Sonntag, 8. August 2021

Hanns Eisler - Die Teppichweber von Kujan - Lenin - Winterschlacht-Suite (NOVA, 1973)


A private pupil of Schoenberg, who described him as one of his most gifted students, Hanns Eisler stands as one of the most fascinating composers of the 20th century – a composer whose left-wing political affiliations saw him forced into exile with the rise of the Nazis, who subsequently settled in the USA and was denounced first by his sister to the FBI and then by Nixon himself as ‘the Karl Marx of communism in the musical field’ (to which Eisler retorted that he was ‘very flattered’ by the comparison), leading to deportation back to Europe in 1948. He was one of Bertolt Brecht’s chief collaborators in political songs, films and stage works (the two resumed contact in Hollywood after Eisler’s move to the US), also working with other notable types such as the singer Ernst Busch and writing politico-intellectual subject matter. After his return to Germany, where he settled in Stalinist East Berlin, he became enormously influential in re-stimulating musical life, teaching at the Berlin College of Music that now bears his name and taking the composition masterclass at the Academy of Arts.

Eisler wrote the stage music to Johannes R. Becher´s piece “Die Winterschlacht” as earlay as 1941 in Soviet Exile – as “Deutsche Tragödie”. The score dates from 1954. Its first performance took place at the Berliner Ensemble on January 12, 1955. The nine-part “Winterschlacht-Suite” comprises the complete stage music score, compiled for concert performance.

The “Lenin Requiem” has a chequered history of composition and performance, corresponding to the fluctuating fortunes of the world for which it was written. Eisler was commissioned to write the work in 1932 by the State Music Publishing House in Moscow. He was with Joris Ivens in Moscow and in Magnitogorsk that year, in May and in September/October, in connection with their joint work on a documentary film called “Youth has its say” (“Heroes' song”) and their involvement in the foundation of the “International Music Bureau” (IMB), intended to unite revolutionary musicians and music associations against fascism. The award of a Soviet commission in 1932 to write a requiem for Lenin undoubtedly signalled exceptional respect and recognition for his musical and political achievements to date. It was to be completed by the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution, that is by 1937.

It was not until December 1935 that Eisler made the preliminary sketches in New York. But this was the very time in which Lenin's legacy was being overturned by dogmatism and the personality cult: August 1936 duly saw the first of the Moscow show trials in which Stalin did away with those revolutionaries who had been close to Lenin. Eisler was with Brecht on the Danish island of Fyn, at Skovbostand near Svendborg, from the end of January to the end of September 1937. Lou Eisler, his life partner and from 1938 his wife, remembers that there was great concern about these events in the USSR. Brecht had clearly expressed his critical distance to Stalin to Walter Benjamin in 1935. (It is no accident that Brecht and Eisler, though committed Communists, had not emigrated to the Soviet Union.) When, after intensive work on the “German Symphony”, the chamber cantatas and many songs, Eisler completed the “Lenin Requiem” on August 5, 1937 under the favourable work conditions prevailing on the island of Fyn, he had met his deadline. However, it was obvious that the work would not be performed in the post‐1932 “Stalinist' USSR. In any case, there was a vast divergence between the requiem's basic statement and the political reality of the time. There was no hope of an “uprising of the masses” either in fascist Germany or Italy or in other capitalist countries. In Spain, it is true, the democratic popular forces supported by the International Brigades (Eisler visited them in January 1937) were defending their young republic against the fascist might of General Franco and his coup. It is the palpable impotence of the time, this stark contradiction between the political reality and the expressive intensity of lament and invocation –in other words the critical appeal to the ideal of the revolution in the person of Lenin‐that represents the particular “realism” of this requiem. So far as I know, the work which the Moscow state publishing house had commissioned was never performed in the Soviet Union. It could not be performed in the early years of the GDR either; the personality cult of Stalin lasted until 1956‐when the crimes of Stalinism were revealed at the 20th Party Congress of the CPSU. In any case this work is almost uniformly composed in twelve‐note technique, a form of composition which had been condemned as “formalist” since 1948 in the Soviet Union and the GDR‐an aberration of musical politics which was officially corrected only as a result of the 20th Party Congress. And when the “Lenin Requiem” was first performed in East Berlin on November 22, 1958, it appeared in a context which could not have been foreseen at the time the composition was commissioned: Lenin was modern again, under the slogan of “return to Leninist standards”.

This requiem is a new element in Eisler's creative work in respect of its subject matter, its form, its content and its compositional technique. Here the great subject of the revolution, the profile of the revolutionary, the mourning for Lenin and the conviction of the organized working class's indomitable power are handled in a way new for Eisler: in the traditional but secularized form of the requiem, with an expressive power unfamiliar till now, a pathos uncustomary for Eisler. As in the “German Symphony” Eisler here brings the style of “Kampfmusik” (battle music) into the dimension of the large‐scale vocal symphonic form, organizing its development in the manner introduced by Schoenberg with twelve notes related only to one another. All melodic and harmonic events are derived from the underlying pattern of a twelve‐note series (E; D sharp; F sharp; B; C sharp; D; G; F; A flat; B flat; A; C) and given shape through rhythmic differentiation‐quasi‐tonal here for the most part. In this way Eisler was able to introduce into this type of structured context the tonally composed “Lob des Revolutionärs” (praise of the revolutionary) from his stage music to Gorki/Brecht's “Die Mutter” (the mother, 1931/32), as No.7 “Lob des Kämpfers” (praise of the fighter), without a break in style.

Eisler wrote the cantata “Die Teppichweber von Kujan‐Bulak” (the carpet‐weavers of Kujan‐Bulak) in June 1957, to a text by Brecht, in honour of the 40th birthday of the USSR. It was premiered in Berlin in February 1958 (that is, before the “Lenin Requiem”). As in the “Requiem”, Lenin is the central point of reference, but now, after the revelations of the 20th Party Congress of the CPSU, in a quite particular direction. The official request to overcome the personality cult surrounding Stalin was translated into the slogan “return to Leninist standards”, but fulfilment of this programme largely transferred the cult attitude to the rediscovered Lenin, a trend to which Eisler critically reacted in this cantata. This is clearly evident from the sentences by Bertolt Brecht which he prefaced to it as a motto: “But it is particularly necessary to take a light‐hearted approach to profound objects and greet authorities with friendly indulgence”. The practice of plaster busts is countered with the unusual form of a memorial in which those showing the honour would serve their own ends with the money collected and had thus understood the person to be honoured. Eisler has here rediscovered his musical “identity”: his commentary on the lyrics is precise, reserved, friendly and light, with small, but highly concentrated means.

Die Teppichweber von Kujan-Bulak (lyrics: Bertolt Brecht)
Lenin-Requiem (lyrics: Bertolt Brecht)
Winterschlacht-Suite (lyrics: Johannes R. Becher)

The album was recorded November 1972 in the German Democratic Republic.

Hanns Eisler - Die Teppichweber von Kujan - Lenin - Winterschlacht-Suite (NOVA, 1973)
(ca. 224 kbps, cover art included)

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