BRECHT AND EISLER
THE THEATRE OF BERTOLT BRECHT
LIFE OF A REVOLUTIONARY IN MUSIC
Hanns Eisler lifeline: 1898-1962
BBC Composer of the Month
Interview with Wolf Biermann
Jascha Horenstein remembers Eisler
Eisler in the McCarthy Era
Hanns Eisler, five months younger than Brecht, and a pupil of Schönberg and Webern, had come from Vienna to Berlin in 1925. He was an austerer composer than Weill; his sister Ruth Fischer and his brother Gerhard Eisler were both prominent Communist Party officials; and he had already become well known as a composer of Communist songs. As such he was prepared to do what Hindemith evidently would not, and give a certain supremacy to the text. Thus although Die Massnahme, the Lehrstück which he and Brecht wrote for the 1930 festival, was in one sense a logical continuation of the two pieces of 1929 and a natural companion to the Jasager (whose essential theme it repeated in Communist dress), the whole work had a strong political flavour, and Eisler's songs were revolutionary in their impact. Hindemith and the other directors of the Neue Musik objected to this. Die Massnahme was not performed at the festival; and Brecht's connection with the bulk of the new movement now ceased. 190
He and Eisler turned instead to the Socialist-Communist workers' choral societies, one of which (the Gemischte Chor Berlin) had originally been conducted by Hermann Scherchen, just as Anton Webern in Vienna had conducted the Arbeiter-Sinfonie. The didactic aim now became narrowed to these left-wing singers:
As there are half-a-million working-class singers in Germany, the effect on the singer is at least as important as that on the hearer. 191
So Brecht thought. But when three of the Berlin societies agreed to perform Die Massnahme at the end of 1930 the unfortunate effect was to split this whole movement; and in the end it was only the converted to whom Brecht was left preaching. In these circumstances the Baden-Baden principle of actual participation no longer seemed so important. Two years later Die Mutter, the last of the Berlin didactic works, was played mainly by professional actors, with the chorus relegated to a very minor role. And from then on Eisler's position in the partnership was a good deal less prominent than Weill's had been: at least, so far as the major works were concerned, though Brecht also supplied the words for individual choruses of a more or less rousing kind, such as Eisler had already been composing for some years.
Eisler was exactly the right composer for Brecht's mature poetic style. He had none of the faintly cheap nostalgia that haunts much of the work of Weill: he is an even more skilled (and in many ways highbrow) composer, who used his gifts like Brecht himself to make the meaning simple and clear. Like Brecht he used ecclesiastical (the Lutheran chorale) and popular models (folksong, popular ballads and jazz), and made of them something in no way imitative or spiced-up but recognizably his own. 'What is essential in modern music?' he asks in an article of 1949.
It is not the increased resources in discordances or in new colours, but the dissolution of the conventional musical language as handed down to us. A piece which is full of discords can be perfectly conventional in its approach, and one which uses relatively simpler material may, if the means are applied in an individual way, seem completely advanced and new. 192
This is true of most of his settings of Brecht's words: their originality consists in the chamber-music orchestration and lively counterpoint, in those changing rhythms that match Brecht's irregular lines, in the dry flavour and the persistent yet slightly unexpected melodies, at once logical and fresh. Eisler's music for Die Mutter, wrote Brecht,
can by no means be called simple. Quâ music it is relatively complicated, and I cannot think of any that is more serious. In a remarkable manner it makes possible a certain simplification of the toughest political problems, whose solution is a life and death matter for the working class. 193
It underlined the words and interrupted the story, exactly as Brecht had demanded in The Threepenny Opera notes.
These boys' or women's choruses, sometimes unaccompanied, recur in the incidental music which he wrote after 1949 for some of the productions of the Berliner Ensemble; but Brecht and he never again seem to have collaborated on any work of major interest, and most of these pieces are very slight. There are also a great number of individual songs by Eisler, and these range from the more private and esoteric settings of Brecht's exiled poems to the disappointing banalities of the children's poems and other 'positive' political songs written after Brecht's return home. The East German Academy's plan for publishing Eisler's collected songs and cantatas embraces something like 150 songs to texts by Brecht.
