Born in Vienna, Hanns Eisler studied under Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg at the end of World War I. He became the first of Schönberg’s students (in 1924) to compose in Schönberg’s 12-tone, or serialist, method, with all 12 notes of the chromatic scale given equal frequency, preventing the music from being in a particular key. Eisler won the City of Vienna’s Art Prize in 1925, shortly after which he moved to Berlin.
In Berlin, Eisler increasingly directed his compositions toward everyday life and sociopolitical themes. An example is his 1926 Zeitungsausschnitte (Newspaper Clippings), op. 11, which took content from personal ads in Berlin newspapers. His engagement with jazz and cabaret led to a break with Schönberg, who denounced him as a “coffeehouse radical.”
Over the next four years, Eisler pursued choral music, film and theater music, and radio compositions. He began his 27-year friendship with Bertolt Brecht in 1930. Their first creative partnership, the free-verse cantata The Measures Taken (1930), presents a complex situation in which the “good of the revolution” results in the sacrifice of an activist comrade. (The play was banned by the Soviet Union but used by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as evidence of Brecht’s communist leanings.)
Though ideologically a communist, Eisler apparently never officially joined the Communist Party; he never paid his dues. He pursued his politics through his compositions: among others, “Ballad of the Cotton Pickers” (for which he won first prize at the 1931 Leipzig Gramophone Exhibition), his collaboration with Brecht on The Mother (1932), and his score for director Slatan Dudow’s 1932 film Kuhle Wampe or Who Owns the World? with song texts by Brecht.
When Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in 1933, Brecht warned Eisler – who was visiting Vienna – not to return to Berlin. Eisler went into exile. He composed stage music for Brecht’s The Roundheads and the Pointheads, which premiered in Copenhagen in 1936, as well as political songs, chamber cantatas, and the Lenin Requiem (with text by Brecht). In 1938, he moved to New York City, where he taught composition at the New School for Social Research. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, he began work in 1940 on a “Research Program on the Relation between Music and Films,” the results of which – co-authored by Eisler and Theodor Adorno – were published in Composing for the Films (1947).
Eisler settled in Los Angeles in 1942, where he renewed his collaborations with Brecht and reconciled with Schönberg, also an exile. He composed for several films, receiving Oscar nominations for his scores for Hangmen Also Die! (dir. Fritz Lang, 1943) and None but the Lonely Heart (dir. Clifford Odets, 1944), as well as writing the music for Brecht’s plays and a collection of art songs that was later published as The Hollywood Songbook.
Two years after the war ended, Eisler found himself first on the blacklists of Hollywood studios as the “Red Scare” swept Cold War America. HUAC summoned him twice to testify, concluding through interrogations that Eisler was a linchpin of communism in the musical world. His brother Gerhart’s activities for Comintern and testimony against the brothers from their sister, Ruth – who had turned agent for a CIA predecessor organization – intensified HUAC’s focus on Eisler. A young congressman, Richard M. Nixon, identified Eisler’s as “perhaps the most important [case] to have come before this committee.”
Despite the support of such significant U.S. artists as Charlie Chaplin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein, Hanns Eisler was deported from the United States in 1948. In his departing statement, written in English, he said:
I leave this country not without bitterness and infuriation. I could well understand it in 1933 when the Hitler bandits put a price on my head and drove me out. They were the evil of the period; I was proud of being driven out. But I feel heartbroken over being driven out of this beautiful country in this ridiculous way.
He returned to Austria, then moved to Berlin in 1949, where he composed the national anthem for the German Democratic Republic along with film and television music, songs, and other works. Although several compositions concerned the struggle of the working class, a divide was developing between Eisler and the functionaries of the Communist Party in Germany. His final years were marked by depression and heart attacks, the second of which took his life in 1962.
This material is indebted to Andy Lang’s timeline and accounts for the
North American Hanns Eisler Forum at eislermusic.com