On July 6, 1898 – and thus in the same year as his later companion Bertolt Brecht – Johannes Eisler was born in Gartenstraße 14 (today’s Hofmeisterstraße 14). His maternal grandparents were in this house reported by the police. Hanns Eisler’s birth apartment is on the ground floor on the left and comprised five small rooms. His mother, Ida Maria Eisler, née Fischer, and his father, the philosopher and Wilhelm Wound student Dr. Rudolph Eisler, had already lived in Vienna. Only for the birth of their third child the mother and probably the whole Eisler family travelled to Leipzig. Stays in the birthplace are documented until 1912.
In the middle of the First World War, at the age of just eighteen, the young Eisler was sent to the k.u.k. Army, which at that time fought on the side of the German Empire; Eisler’s first preserved compositions date from this period.
In 1919 Eisler, who until then had formed purely autodidactically, began to study counterpoint at the New Vienna Conservatory. In the same year, however, he became a private student of Arnold Schönberg. Until the spring of 1923 he was to remain his teacher and, in retrospect, call him one of his best students.
In September 1925 Eisler moved from Vienna to vibrant Berlin, where he joined the working class milieu. His encounter with the actor and singer Ernst Busch, who became the first interpreter of Eisler’s songs at political events, became groundbreaking for him. In 1929, in the same year, the lifelong cooperation with Bertolt Brecht also began.
The Nazi takeover in 1933 forced Eisler to flee. He alternated between Austria, France, Denmark, England, Spain, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. In 1935 Eisler made his first trip to the U.S., which were to be his new home for ten years from 1938.
In the wake of the McCarthy era, Eisler was interrogated by the House Committee on un-American Activities in Washington in 1947 and finally expelled from the country in 1948 – despite fierce protests from prominent advocates such as Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. Eisler arrived in Vienna at the end of March 1948 via London and Prague. In 1949 he moved to Berlin (East).
He was one of the founding members of the “Deutsche Akademie der Künste zu Berlin” – later renamed the “Akademie der Künste der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik” and today known as “Akademie der Künste zu Berlin” -, the successor institution to the “Preußische Akademie der Künste”, where Arnold Schönberg once led a master class before being driven into exile. Eisler followed in the footsteps of his great teacher by taking over the re-established Master Class for Composition at the newly founded Academy. He also held a professorship in composition at the Deutsche Hochschule für Musik, also founded in 1950, which bears his name since 1964, two years after his death.
Hanns Eisler’s enormously rich musical output impresses with an almost exuberant stylistic diversity.
At the latest with his move to Berlin in the 1920s, he came to the conviction that music has a sociopolitical mission.
Eisler‘s artistic mission was to stand up for the interests of the proletariat and to participate in building a socialist and ultimately communist society. Throughout his life he devoted himself to the task of developing appropriate musical means and putting them at the service of the working-class movement.
His oeuvre includes symphonies, chamber music, stage works as well as a barely comprehensible number of songs based on poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Hölderlin, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Tucholsky and others.
His song writing is probably the only one that can stand comparison with Franz Schubert’s – in terms of scope, ambiguity and quality. A total of 500 songs have been composed throughout his life, including the famous “Hollywooder Liederbuch”, as well as political songs, ballads and chansons, workers’ songs and marching songs, such as the “Solidaritätslied” (Solidarity Song) written in 1932 in the face of the rise of fascism. In 1949 he wrote the GDR national anthem entitled “Auferstanden aus Ruinen” (Risen from the Ruins), to which the later GDR Minister of Culture, Johannes R. Becher, wrote the lyrics.
In exile in European countries and the U.S. as well as after the Second World War Eisler composed film scores for more than 40 films, including the music for “Hangmen Also Die“ and “None but the Lonely Heart” – both nominated for an Academy Award. Together with Theodor W. Adorno he wrote the basic book of media theory “Komposition für den Film” (Composing for the films).
As a disciple of Arnold Schönberg he was as familiar with the traditions of Viennese classical music as he was with the musical idiom of the avant-garde. A number of his works also feature elements of Eastern European and Yiddish folk music.
Photos from the archive Dr. Jürgen Schebera, edited by neumgraf