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  • "A Composer Has to Challenge a Text"Hanns Eisler and the Ratmen
  • James Parsons (bio)

Music, like every other art, has to provide a specific social purpose.

Hanns Eisler1

San Francisco Examiner readers opened their newspapers on 25 September 1947 to find emblazoned above the front-page masthead: "Eisler, a Hollywood composer, is the brother of Gerhardt [sic] Eisler, alleged No. 1 Communist in the United States." The characterization came a day after Hanns Eisler, the composer so described, testified before the US House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).2 The same day, the Chicago Tribune restated on its first page a remark made at the hearing by chief HUAC investigator Robert E. Stripling: "This man is the Karl Marx of the communistic music world."3 A former Arnold Schoenberg student in Vienna (privately for four years, 1919–23), frequent Bertolt Brecht collaborator in Weimar Republic Berlin, and, in exile from Nazi Germany working primarily as a movie composer in Los Angeles (1942–48), Eisler proclaimed his HUAC encounter "sinister" and a "nightmare" (see fig. 1). This we know from two sources. Soon after testifying before the committee, Eisler used the word "sinister" in an article published in the American Marxist magazine New Masses (closely tied to the Communist Party USA) with the attention-grabbing title "Fantasia in G-Men," the latter American slang for US government agents, especially FBI. Although only one page long, the article was richly expressed. "This hearing is both sinister and ridiculous," he declared. "The committee is not interested in any testimony I may give or in anything I can testify about." What did interest the committee, according to Eisler, was their tenacious campaign to wage war on him, to "smear" him, an endeavor he believed was being carried out in order to "intimidate artists throughout the country to conform to the political ideas of this committee."4 The second source is "Nightmare," a lied Eisler composed soon after appearing before HUAC and which first bore the title "The Hearing (a Nightmare)," later shortened to "Nightmare," the first four words of which state "the ratmen accused me."5 [End Page 36]

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Figure 1.

Hanns Eisler, center, wearing glasses, 24 September 1947, hearing before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Washington, DC. Courtesy of Getty Images.

Riveting although the backstory of "Nightmare" is, only the briefest of summaries is possible here,6 for even more intriguing is the unusual window the song opens onto one of the most important aspects of Eisler's vocal music: the tension of dialectical opposites or, as he put it in 1931, a process he pressed into service as "society's great tutor."7 Whereas Eisler's appearance before the House Committee is the immediate inspiration, that is best thought of as the boiling point. The pot began its slow but steady simmer before September 1947, and it did so from within his own family. His sister, Ruth Fischer—born Elfriede Eisler—and Gerhart, his brother, were the key players in a drama seemingly lifted from Greek tragedy. Jealous of her brothers and disastrously mistaken that they had had a hand in setting in motion the murder of the love of her life, Arkadij Maslow, Ruth set about ruining her brothers. In late November 1946 she published six articles in the San Francisco Examiner.8 The first, from 18 November 1946, carried the headline "The Comintern's American Agent. Gerhart Eisler: The Career of a Terrorist." In the sixth article, "The Comintern in Hollywood," Hanns is made to play the role not just of unknowing lackey but willing and enthusiastic coconspirator. On 6 February 1947, following the testimony of Gerhart before the House Committee, Fischer appeared next. In [End Page 37] a prepared statement her first words were to describe Gerhart as "the perfect terrorist."9

Testifying before the House Committee in Washington, DC, on 24 September 1947 in a trial that lasted three days, Hanns Eisler was sworn in and then asked if he desired legal representation. He answered yes.10 With this he inquired if his attorneys could address the committee. When this was denied, Eisler...