- “I am not a hero, I am a composer”: Hanns Eisler in Hollywood by Horst Weber
Horst Weber’s study of Hanns Eisler in Hollywood is without a doubt a big book. This biography of the Austrian composer focuses on a tumultuous period of his exile in the United States. Weber synthesizes wide-ranging detail—archival documents, close music analysis, psychoanalytical excursions, and reception history—to tell a story about earning money, writing music, negotiating shifting global politics, and living as a foreigner in California from 1942 to 1947. The German musicologist consistently taps into the debates that drive scholarship on the composer: How do we reconcile Eisler’s politically-engaged compositions with those for commercial film? How did the devoted Schoenberg student come to write almost entirely diatonic music in the German Democratic Republic? It is precisely the varied nature of Eisler’s professional activities in Los Angeles that Weber isolates in order to stress continuities with the composer’s life and musical language before and after. He thus counters musicological narratives that understand exile as the cause of a decisive break in compositional style. Instead, in this substantial scholarly study, the California exile comes to stand for the complex and often contradictory musical figure that Hanns Eisler was throughout his life.
Weber’s writing style sets the pace of the text, and his dedication to detail shapes the entire monograph. Most of the chapters reproduce substantial excerpts from primary documents, and Weber goes to considerable efforts to set these off from his interpretation and synthesis, inviting other scholars to take advantage of the material’s textual and musical richness. Of twin importance are Eisler’s Hollywood compositions and the California papers of the composer and his wife, Louise Eisler-Fischer, which recently became available as a part of the Lion Feuchtwanger Memorial Library at the University of Southern California. From film score to lied to piano sonata to incidental music for Bertolt Brecht’s theater, the musical works span genres. Weber accords each measured analysis, drawing out gestures, tonal spaces, and formal tensions to paint a picture of the composer’s musical value system. Fragments of scores—many of which are currently unpublished—enable the reader to follow the nuances of Weber’s close readings. Sometimes his insights come across as meant for scholars familiar with the voluminous literature on the composer, much of which is in German. But the author also contributes by synthesizing existing knowledge, such as the publication history of Composing for the Films and the sources and composition history of the Hollywood Songbook, and the resulting charts are a clear and helpful resource for musicologists of any stripe.
The book’s scope is vast, but the thick description that pervades it evokes Eisler intimately and humanly. Weber sustains his own scholarly and personal reflections on exile and other traumas of twentieth-century history throughout the book, giving the five-hundred-page tome a unified voice. An “opening sequence” serves as the introduction to the five thematic sections that clearly structure the book. It sets the author’s ambition to study Eisler as a composer “hidden” by his exile, and it advocates for his originality and significance. The first section is devoted to Eisler’s transition to living in Los Angeles. After an evocative retelling of the composer’s departure from New York City and cross-country road trip—the section’s first chapter contains some of the most dynamic writing in the entire book—Weber discusses his final compositions on the East Coast. Piecing together letters, receipts, and newspaper clippings that reveal Eisler’s negative impressions of Los Angeles and frustrated reception in New York, Weber establishes the fundamental personal unhappiness and professional outsider status that define, through this book, Eisler’s exile on the West Coast. In the second section, Weber takes a broad view of Eisler’s introduction [End Page 473] and responses to the film industry in Hollywood, analyzing the preparatory materials for...