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Politics sound a sour note in Eisler’s American career

On July 4, the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival in Blue Hill, Maine, presents music by an immigrant America didn’t love back: the Op. 7/1 Duo by Hanns Eisler (inset), performed by violinist Laurie Smukler and cellist Joel Krosnick. Eisler arrived here in 1937, a refugee from the Nazis; he left in 1948, an early trophy of the Red Scare, hounded from America by J. Edgar Hoover, the House Un-American Activities Committee — and his own family.

A student of Arnold Schoenberg and his 12-tone method (of which the Duo makes fluently expressive use), Eisler rejected that style for a simpler one, the better to express a working-class Marxist ethos. His numerous collaborations with playwright Bertolt Brecht raised Eisler to radical leftist prominence. But it was another fascination, film music, that became Eisler’s American stock-in-trade, earning him two Oscar nominations. (While in America, Eisler and fellow exile Theodor Adorno wrote a still-influential analysis of film music.) Eisler also reintegrated his modernist training, combining serialism and populism with unusual skill: his “Hollywood Liederbuch” distills Brechtian directness and 12-tone otherworldliness into elegant miniatures.


Eisler, who tried to keep a low, primarily anti-Fascist political profile in America, was not the most obvious target for official scrutiny. (The haziness of Eisler’s actual Communist Party membership — he filled out an application, but never paid his dues — was strangely symbolic.) His guilt was mostly by association: His brother Gerhart, a high-ranking Comintern functionary, was widely suspected to be a Soviet spy, and his sister Elfrede, later known as Ruth Fischer, cofounded the Austrian Communist Party. She also was a key informant against her brothers, having turned rabidly anti-Communist after being sidelined during Stalin’s purges. Eisler’s voluminous FBI file devolves from a collection of news clippings to a cavalcade of surveillance: wiretaps, opened mail, even surreptitiously obtained checking account records.

Eisler still might have avoided deportation, but the blacklist dried up his Hollywood livelihood. He left in 1948 — annoying Hoover, who had opined that letting Eisler leave voluntarily “would be a travesty of justice” — and eventually landed in East Germany, where, as it turned out, authorities were sometimes equally suspicious of his art. Gerhart was forced from the US in 1949, and also settled in East Germany. Ruth Fischer became disillusioned with her crusade and re-embraced communism, but died before she could reconcile with her brothers. Charlie Chaplin, a Hollywood friend, put it best: “In your family,” he once told Eisler, “things happen as in Shakespeare.”


The Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival presents music of Beethoven, Sessions, Eisler, and Brahms, July 4 and 6 at 7:30 p.m. at Kneisel Hall, 137 Pleasant St., Blue Hill, Maine; tickets $30; 207-374-2203.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.