Brecht, Music and Culture: Hanns Eisler in Conversation

I have a fondness for interviews, having conducted quite a few on this blog, but I can only look on in awe

  • when I see someone capable of asking really good questions
  • when I see someone capable of making really good answers.

Two heads are better than one, or so it seems when we encounter dialectic.  I suppose I was mindful too of the advantages of two minds working collaboratively as I read the Hutcheons’ book Four Last Songs on Saturday, a book that hijacked my attention, pulling me away from the other book I was reading, which happened to be an explicit conversation (whereas FLS was perhaps distilled from the ongoing conversation between Linda & Michael).

It’s new even though it’s old.

  • Composer Hanns Eisler had conversations with Hans Bunge between 1958 and 1962
  • They were published in German in 1975 as Hanns Eisler Gespräche mit Hans Bunge. Fragen Sie mehr über Brecht, which could be translated as “Hanns Eisler talks to Hans Bunge.  Ask me about Brecht”.
  • And they were just translated in 2014 by Sabine Berendse and Paul Clements, published as Brecht, Music and Culture: Hanns Eisler in Conversation with Hans Bunge (which I shall refer to as BMC)

click for more information or to buy

Let me add, that I am again in awe of the Edward Johnson Building’s library, the collection for the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music.  Currently I have Harawi (Messiaen) and Die Schöne Mullerin (Schubert) out in anticipation of Against the Grain’s June show, Rachmaninoff piano concerti 2 & 3, as I listen to a new recording i picked up, the Mendelssohn violin concerto (for a recent concert), and songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Mahler, that figured in a recent church service.  I can’t recall the last time I looked unsuccessfully for something in this library.  They regularly have amazing new books on display, where (for example) I’ve also found another fabulous book about Liszt.

A library is a pretense for virtual conversation, the dialectic of minds meeting books.  The magic of a library lies in the oxymoron of a repository for thousands of personalities in a safe retreat for introverts, a silent agora jammed full of virtual people.

The title on the book makes it clear that while Bunge interrogated Eisler, there’s another key figure here, namely Bertolt Brecht, the great man at the centre of many of the questions and the reason for the interview.    I wonder if drama scholars –or the book-purchasers for the drama collections at the university—know about this book, which could easily fly under their radar. I suppose that is one reason I wanted to write this, to alert my friends & colleagues about this remarkable book.

But it’s in the Music Library because Eisler is also a great man, albeit one with a lower profile than Brecht.  I can’t forget the whole question of the life-choices of artists–so prominent in the Hutcheons’ book—as I look at Eisler, a man whose story would make a wonderful film or opera.

  • He fought in the First World War
  • He was a student of Arnold Schoenberg
  • In spite of his rigorous training, he chose to turn his back on serious music, seeking instead to write music that would appeal to the average person.
  • Like his friend Brecht, he was a Communist
  • He came to America, writing music for several films
  • He wrote one of the first theoretical studies of film music “Composing for the Films”, co-written with Theodor Adorno
  • He left America after a run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee
  • He went to the DDR (East Germany) immediately after the war, composer of the DDR national anthem.
  • He came into conflict with the Communists of East Germany too

You’d never know from this book that Eisler was prone to depression, but perhaps like many comedians, wit is a defence mechanism against depression.  The conversations sparkle without any evidence of depression: at least at this point in his life.

Brecht was his life-long friend & collaborator, first in Germany before the Second World War, then in America, and again in East Germany after Eisler was deported in 1948.  In this series of conversations we encounter Brecht via Eisler.  Bunge orchestrated a series of conversations meant to cover a variety of topics, encouraging Eisler to speak at length, showing his fascinating combination of intellectual acuity and moral fire, a political thinker in every aspect of his art.

So for example, Bunge asks Eisler to talk about Brecht’s understanding of music as well as his taste.  The replies range across several topics, giving us insight into how Brecht’s mind works.  Eisler was a professor, accustomed to speaking at length, and usually with lots to say.  I will offer a single large quote to give some idea of the way Eisler ranges across disciplines & topics.

Brecht never went to concerts because you weren’t allowed to smoke there, and besides, he had a lot on – although I have to admit he did make exceptions.  If a concert piece by one of his friends was performed, he suddenly appeared—I never sent him an invitation—and listened to it.  He did this because, as I said, he possessed a Chinese politeness.  His taste in music was excellent –with one weakness.  You have to understand that Brecht saw all the arts, equal as they all are, from the viewpoint of a playwright, a dramatist.  Art only existed for him in terms of its usefulness; this is what he was interested in.  He found the music of Johann Sebastian Bach useful and he also looked for this quality in music beyond the context of the theatre.  Furthermore, he admired Mozart very much.  He liked certain Turkish Chinese and Algerian music; flamenco, as in folk music; or the ancient and stylistically formal music of ancient China.  I once played him a record –‘the Virgin on the Seven Stars’, or was it the Seven Virgins on One star?”—which thrilled him bcause of the way in which the texts were receited.  And he admired Spanish flamenco.

He never knew what to make of Beethoven.(…)

Indeed, he also read for the most part only what he could use. As he got older, Brecht, who was a highly educated, brilliantly educated man (his education in some areas was astonishingly deep), read only those things that he could use, either for information or as a stimulus to thought.  He read certain academic books for this purpose alone.  Brecht wasn’t an ‘art for art’s sake’ reader; even crime novels, which he read with touching dedication, interested him like a game of chess—how do you weave together the threads of a story? Brecht studied crime novels in order to answer this question, and he always complained loudly to me if he found out in the middle of a book, that he had already read it three times and had just forgotten it.  He’d put it aside.  It was an eternal battle: “aren’t there any new crime novels?” was Brecht’s almost daily cry and all his friends were continually on the lookout.

Apart from that, he also read very difficult things. He was very interested in physics and had a strong mathematical ability even though he didn’t have any formal training in mathematics—it was the same in music.

Sometimes we’re in the realm of popular art, as when we hear of the humiliations of Brecht’s working life in Hollywood, including an encounter with Daryl F Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox.  Or Eisler gives us something more theoretical concerning Brecht’s politics or dramaturgy.  Eisler speaks about his collaborations with Brecht, music he wrote for plays they did together.  It’s highly entertaining hearing about the famous people they encountered – Chaplin, Odets, Schoenberg, Toller, Reinhardt, WH Auden and many more.  Yes there’s a ton of name dropping but first and foremost we’re in the presence of a great man –Eisler–speaking of one of the titans of the 20th century.

I have to finish the book before anyone else can take it out.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Brecht, Music and Culture: Hanns Eisler in Conversation

  1. Sabine Berendse says:

    Hi Leslie, so glad you like the book! Sabine Berendse

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