembered. They traveled from the KPD to a bevy of Communist and Socialist parties internationally and then became known as the soundtrack to the Spanish Civil War. “The Song of the United Front” is still recalled today as a call for revolt. Some of their other lasting numbers included “The Solidarity Song” and “Song of Supply and Demand.” Eisler’s music worked perfectly in tandem with Brecht’s lyrics: equal parts turbulence and detachment; simply illustrating a revolution was not enough to agitate one. Still, the Nazi assault on the populace became overwhelming. Those who could relocate did.

It was within this appalling setting that Hanns Eisler first came to the United States, a country broken by Depression and boiling with its own radical upsurge. Initially, he toured the country, performing his material for audiences of workers and intellectuals alike.

With local vocalist Mordecai Bauman, he recorded an album of “Songs of the Spanish Civil War,” which was held in high esteem by the left. The recording ensemble that backed the vocalist and composer was dubbed The New Singers, a workers’ chorus led by Communist Party USA musician Lan Adomian and second pianist Marc Blitzstein (a CP member who would go on to his own amazing career). The Communist Party had established itself on the front-line of this cultural workers’ movement. Among the strongest of its arts programs was the Workers’ Music League, the U.S. arm of a larger, global body, the International Music Bureau, itself established in 1932 at the behest of Eisler.

As part of the first wave of anti-Communist witch-hunts in the cultural field, Eisler was called in for questioning by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In an attempt to demonize him they established Eisler’s important position in revolutionary music, calling him “the Karl Marx of Communism in music.” Ironically, nearly all of his radical music was in opposition to the very fascist enemy the USA had just worked to defeat.

Eisler was forced to leave the United States in 1949, but he would not leave quietly. Progressives around the country offered protest and there was a large-scale fundraising party in New York on his behalf. So great was his influence that Woody Guthrie, the radical folksinger, wrote a song for him: “Eisler on the Go.” The song’s simple yet haunting refrain of “I don’t know what I’ll do, I don’t know what I’ll do,” spoke volumes.

Hanns Eisler boarded a ship for East Germany and never returned to the U.S. again. Though he became a respected figure in the GDR (he composed their national anthem), his inner demons allowed him little room for self-satisfaction. His greatest latter-day accomplishment was the completion of his cherished “Deutsche Symphony,” begun during his World War II exile period. Eisler, cultural worker extraordinaire, will always be remembered as one who wielded the mightiest of songs as his weapon.

John Pietaro is a cultural worker in New York City. He can be reached at leftmus@aol.com