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Third Ear

Hanns Eisler and ‘The Hollywood Songbook’

Under attack for his socialist beliefs, composer Hanns Eisler testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in September 1947. He was deported in 1948.ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE

Let’s begin with the genealogy of a title, and with a curious fact: Nietzsche had three ears.

Or at least the great German philosopher complained about how torturous it was “for anyone who has a third ear’’ to read books written by German authors with no feel for the rhythms and melodies of their own prose. The “third ear’’ for Nietzsche was an awareness of the music that can sometimes lie behind the written word.

Less than a century after Nietzsche coined the term, the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik picked up the third ear as a metaphor to describe the artfully expanded type of listening practiced by a good analyst, attuned to a patient’s subtle unspoken cues, aware that those cues also affected his own unconscious mind. For Reik, listening with a third ear meant hearing the meaning, history, and complex emotion hidden behind the language of everyday life.


This week I’m happy to introduce a new Third Ear, a biweekly column on classical music and culture. I borrow the term with apologies to Nietzsche and Reik - I would have preferred a title with a cleaner slate, yet no other phrase seemed to summarize so concisely an approach to music I hope this column will embody.

My belief has always been that a work’s impact and resonance is heightened when we understand something about the origins of the notes - not only the piece’s technical architecture but its roots in a moment of time or its connection to a composer’s own forest of private truths. In this spirit, listening to music “with a third ear’’ might mean wide-angle listening, associative listening, alert to the ways in which a piece can open outward onto the worlds of history, biography, politics, literature, the visual arts, and the wider culture - and mindful of how those other worlds in turn ripple back to help define the work’s meaning. And of course the welcome paradox is that grasping the radical rootedness of a particular piece ends up liberating it from its time and place, allowing the music of the past to more forcefully inhabit our present moment.


Every other Sunday I’ll be exploring a recording, a new book, or an issue in the news, but most often I’ll focus on a concert program or single work to be performed somewhere in New England in the coming weeks, starting with today’s subject: “The Hollywood Songbook’’ by the German composer Hanns Eisler. On Saturday, the Boston Chamber Music Society will present selections from this riveting yet largely forgotten song cycle. War and expulsion marked the lives of so many 20th-century composers, but no modern songs so eloquently summon the larger cultural moment of one storied community of exiles.

The setting was Southern California during the 1930s and ’40s, a time when an accomplished group of European artists and intellectuals fled Hitler’s Europe and settled beneath the palms - among their ranks were the brothers Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and Arnold Schoenberg. Eisler himself spent five years in Southern California, researching film scoring techniques and composing both for the screen (Fritz Lang’s “Hangmen Also Die’’) and also for himself. The “Hollywood Songbook’’ was begun in 1942.

The residents of this so-called Weimar on the Pacific cobbled together lives too complex and varied to reduce to easy myths of high-minded Europeans scowling at America, as a growing historical literature has shown, including the Cambridge-based scholar Dorothy Lamb Crawford’s “A Windfall of Musicians,’’ published in 2009. Leafing through the surviving émigré testimonies one finds a gratefulness for being alive mixed with a despair at the plight of their home country and culture, an appreciation for the beauty of their new surroundings paired with an estrangement from an American society that many kept at a distance.


Eisler’s cycle, consisting of more than 40 short songs, takes the multifaceted experience of exile as its central theme, refracting it through music and poetry of great concision and tart lyricism. There is not an ounce of fat in Eisler’s settings. The music ranges over many styles but the songs are unified by a governing aesthetic of restraint, a kind of luminous compression. The baritone Matthias Goerne, one of the cycle’s strongest champions, has described it as a modern “Winterreise.’’

Born in Leipzig in 1898, Eisler studied with Schoenberg and earned his strong support, but the two parted ways in the 1920s after Eisler embraced a committed socialism and came to see music’s future as inseparable from the grand political struggles of the day. He could not follow modernism into its pristine isolation, and he rejected the idea of an avant-garde art that was graspable only by a sophisticated elite. His output includes some agitprop fight songs of uneven quality alongside some innovative film scores, 12-tone chamber works, and a massive choral symphony. Its heterogeneity and even its occasional inconsistency are telling. Eisler was aiming at an elusive target: a musical art that could reflect - and participate in - its modern moment without losing its audience.


Most of the “Hollywood Songbook’’ texts were written by Brecht, Eisler’s closest collaborator, and they speak of the small details and fragile attachments of nomadic wartime life. One song apostrophizes a portable radio - “You little box I carried on that trip’’ - as a cherished lifeline to the outside world despite the grim news it delivers. Another tells of leaving behind one’s books and poems but bringing along one’s smoking pipes - clearly far more useful in a time of flight. There is also one unsettlingly seductive song “On Suicide’’ that turns the mind to fates of those artists, especially writers, who took their own lives in Nazi exile including Kurt Tucholsky, Ernst Toller, Stefan Zweig, and Walter Benjamin.

A few of Eisler’s songs explicitly address the city of Los Angeles, where in one Brecht text, angels that smell of oil “feed the writers in their swimming pools.’’ Among the famous émigré artists, Thomas Mann and the writer Lion Feuchtwanger lived comfortably in exile but many more struggled severely. Heinrich Mann’s wife Nelly overdosed on sleeping pills. “Paradise and hell are the same city,’’ another Brecht poem thunders.

While the Brecht songs dominate the cycle and lend it an unmistakable edge, the “Hollywood Songbook’’ also contains Eisler’s settings of poems by canonical German writers such as Hölderlin, Goethe, and Eichendorff, including texts once set by Schumann and Schubert, connecting exile as a 19th-century Romantic trope with exile as a bitter 20th-century reality. One might even detect between Eisler’s notes an act of defiance, as the composer reasserted his claim on a great German cultural tradition at the very moment he was being expelled from it.


At other times, Eisler was capable of a more naive turn-back-the-clock form of wishful thinking. In the Eisler archives at the University of Southern California, I once came across a heartbreaking letter in which he pleaded his case to the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Written barely a month after the German surrender in 1945, he wrote, “I expect quite soon that my works will again be widely performed in Europe as they were before.’’

Eisler’s American sojourn did not end well. He was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee and accused of being “The Karl Marx of communism in the musical field.’’ Many cultural icons of the time, from Charlie Chaplin to Woody Guthrie to Albert Einstein, rallied behind him but to no avail. He was deported in 1948 and lived his remaining 14 years in East Germany. Nothing really was as before.

The scholar Albrecht Dümling has quoted from Eisler’s sketch for his foreword to the Hollywood songs. “In a society that understands and loves such a songbook,’’ Eisler wrote, “life will be lived well and without danger. These pieces have been written with such a society in mind.’’ Even in a genre as inward and personal as the art song, Eisler found a way to preserve a link, albeit an imagined one, to what he saw as music’s social imperative. When he had no audience in the present he willed one into the future, and he was Eisler, so it was a utopian future. Of the actual “Hollywood Songbook,’’ he never heard a note.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.