- Hanns Eisler's Art Songs: Arguing with Beauty by Heidi Hart
As twentieth-century composers go, Hanns Eisler is doing very well. Literature on the composer is expanding vibrantly, on both sides of the Atlantic, and transcending language boundaries. It is easy to see why. Eisler's multi-faceted output and colourful life are fascinating and invite multiple approaches, interpretations, and readings. Eisler survived two world wars and numerous political systems, becoming a political refugee twice over in the process. He was one of Schoenberg's outstanding pupils, worked at the forefront of Hollywood, and, as author of a national anthem (of a now deceased nation, the GDR), probably ranks amongst the twentieth-century's most performed composers. It is not my intention to categorize the wide diversity of literature on the composer, although it is notable that these multidimensional layers offer scholars opportunities either to explore specific elements of Eisler's life and work (e.g. Sally Bick, Composers on the Cultural Front (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2001), and Horst Weber, 'I'm not a Hero, I'm a Composer' (Hildesheim, 2012)) or adopt more overarching, biographical approaches (e.g. Friederike Wißmann, Hanns Eisler (Munich, 2012), Andrea F. Bohlman and Philip V. Bohlman, Hanns Eisler (Berlin, 2012), and Fritz Hennenberg, Hanns Eisler (Mainz, 2017)).
Heidi Hart's contribution is a welcome addition to the burgeoning Eisler literature. While Eisler's songs feature in many, if not indeed most, of the existing literature, overall attention to this part of his creative output is not spread evenly. For example, many scholars foreground the songs Eisler wrote while in California during the late 1930s and early 1940s and often concentrate on settings of texts by Bertolt Brecht. Conversely, Hart positions Eisler's lieder as one evolving body of work and sets out to provide in-depth discussions of the songs as they span the composer's long and varied career. Hart follows a chronological timeline that roughly carves chapters into the places on Eisler's long migratory journey, and her writing is alert to the composer's changing contexts. The first of the five chapters addresses Eisler's early lieder in his native Vienna, spanning the time until his move to Berlin in 1925 and encompassing his years as a Schoenberg pupil. These include the 1917 Galgenlieder to texts by Christian Morgenstern, the Six Songs for Voice and Piano (1922, various authors), and three Heine settings for a cappella male choir (1925), which Hart acknowledges are not lieder, but which she includes because they signal his shift towards a more activist political approach.
Interestingly, Hart makes short shrift of Eisler's time in Berlin during the Weimar Republic. Instead, her book's second chapter focuses for the most part on Eisler's collaboration with Brecht during their early years as refugees from Nazi Germany. Specifically, Hart concentrates on Eisler's second setting of Brecht's poem An die Nachgeborenen', which she describes as a triptych that is marked by the combination of a loose return to dodecaphonic [End Page 747] techniques with allusions to Baroque and Romantic music. The third chapter discusses Eisler's Hölderlin Fragmente, composed during the years in Hollywood with the aim, in Hart's view, of reclaiming the poet from Nazi ideology. Hölderlin returns centre stage in the last chapter, which I found the most tightly written and successful of the book. Hart explores how Eisler's late Ernste Gesänge (1962) represent a renewed engagement with Holder-lin (alongside Berthold Viertel and Helmut Richter) while simultaneously recalling Brahms's late Ernste Gesänge, thus almost emerging like an elegy for the composer's disillusionment with the GDR.
Beginning just before Eisler's effective deportation from the USA, chapter 4 centres on his early years in the nascent GDR. Here, the poet of interest is Goethe, and Hart debates the extent to which Eisler's intent to compose for a socialist society clashed with party political demands and pressures. (These clashes later...