Dessau's settings of Brecht's words represent a reversion to the gingeredup folk or pseudo-folk style of the early Stravinsky. Thus the Mother Courage songs, he writes,
based on the folk-song, extend it by enriching it with rhythmical and harmonic multiplicity 195
-- that is to say, by abruptly-changing rhythms, ragged discords, and the insertion of tin-tacks in the piano hammers. This is certainly not ineffective: the bitter, sometimes violent orchestration gives the play a distinctive flavour, and the self-conscious 'modernism' of the method is less specious than it seems at first. But the general effect is to underline Brecht's own mannerisms -- an affected orientalism or a deliberate tattered squalor. The music is basically atmospheric; and except in the Mother Courage songs it fails to bring out, or even to let through, the sense. Both The Caucasian Chalk Circle and, still more, the opera Die Verurteilung des Lukullus represent a return to the despised 'culinary' approach. Lucullus's score is in many ways brilliantly exciting, but the critic is right who complained that the music 'is bogged down in illustrative externalities', 196 and the opera remains within the orthodox framework because the composer is heading in a quite different direction from Brecht's austerely didactic verse. No doubt Brecht could have checked this if he had wished, and perhaps one can read a certain disillusionment with didactic methods into his new tolerance of the 'idiotic' operatic form. But for all his surface innovations Dessau is not an opponent of the 'apparatus', and when Brecht in the 1940s returned to the orthodox theatre this collaboration helped him to adopt a more orthodox attitude to the opera as well.
In England today we seem once more to be getting interested in the origins of this whole musical movement. We are reviving the small-scale works of Stravinsky, like Mavra and Renard and L'Histoire du Soldat; we see some connection between these and the economical, almost chamber form of opera being evolved at Aldeburgh by Benjamin Britten; but we forget what came between. The German social-musical developments of the 'twenties have remained in the shadow since 1933; to imply that music has any social aspect at all is now rank bolshevism; and the part played by Brecht and his collaborators is wholly ignored. Yet surely there was a quite continuous process, to which such works as the Honegger Concertino or the Falla Harpsichord Concerto or Auric's score for A Nous La Liberté all contributed, as well as neglected pieces like Křenek Little Suite for Piano (Op. 13a) or Wilhelm Grosz Ringelnatz songs (Op. 31) or Kästner and Edmund Nick charming satirical cantata of 1931, Leben in dieser Zeit.
It all represents a certain deflation of the pompous, difficult, uneconomic approach to music. And once we no longer look only at Stravinsky and Britten, the two extremities, we see that this is bound up with a new, largely social urge towards intelligibility, and a corresponding need for composers and writers to have something definite to say. Nowhere is this so clear as in Die Mutter, but the movement continues through Gershwin and Kaufmann's Of Thee I Sing and later, American, works by Weill such as OneTouch of Venus Touch of Venus or the 'school opera' Down in the Valley, to bring fresh sense and artistry also to the popular musical show. 'Its effect on the stage,' said the citation by Columbia University, who in 1932 gave Of Thee I Sing the first Pulitzer Prize to be gained by a lowbrow work,
promises to be very considerable, because musical plays are always popular, and by injecting genuine satire and point into them, a very large public is reached. 197
Compared with The Threepenny Opera, or even with Antheil Transatlantic, which it in some ways resembles, the Gershwin work was pure Gilbert-andSullivan. None the less, this suggestion proved true. In America at least (where Stravinsky, Bartok and Milhaud all wrote works during the 1940s for musical-comedy kings or dance-band leaders) 198 the lowbrow media have remained open to the highbrow artist, with the results that we saw in Oklahoma! and Leonard Bernstein ballet Fancy Free and many other good and successful works. And Marc Blitzstein rightly dedicated his The Cradle Will Rock (one of the landmarks in this particular story) to Brecht. For the combination of accessibility, artistry and solid content is fundamental to Brecht's ideas.