Hanns Eisler (1898-1962)

Marxist composer Hanns Eisler spent his life practising his politics through music. Despite the dangerous political implications of doing so, Eisler stayed true to his Communist ideals,  fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s and America in the 1940s. Musicologist David Blake writes that ‘no composer has suffered more from the post-1945 cultural cold war,’ though in recent years Eisler’s work has been celebrated through the renaming of the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler Berlin in 1964, and the forming of the International Hanns Eisler Society in 1994.

Though born in Liepzig to a musical family, Eisler grew up in Vienna. He studied music from a young age and joined a progressive youth group; he fought for Hungary during the Great War. On his return to Vienna, Eisler began studying composition with Karl Wiegl at the New Vienna Conservatory. Some of his earliest works were written in response to the First World War. From 1919-1923 Eisler studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg. Though they focussed primarily on harmony and counterpoint, Eisler began to experiment with modernism and atonalism. Schoenberg’s influence can be heard in Eisler’s early compositions; he was also influenced by German Romanticism, jazz and popular music. His Piano Sonata Op. 1 was premiered in 1924 on Schoenberg’s recommendation.

In 1925 Eisler moved to Berlin to teach at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory. His musical style began to change as he became more politically active, motivated by his experiences in the First World War. He applied to join the German Communist Party in Berlin (though his application was rejected for financial reasons). Around this time, he began to disagree with Schoenberg about the way new music was developing: Eisler felt that modern music was elitist and difficult for the ordinary listener to appreciate and understand. He wrote to his former mentor:

Modern music bores me, it doesn't interest me, some of it I even hate and despise. Actually, I want nothing to do with what is ‘modern…’ Also, I understand nothing (except superficialities) of twelve-note technique and twelve-note music.

Eisler faced a dilemma: though he had great potential, working in Schoenberg’s elitist, ‘bourgeois’ musical circle directly opposed his political beliefs. He wrote for the Communist journal Die Rote Fahne, and his music began to change direction. His anthems, marches and choral works could be performed and enjoyed by anyone and his music became popular with left-wing groups across Europe.

Vocal works from the mid-1920s demonstrate Eisler’s difficulty in reconciling his political and musical loyalties: Tagebuch des Hanns Eisler, Op. 9 (1926) sets excerpts from the composer’s diary; Zeitungausschnitte, Op. 11 (1925-7) uses newspaper clippings to show his inner conflict. Both compositions premiered in Germany in 1927. Eisler turned his attention to music that would could be enjoyed by the public. He wrote ‘Kampflieder’ (songs for the struggle), music for film and incidental music for plays. His most famous and long-lasting collaboration originated in 1930 when he began working with playwright Bertolt Brecht. Together they produced socialist works such as Die Massnahme (1930) and Die Mutter (1932), based on Brecht’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s 1906 novel.

Eisler was in Vienna in January 1933 when Hitler became German Chancellor. Those involved with the German Workers’ movement were forced to immediately cease their activities and Eisler decided not to return to Berlin. His music was subsequently banned by the Nazi Party. During the early 1930s Eisler moved itinerantly around Europe and to and from New York where he spoke publicly against Fascism in Germany. He composed as he travelled, mostly working on socialist projects: his Kleine Sinfonie was performed in London in 1935, and he worked on Die Rundköpfe und due Spitzköpfe (1936) with Brecht in Copenhagen. His Deutsche Sinfonie, a series of anti-Fascist instrumental and vocal movements set to texts by Brecht, was composed during his nomadic years but not performed until 1959. In 1937 Eisler took up a teaching post at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Though Eisler had stylistically moved away from the Second Viennese School, his attitude had somewhat softened and he returned to serialism through his compositions. His Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H (1934), Five Orchestral Pieces (1938/1940), String Quartet Op. 75, Chamber Symphony and his quintet Fourteen Ways of Describing Rain (1941) all experiment with serialism. Describing Fourteen Ways of Describing Rain, Eisler wrote: ‘I do not want to say that the crucial theme of the twentieth century is, shall we say, the anatomy of sorrow – or the anatomy of melancholy. But that too may present itself in a work of music.’ Much of Eisler’s output from this time was for film or documentary – though often serialist in style, these works satisfied his wish to compose accessibly for a mass audience.

In 1942 Eisler moved to Hollywood and took up a teaching post at the University of Southern California, where he also wrote for film. There he continued to collaborate with Brecht and co-wrote Composing for the Films with Theodore Adorno in 1947. His reputation and contacts enabled a fruitful career as a Hollywood composer, though he was unable to fully express his political ideas. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the score for Hangmen also Die (1942), which depicts the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor in charge of Czechoslovakia and the Czech people’s resistance to Nazi occupation. Eisler used atonality and some tone row in this film score; he was one of the first Hollywood composers to do so.

After the Second World War, Hollywood producers and scriptwriters were brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Eisler and Brecht were asked to answer on the socialist elements in Die Massnahme and Die Mutter; Eisler was also asked about his brother, Gerhart Eisler, who was accused of being a spy. Well-known individuals including Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Aaron Copland signed a petition for Eisler’s release, which was granted in 1948. After Eisler was subsequently expelled from America, he returned to Germany where he settled in East Berlin, attracted by its promise of a socialist society.

Back in Germany, Eisler became a member of the German Academy of Arts and a professor at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. His setting of poet Johannes Becher’s ‘Auferstanded aus Ruinen’ became the German Democratic Republic’s national anthem – his setting borrowed from the score for Hangmen also Die. During the period 1948 to his death in 1968, Eisler wrote scores for plays, films and cabaret as well as celebration songs and marches. Though his work was largely confined to the GDR after his death in 1962, the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989 renewed interest in his music. The Hanns Eisler Complete Edition, produced by the Hanns Eisler International Society, aims to make his compositions accessible and ‘useful,’ in line with Eisler’s own beliefs about music.

By Abaigh McKee


Albrecht Betz (2006) Hanns Eisler Political Musician (Cambridge: CUP).

Sally Bick (2003) ‘Political Ironies: Hanns Eisler in Hollywood and behind the Iron Curtain,’ Act Musicologica, 75 [1], 65-84.

David Blake (2001) ‘Eisler, Hanns.’ Grove Music Online.

Hanns Eisler International Society. www.hanns-eisler.com/index.php/en/complete-edition.

Hanns Eisler (1999) A Rebel in Music: Selected Writings (London: Kahn and Averill, 1999).

The OREL Foundation, ‘Hanns Eisler.’ orelfoundation.org/composers/article/hanns_eisler

James Wierzbicki (2008) ‘Hans Eisler and the FBI’ in Music and Politics, 2[2].

"Auferstanden aus Ruinen" ("Risen from Ruins") was the national anthem of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), commonly known as East Germany, during its existence from 1949 to 1990.