In the music of Austrian composer Hanns Eisler (1898–1962), steadfast rejection of war plays a conspicuous and consistently present role. Not least due to Eisler’s own wartime experience (in the wake of his conscription for service in World War I at age 18), indictments of war appear even in his earliest art songs. He would continue to make the pacifist case throughout his decades-long creative career, also including a prominently placed pacifist appeal in the closing section of his Deutsche Sinfonie. To Eisler (and indeed to many of his generation), commitment to the communist cause was inseparable from such anti-war appeals and anti-war protest. And though the contradictions that emerged early on in this regard were absolutely clear to him, he was loathe to give up his fundamental stance on their account.
Eisler was not only an avowedly political composer but also a student of Arnold Schönberg, meaning that his confrontation with Schönberg’s own attitudes and compositional values also played a determining role for him throughout his subsequent career. It is probably well known how political motives were a significant factor behind the many years of estrangement between pupil and teacher that began in the mid-1920s. Put succinctly, Schönberg found himself unable to accept the compositional consequences of Eisler’s political commitments while Eisler, for his part, was no longer able to separate music and politics. But even so, he did make repeated attempts to accord dodecaphony a central role in his politically driven music—an approach that was, incidentally, in clear opposition to the dogmas of so-called socialist realism that had taken effect by 1932 at the latest. Eisler agreed with Brecht that advanced techniques, in particular, had to be included in the “breadth of the realistic manner of writing”. And in this context, all who would still accuse Eisler of uncritical adherence to communist doctrine or even Stalinism should take a closer look at the works he composed as well as his contributions to the so-called Expressionism Debate. What’s more, Eisler’s situation in the GDR—which is known to have been difficult—can also be attributed to his opposition to the precepts of socialist realism.
According to his own statements, Eisler sought to turn Schönberg’s 12-tone technique “downside up”, thereby also rendering it accessible for use in politically engaged and “applied” music. His 1936 cantata Gegen den Krieg [Against War] with its text by Bert Brecht can serve to illustrate this.
Here, in a total of 24 variations, the composer demonstrates several ways of handling a tone row. Even the structuring of the row itself demonstrates the special nature of Eisler’s approach.
Eisler’s tone row emphasises tonal aspects in a clearly traditional manner: three ascending minor thirds at the beginning, a leading-tone progression at the melodic climax as well as at the end, and a descending major sixth that represents the inversion of the structurally determinant minor third as the most conspicuous melodic interval. The repetition of this concluding modulation (consisting of the descending sixth and the leading-tone progression) following introduction of the tone row emphasises the structural significance of this passage—which is also the one that stands out most to the listeners. This obvious “violation of the rules” is closely associated with the text: here, Brecht proclaims the equal dismay of victors and vanquished. The tone row, with slight deviations owed solely to the music’s close adherence to the text, is presented a total of three times as part of the theme. This gives even the “casual listener” an opportunity to take good note of this music’s structurally defining characteristics.
In the variations, Eisler employs the tone row and its basic forms (inversion, retrograde, retrograde-inversion) but does not transpose it, which eases recognition of the aforementioned structures. In the second variation, for example, the tone row’s melodic minor third structure is used to form harmonious homophonic chords. The eighth variation sees the tone row’s original form played once again in unison, albeit rhythmically varied. The following two variations, while they retain this rhythmic structure, present the tone row fugally and in paired parts, with variation nine featuring its original form and variation ten its inversion. The repetition of the final modulation at the end of the tenth variation is semantic in function and refers to “unser Blut” [“our blood”], which is meant “wenn die Ob’ren von Opfern sprechen” [when those above speak of victims]. Variations 11 to 13 (“Sie reden wieder von Siegen, von Ehre…” [They speak again of victories, of honour…]), labelled as an “Intermezzo”, are far more freely structured and only at first allow the tone row to clearly shine through. Such deviation from the material continues in the variations that follow (“Wenn es zum Marschieren kommt” [When the marching begins]). The primitiveness of what is being described finds its analogue here in the melodic material’s reduction to just two notes at the end of this variation. Thereafter, this two-note material continues to be employed semantically—such as at the end of variation 19 in connection with the munitions factories’ billowing smokestacks and at the conclusion of the coda, in connection with the final words of the text (“…ist nicht unser Krieg.” […is not our war.]). And when the voice of command is characterised as that of the true enemy in variation 14, the tone row appears only in an incomplete inversion. Variations 15 to 17 are likewise conceived as something like object lessons: a speaking voice (performance instruction: “Speak reasonably, do not shout!”) breaks away from the choir and presents the “solution”: an appeal for humankind’s refusal, which would render war impossible.
Similar references to the traditional tonal context abound in Eisler’s music, including in the Deutsche Sinfonie and his series of “Chamber Cantatas”—all of which goes to show how unambiguous protest need by no means preclude compositionally elaborate realisation.