on February 25, 2002
German composer Hanns Eisler was sometimes dismissed by his critics as a "miniaturist"--a gifted composer of songs, film scores, stage music and tightly-structured chamber pieces who was incapable of larger-scale orchestral works. This assessment was partly the result of Eisler's theory of "applied music"--music should "climb down from its lofty heights" and take part in life's struggles. For Eisler, that meant music with a message. Before World War II, Eisler was one of the first serious composers to experiment with the new technologies of radio, sound film and recording, but he was best known for his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht in the radical musical theater that flourished in Berlin during the last crisis years of the Weimar Republic. Both content and form dictated Eisler's style, which tended to produce concentrated bursts of meaning through carefully constructed forms.
Then the Nazis came to power, and Brecht and Eisler fled for their lives. The "German Symphony" dates from this period, and shows that Eisler could indeed write for large musical forces. The symphony's 11 movements may perhaps be better described as an extended oratorio than an integrated choral symphony, but still, the effect is impressive, and the opening Praeludium is one of the finest cultural legacies of Eisler's "lost generation" during the years of exile from Nazi-dominated Europe. It is a powerful cry of protest, partly to words by Brecht, against the evil that raged through their German homeland.
on July 15, 1999
Last year was the Centenary for composer Hanns Eisler(1898-1998),and this work was given its United States premiere in New York under the baton of Leon Botstein. Eisler emerged from the Berlin avant-garde, a student of Arnold Schoenberg, yet a Marxist one who believed in the vigours of modernity yet tempered to a political reality,unlike Schoenberg who mindlessly scoffed at political engagement. Eisler devoted his creativity toward the resolution of the problematics of politically useful art. So he organized and wrote for Worker Choirs in Berlin,also writing hundreds of songs(lieder). This "Symphonie" is actually a cantata,with a text by Bertold Brecht. It is a dark work with Eisler's harmonic penchant for what he developed as a meeting ground between high and low art. An atonality that is straightforward melodically with a lyricism that provides a context for message projection. The richness of this work is in the exploitation of the genre,of song placed in the symphonic context,yet never really arching into symphonic shape. Eisler knew consummately the vocal contrapuntal achievements of Johann Sebastian Bach and Handel,and you feel this here in the seemless flow of alternating moments of solo,chorus and orchestra. There are orchestral interludes to inhance the contextual richness,even a movement entitled "concentration camp" written long before that became a reality in Germany.