Music review: Hanns Eisler, a Marxist for our time?

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Hanns Eisler is not, yet, a recovered voice. A two-time Oscar nominee for best score, the German composer, who fled the Nazis in 1933, was the first in motion pictures to be called up by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the first to be blacklisted in Hollywood. He was deported to East Germany in 1948.

“I leave this country not without bitterness and infuriation,” he said before boarding a TWA flight at La Guardia airport. We have not known quite what to do with him since.

On Saturday, the Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, once a hangout for the German émigrés in L.A., devoted a day to Eisler. A round-table discussion in the afternoon with American and German scholars looked at Eisler in general and at a peculiar part of his film work. In the evening, mezzo soprano Kristina Driskill and pianist Mark Robson persuasively performed much of Eisler’s pungent “Hollywood Songbook” from the composer’s L.A. years (1942-48).

The Eisler problem begins with the fact that generalizations will not do. A student of Schoenberg in Berlin in the 1920s and a Marxist (but not a member of the Communist Party, since he neglected to pay his dues), Eisler -- like Kurt Weill -- rejected Schoenberg’s 12-tone system for a more populist style. But Eisler returned to abstraction from time to time and wrote several 12-tone masterpieces. It was as a populist, though, that he helped inspire the Third Viennese School, when Eisler was taken up by a new generation of composers after his death in 1962.


A longtime collaborator with Bertolt Brecht, Eisler is probably best remembered for his political songs and theater music. But his chamber works, whether in popular or abstract style, are also of exceptional quality. His “Deutsche Sinfonie” -- an anti-Fascist cantata mostly written in America in the late ‘30s in response to Hitler, but not performed until 1959 in East Germany -- is well worth reviving.

Politics always follow Eisler, and that often keeps him out of the mainstream discussion, especially in these touchy times. A certain communist-hunting young congressman (who, by coincidence, was being acknowledged in opera over the weekend by Long Beach Opera), Richard Nixon, called Eisler’s HUAC case “perhaps the most important ever to have come before the committee.” Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Charlie Chaplin and a great many other left-wing cultural figures stood up for Eisler, but it did no good. Woody Guthrie celebrated him in song (‘Eisler on the Go’).

For whatever reason, Eisler neglect, particularly in America, is unconditional. Even his film career remains little known. Of the eight Hollywood features he scored, “Hangmen Also Die,” Fritz Lang’s gripping 1943 account of Nazi-occupied Prague, is the only one readily available on DVD.

Great as some of Eisler’s film work was -- after Hollywood, he also scored Alain Resnais’ unforgettable Holocaust film, “Night and Fog” -- he did, however, have his blind spots. On Saturday afternoon, a musicologist, Johannes Gall, presented a clip from John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” with the original soundtrack by Alfred Newman that expertly captured the Dust Bowl atmosphere with lean and judicious use of “Red River Valley.”

But Eisler, ever impolitic in Hollywood, had felt that Newman trivialized the terrible plight of the working class, and, as a demonstration of what film music should be, wrote an overbearing Expressionist symphonic score for the scene. The clip with Eisler’s music was deadly, although Eisler later reworked the music into his excellent Nonett No. 1.

The Brecht texts that make up the bulk of the “Hollywood Songbook” are a refugee’s tale. Acid irony is the main poetic device. The world is upside down for cultured Germans forced from their home by barbarianism yet ill-suited for West Coast paradise. “This town was christened after the angels,” Brecht wrote in his usual bad mood. “They feed the writer in their swimming pools every morning.”

Eisler added his own musical taunts to Brecht’s. A master of the swift stroke, he could turn a tender song into a rant with a single acerbic note. Driskall, who recently appeared in Long Beach Opera’s “Cunning Little Vixen,” captured these mood swings with wonderfully angry, challenging, pouty, seductive, decadently dreamy expressivity.

Great baritones -- first Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and recently Matthias Goerne -- have been these songs’ most important advocates. But Driskill found Medea-like theatrical subtleties they missed, while Robson hammered everything home on the piano brilliantly.
Were Driskill and Robson to add the remaining songs and find a strong director to stage them, they could be just the team we need to make the case for this curious but commanding composer.

-- Mark Swed