Forbidden Music: Composers banned by the Third Reich

January 27, 2017 by Stevie Whitmont
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Continuing a series by Stevie Whitmont of music banned by the Nazis.

Hanns Eisler (1898 – 1962) was an initially a major proponent of Arnold Schoenberg’s serialist method of composition, having studied with Schoenberg following the Great War.  Moving to Berlin in 1925, then a hothouse of Weimar politics, jazz and cabaret,

Hanss Eisler

Eisler fell out with the Schoenbergian atonal system.  His music moved increasingly towards populism and away from the “elitism” promoted by the 2nd Viennese School (Schoenberg’s pupils).  He believed music was useless if directed only towards sophisticated listeners.  In 1929 he wrote the song cycle Zeitungsaussschnitte Op 11 (translation:  newspaper excerpts).  This was the forerunner of art music known as “News Items”.  The style parodied newspaper content with lyrics quoted from contemporary media. Eisler’s choice of lyrics indicated strong socialist leanings.  He began a collaboration with the playwright Bertolt Brecht which lasted throughout his lifetime.  During the late 1920’s to early 1930’s, Eisler developed music for Brecht’s plays, political protest songs, and military anthems:  all generally with a Marxist bent.

Born into a Jewish family, Eisler was doubly at risk by 1933, from his Jewish heritage and his political stance.  He had applied for Communist Party membership in 1926 but was denied membership because he failed to pay his dues on time.  Significantly for his later “exile” in the USA, Eisler’s brother and sister were both outspoken pre-war Communist zealots.

From 1933, Eisler’s music (also Brecht’s work) was banned by the Nazis.  He anticipated danger and began a protracted period of travel throughout Europe (1933 – 1938). He finally managed to emigrate to the United States with a permanent resident visa in 1938.  Eisler gravitated to Hollywood, where he composed music for documentary (and other) films.  He was nominated for Oscars in 1944 and 1945 for his work on the films Hangman Also Die! and None but the Lonely Heart.

Sadly for Eisler, his reputation in America was based more on his political affiliations than on his composition.  Famed in Germany for his populist songs, Eisler from the beginning had also produced serious chamber music, variously affected by Serialist principles.  His concert works approached Schoenberg’s prescriptions in ways that were more comprehensible for the listener:  his was a music described as “serialism with a human face”.  Of Eisler in America, however, James Wierzbicki writes, “Eisler’s claim to fame is in fact quite solid…..based not on his work as a composer but on his reputation as a suspected enemy of the American government.”  Eisler was investigated by the American FBI between 1942 and 1947, pursuing him with full force:  exegesis of all his published writings, wiretaps, observation and break-ins.  This was early McCarthy-ism, and in Eisler’s case it was a fruitless pursuit of evidence to support Hoover’s conviction:  that Hanns Eisler was the “Karl Marx of music”, and the chief Communist Soviet agent in Hollywood.  Despite the lack of evidence, Eisler was summoned by the House Committee on Un-American activities in 1947.  The Eislers left America voluntarily in early 1948, seemingly just prior to official deportation.  He left this poignant statement on departure:  “I could well understand it when in 1933 the Hitler bandits put a price on my head and drove me out…..I was proud at being driven out.  But I feel heart-broken over being driven out of this beautiful country in this ridiculous way”.

The Eislers returned to Austria, later moving to East Germany where he continued to compose.  He collaborated again with Bertolt Brecht until the latter’s death in 1956.  Eisler’s remaining years were marred by depression and declining health.  He died of a heart attack in 1962 and is buried near Brecht in the East German Dorotheenstadt Cemetery.


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