BONNIE JO DOPP
HANNS EISLER - NONET N. 2 (1941)
from the film The Forgotten Village
For flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, percussion, 3 violins, double bass
Hanns Eisler, considered by Arnold Schoenberg to have been one of his three most important composition students, was an idealist. He could not continue using Schoenbergian serial technique while he sensed that masses of disgruntled people were clamoring for inspirational music to help them change the world. He wrote things people could sing (eventually, even the national anthem of East Germany) and musicals depicting various aspects of modern life that he felt badly needed reform or even complete eradication (racism, economic inequality, social oppression). He was a small-c communist (he testified in Congress that he had never paid dues to any party) and he suffered for it, having to flee both Nazi Germany and the McCarthy-era US. Even East Germany gave him grief for his insistence on artistic autonomy.
Much of Eisler’s paid work in Europe was for the cinema. For a time, though, he was a Hollywood film composer, living in rather luxurious style in Malibu after moving there from Mexico. Two of his American film scores were nominated for Oscars: Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die (1943), with a script by Eisler’s friend Bertolt Brecht and None but the Lonely Heart (1944), starring Cary Grant and Ethel Barrymore. One of his first American soundtracks was for the 1941 Herbert Kline film The Forgotten Village from which Eisler extracted his second nonet. The New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther loved the movie.
With a text by John Steinbeck and cinematography by Alexander Hammid, Crowther found that regarding The Forgotten Village, “Finer photography is hard to imagine. Hanns Eisler has also prepared a sharply integrated musical score, and Burgess Meredith narrates with proper restraint the affecting prose of Mr. Steinbeck.” Crowther also wrote, “Strictly speaking, it is not the sort of thing we call a ‘popular’ film, but it is most heartily recommended to persons who appreciate pure artistry.”
The Forgotten Village is a docu-drama quasi-ethnography, featuring people from a Mexican hamlet as actors and showing cultural practices (including shamanist medical techniques and funeral rituals) without evident exaggeration. Steinbeck’s fictional story is about real culture clash between traditional cures and science, country ways and urbanization. Eisler did not attempt to parody Mexican folk music in his score, but he did call for some percussive folk instruments and at times, plucked violin strings may suggest guitars. The film is now in the public domain and can be seen and heard on the Internet Archive website. A remastered DVD is also available. It is worth seeing by ‘persons who appreciate pure artistry,’ especially those who enjoy the sound of Nonet No. 2.
Nonet No. 2 does not contain all the music of the motion picture. Eisler chose segments of his film score and arranged them in an order that would make musical sense outside the cinema. Nonet No. 2 is not narrative, but it sounds ‘dramatic,’ if somewhat
fragmented. Imagine abrupt changes of scene while you listen. Here, a quiet family at home; there, hardworking men and boys in fields. Now a busy marketplace; then, the pained but stoic face of a woman in childbirth. The funeral scene in the film is at the halfway point, not near the end as its music is in Nonet No. 2. Eisler used predominately wind instruments partly because he felt that because movie music was heard via loud speakers, a small group of winds and percussion was better “suited to the microphone” than was an entire symphony orchestra.
Nonet No. 2 is in nine parts, the first three of which follow each other with no break. All players are involved in seven movements, with No. 5 (Largo) just for strings, flute, and bassoon, and the longest, No. 6 (Andante), just for solo violin, clarinet, and bassoon. The cultural contrast of the film’s theme is plainly realized in Nonet No. 2 by the last movement, which suddenly seems to transport listeners from what has been a relatively pastoral soundscape to one that evokes noisy city streets.
A posthumously released Eisler chamber work put together by Manfred Grabs and titled Sätze für Nonett uses other music from The Forgotten Village. An excellent biographical film by Larry Weinstein, Solidarity Song: the Hanns Eisler Story appeared in 1997 (Bullfrog Films). It includes many examples of Eisler’s songs and music for the stage and a fragment of Nonet No. 2.
For further reading, these books are available in the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library:
Eisler, Hanns: Composing for the Films (MT40.E35 1994), with Theodor Adorno, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1994. Highly theoretical, political, and critical of how things were in 1947, when it first appeared.