It is perhaps characteristic that my first encounter with Hanns took place on the soccer field at the Vienna Prater. Most of the young musicians of my generation became acquainted either in one of the four galleries of the court opera or the standing room of the Musikvereinsaal. Hanns and I were, to be sure, fellow students of the same high school, but we were separated, in different classes [lit. translated "parallel classes", so same grade, different class]; we did not know each other. An enthusiasm for soccer is what brought us together.
This occurred in Vienna in 1912, and this first meeting is clear in my mind even today. The noisy atmosphere of a sports stadium was certainly a much better place to begin a friendship with Hanns than the rather aristocratic ambiance of the Vienna Opera would have been. At first sight he seemed comical to me. Even his clothing was somewhat absurd. It was as if part of his dress had come out of his father's closet, and the rest out of his younger brother's. The overall impression was that his suit was at the same time too large and too small. And as if that weren't enough, the thirteen-year old already had the bald head of a forty-year old. If one can imagine that, on top of a rather short-built body sat a large head, with a cheerful, full-moon shaped, mischievously grinning face, which at every turn revealed a bald head, then it will be easy to understand that, after more than 50 years, I cannot forget this first impression of Hanns.
He had the voice of a child, and this voice would often break, even in later years, and it broke especially when Hanns was excited. And when wasn't he excited! This often shrill, "unmusical" voice was a very important component of his arsenal used in endless discussions, as it was no longer used for the end of a soccer game, but rather for more serious things. You could hear this voice a few years later when Hanns, at that time already a prospective student of Arnold Schoenberg, dressed in the uniform of an Austrian army which no longer exists, leading all-night discussions in the barracks in Grinzing, on the one hand about the music of Schoenberg and Webern, and on the other hand about the events, consequences, and views of the Russian Revolution of 1917. This voice reached its highest tone, that of scorn, when his polemic vented itself in the extreme against the "splendid isolation" of the Vienna composers of that time who counted for something, against their "art for the sake of art" attitude, against their disdain for the historical events which had literally unhinged the world.
At that time only one man was granted the limitless mercy of the merciless Hanns: Arnold Schoenberg. The esteem, love, admiration, and devotion that Eisler felt and demonstrated for Schoenberg can hardly be explained without the help of psychology or psychoanalysis. Schoenberg was for Hanns neither the greatest composer or painter, poet or thinker, nor the greatest musician and teacher; to him he was simply the greatest. Period. It was that way when Hanns was 20 and it remained so until Schoenberg's death. I remember one afternoon at Schoenberg's house in Los Angeles – it was 1944 or 1945 – when Hanns literally became deathly pale because I had dared, during a conversation with Schoenberg at tea time, to contradict a remark made by Schoenberg. On the way home from Schoenberg's house, Hanns was rather depressed and short- tempered. In order to provoke him, I turned the conversation to Schoenberg, his character, his music, his many remarks about contemporary artistic questions which had been the topic of conversation that afternoon. And then I asked Hanns what he thought a socialist society should/would do with a man such as Schoenberg. "Ah," said Hanns, and his mood changed instantly from grouchy to cheerful and boisterous. "A wonderful palace would need to be built for him, completely out of glass, of course, with wonderful gardens, large fountains, and colorful exotic birds. And in this glass house would sit the old man, painting his twelve-tone rows in gigantic notes, undisturbed by what was going on in the world, while the rest of us, outside, on the periphery of his glass palace, would build up socialism. Thus should Schoenberg live until the end of his life, like the Caliphs in the Thousand and One Nights."
When Hanns' listeners would not go along with him, as would sometimes happen in the barracks in Grinzing, then he would appoint himself as his own audience, stage boos, and finally maneuver himself into some corner from which there was no longer a way back, and then there would be a detour through lots of laughter. And who, of those who lived it, could forget the crescendo, the accelerando, the heavenly boisterousness, and the uninhibited happiness of his laughter. Or instead Hanns would act dumb, in a way that only few can do.
During his indescribably hard studies with Schoenberg, I sometimes heard comments from Hanns which convinced me that he had already at that time, perhaps only intuitively, sought a communicative basis in music. We see in his development only a short period in which he was attracted to the "New per se." The piano sonata, the duet, the Palmstroem Songs belong to this period. With the fresh, aggressive "Newspaper Clippings" he attempted – through a radical, anti-traditional manner and through "persiflage" which reminds one with its open brutality of George Grosz – to point out and make fun of the decades-old unbearable, accumulated pseudo-romantic bombast. Because at that time, the end of WWI, "New" could be realized only through the shock effect. Eisler very soon tired of this "commoner-shock" attitude. "New" as a goal in itself no longer interested him. Events forced him to "express his opinion", the intensification of the political situation forced decisions. The composer Eisler, whose musical language, under the influence of Schoenberg, was tied to late romanticism, from which he forged a style that belonged more to the "art for art's sake" than it corresponded to the need for a communicative basis, decided, and to be sure with a certain suddenness, on an almost heroic step: to write, on the basis of communicative art and with materialistically very modest means, music which was simple, sound, optimistic, and powerful. The opinion is often given, especially in America, that it was Bert Brecht who caused this change in Hanns. That is nonsense. Hanns underwent this change at least 5 years befroe he met Brecht.
