Eisler’s on the Come and Go: Eisler, Dylan, Guthrie, And a Question That Persists

Hanns Eisler is another one of those composers you think you’ve never heard of, but actually are sorta kinda peripherally acquainted with, in a “huh-well-that’s-useful-to-know-for-Trivial-Pursuit” kind of way.

He’s the guy – well, one of the guys — you can thank every time you get that Bob Dylan earworm, “The times, they are a-changin’” stuck in your head. Dylan cites as a big influence Bertolt Brecht, whose musical revue “Brecht on Brecht” he saw in 1963. Brecht and Eisler collaborated frequently, with Eisler setting the writer’s words to music. Song of the Moldau, which was featured in that revue, was one such collaboration. One of the lines in Song of the Moldau, at least according to some translations, is “The times are a-changing. The last shall be the first/The last shall be the first.”

But Eisler is more than just a one-hit pop-culture curiosity – he’s got quite a lot to tell us about our messed-up country.

Born in Leipzig in 1898, Eisler grew up a staunch Marxist and anti-Fascist. In the run-up to Hitler, he composed rousing protest songs for the working man like this one.

After Hitler’s rise, Eisler emigrated to the U.S., where he made a living composing film scores and spoke out colorfully on behalf of the downtrodden. He castigated classical composers for being too reliant on the society ladies who keep institutions like the Metropolitan Opera going, telling the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union in a 1938 speech that “if there were to be a very special, very peculiar earthquake which would swallow up only wealthy women, then on the following day conductors, singers, pianists and composers would be found on the bread lines.” He abused popular musicians too, comparing most popular music to a “big glass of whiskey” that gives you “nothing but a headache after a very short period of pleasure.”

Eisler wanted to marry the two, to reconnect classical composers with folk music and the working class. In the 1920s, he advised his fellow composers to “open the window when you compose. Remember that the noise of the street is not mere noise, but is made by man.” And during a 1935 lecture, he told an audience that included Aaron Copland, according to Alex Ross’s book “The Rest is Noise,” that composers were “luxury tools of the capitalist system” and that “The modern composer must change from a parasite into a fighter.”

Eisler was trying to do just that himself. Consider the one CD of his in my father’s collection, Deutsche Sinfonie: An Anti-Fascist Cantata, which combines the high-brow tendencies of Arnold Schoenberg, one of Eisler’s teachers, with populist lyrics. Like this one, which tackles the Stalin-caused peasant famine in Ukraine and shows, by the way, that Eisler wasn’t a blind supporter of Communism.

Peasants arise, open your eyes
Don’t let this life upset you
Death in the end will get you
Peasants arise, open your eyes
No one can give assistance
Best make your own resistance.

Then came the Red Scare, the beginning of the Cold War, and the McCarthy era. Eisler’s outspokenness didn’t do him any favors with the House Committee on un-American Activities, which interrogated him twice (the video proceedings are almost too painful to watch), blacklisted him, and ultimately drove him out of the U.S. and to East Germany, where he composed their national anthem, Aus Ruinen Auferstanden (Rise out of the ruins.)

The HUAC also interrogated some of his musician friends. Some appeared to distance themselves from him, or at least from his ideas. Copland, when asked whether he agreed with comments by Eisler that “revolutionary music is now more powerful than ever,” said: “That is a vague statement. I don’t know what he means by “revolutionary music.”

Others unequivocally had his back. Charlie Chaplin, for instance, himself later exiled, had the following dialogue with a reporter:

Reporter: Are you friends with Hanns Eisler?
Chaplin: Yes, he is a personal friend, and I am very proud of the fact.
Reporter: Do you think Eisler is a Communist?
Chaplin: I know he is a fine artist and a great musician and a very sympathetic friend.
Reporter: Would it make any difference if he were a Communist?
Chaplin: No, it wouldn’t.

All of this brings me to the one other popular reference to Eisler that you might know, the Woody Guthrie song, “Eisler on the Go,” covered by Billy Bragg and Wilco in Mermaid Avenue. It poses a sadly pertinent question in Trump’s America, no longer what would you do, but what will you do? What will you do, as our exclusionary tactics towards people made refugees by our military leave them with no place to go? What will you do as ICE destroys families and, once again, pushes people out of our country? What stand will you take against white nationalism, inequality, and injustice of the sort that denies people the right to free thought and speech? Take it away, Woody.

Eisler on the go
Eisler on the move
Brother is on the Vinegar truck and
I don’t know what I’ll do

Comments are closed.