The editor of this memoir – and this publication does not deal with anything else – does not have the intention of giving an aesthetic valuation of the works of Eisler, and particularly not of those written in collaboration with Brecht. Only one detail should perhaps be mentioned, namely that this change in style was by no means unconditional – and therefore by no means a definitive renunciation of the "first" post-romantic period. In many compositions, expecially the songs for voice and piano, which were written in America during the war, one can find numerous elements of an almost Schubert-like tenderness and beauty with a very nostalgic undertone of the Austrian countryside.
Hanns Eisler was not a radical anti-Romantic. Under a tough exterior (lit. "rough shell") was hidden a very sensitive, warmhearted musician. What was unbearable to him was the esoteric jargon of the contemporary lyricists – especially Rilke. With his outspoken taste for caricature, Hanns could in inimitable ways improvise poems "a la Rilke," and he would accompany the recitation of such an improvisation with a grotesque choreography of classical ballet. It's not that he had no sense for great lyrik. He knew his Goethe, he loved Morike and Holderlin, and of his contemporaries he valued the poetry of Berthold Viertels – but the mystical symbolism of a Stefan George or Rilke could not win him over. I remember one incident very clearly, when Hanns was looking over the composing attempts of a musician friend. This happened in Vienna, around 1920. He sat at the piano, in front of him lay the musical arrangement of a Rilke poem. Hanns played the first few opening bars, and then began to sing the first lines of the song, "The evening is my book…." He stopped here suddenly and shrieked with all his might, "But that is impossible, one cannot compose such a thing, the evening is not a book, the evening is a newspaper, and to be sure a …" And now broke forth a waterfall, a cascade, a grueseme, true-to-nature description of a Viennese afternoon newspaper called, "The Evening." And this description was no compliment to this newspapers or its publishers, as one can easily imagine, and certainly no compliment to Rilke or the young composer.
In literature, Hanns was already very experienced as a young man. Today he must be especially given credit for the fact that he was the only one of the young men and also the only one amoung the Schoenberg circle, who did not unconditionally accept Karl Kraus. I have him to thank for my first acquaintance with the great French romantic novelists. Stendhal was his great love. When I once spoke enthusiastically of a novel by a Russian author, Arzybaschev, he merely schrugged his shoulders and the corners of his mouth, and he said, "You must read Stendhal." A few days later he brought me the "Chartreuse de Parme" in German translation. He had a great admiration for French literature, much less for French music – and no understanding at all of French painting. He was not a visual person. He was proud of his French heritage, somewhere on his paternal side. When he mentioned Robespierre, Danton, or Marat, it was as though he were speaking of his cousins. But he was equally proud of his rural, Saxon heritage from his mother's side.
I believe that in certain phases of his life, cynicism and tactic hid behind the face which he presented to the public. Without perhaps realizing it himself, he suffered immeasurably from the fact that he did not succeed at reaching the reality of the proletarian. He could not alter his character. Despite a light, perhaps too easily comprehensible musical idiom, which he put aside after his return to America in 1948, for example in the German Rhapsody, for a new music style, which was supposed to meet the challenges of its era and place of composition, a style which got on the nerves of educated musicians and irritated and horrified the sophisticated listener, he lived and died as a radical, anti-subjective but late middle-class artist, certainly as a creature of the 19th century and as a musician of the late-romantic Viennese school of Arnold Schoenberg.
Eisler had a pronounced talent for friendship. His good will, patience, and his compassion for his colleagues were of quite a rare variety. Professional circumstances sometimes made it necessary for Hanns to come together with composers, whose music had very little worth or was altogether worthless. It was an extraordinary drama, to observe with what friendliness and politeness Hanns dealt with these musicians, as if he had to compensate for their endless bad luck, namely their lack of talent, with an extra measure of good.
Hanns and I came through many bitter years of Hitler and emigration side by side. Our last meeting, several years ago, took place in Vienna, not far from the soccer field in the Prater where we first met in 1912.
[Grateful thanks to Dana Sundene for her excellent English translation!]
Copyright © 1998 by MIsha Horenstein