Kurt Weill may be better
known as Berthold Brecht's collaborator,
but Eisler was by far more politically
and musically advanced. Eisler was a
political being, without compromise
for popularity. Forced out of Europe
by the Nazis, he was also forced out
of the United States for his communist
beliefs. Since the DDR could not ban
such a hero of the revolution, his music
remained loved in East Germany, even
though he unequivocally opposed totalitarian
cant both on the left as well as the
right. He became a symbol of rebellion.
He was idolised by those who opposed
the regime, then taken up by the western
"protest generation" of 1968.
Thus this recording
was made in 1981, on the crest of the
revival of Eisler's music. Eisler was
the hero of the European avant-garde,
and widely performed, both in agitprop
cabaret and in experimental music circles.
Heiner Goebbels, Dagmar Krause and others
made important recordings: Goebbels,
now a well respected, established composer,
still acknowledges the influence, as
his Eislermateriel of 2003 shows.
D Justus Noll, whose adaptations of
Eisler's songs form this recording,
was also part of this scene, as was
Sylvia Anders, daughter of the tenor
Peter Anders. They were building on
Eisler's belief that his music should
"speak directly to the people".
If jazz or avant-garde transcriptions
brought the message to a larger audience,
so be it. Thus they are sung in English,
to reach a wider, international public.
Translations are mainly by the great
Brecht scholar Eric Bentley. Bentley
himself made a recording of his translations,
but it is only available in specialist
circles. They are accurate, and capture
much of the acerbity of the originals.
though, is eccentric. She may be singing
English words but her intonation is
definitely German. It's not so bizarre
when you remember that it expressed
Eisler's German soul for a non German
public at a time when Eisler was relatively
unknown in the English speaking world.
Moreover, she keeps the original musical
phrasing even when the words don't fit,
so even though the effect may be odd,
it's in some ways more "true"
to the original than if her syntax were
anglophile. The effect is unsettling.
In some songs, this works. For example,
The Song of a German Mother and
The German Miserere are rooted
in the context of Nazi Germany. Perhaps
the ultimate message is universal but
they are so era-specific that they can't
really be appreciated without appreciating
the German background. More controversially,
though, pieces like The Solidarity
Song are performed as if they were
"just" songs. The Solidarity
Song comes from the film Kuhle
Wampe, the great classic movie of
working class struggle. It moves from
personal tragedy to the wider political
arena. People on the bus in the final
scene discuss Marxist dialectic in simple,
every day terms. Then the film shows
people in carrying on their busy, ordinary
lives and the song returns like a refrain
of eternal hope. "Forward !
And let's remember, what our strength
was and shall be !" It's a
political statement, let there be no
mistake. There's no room in it for emotional
shading of any kind. It may be left
wing but no less intolerant of self
doubt than similar right wing anthems
would be, only too soon. But that's
what agitprop is. It's quite different
from genre pieces like Mother Beimlein
or Ballad of Marie Sanders where
feelings are more subtle.
The Hollywood Elegies,
which make up seven of the recordings
24 songs are something of a special
case. Eisler wrote his Hollywood
Liederbuch as a kind of meditation
on the German experience and his sense
of alienation in n the United States.
They are technically in a different
league from the political songs, and
it's no exaggeration to call them some
of the most powerful art songs of the
twentieth century. Anders recording
is one of the earlier ones, but isn't
This recording, though,
is very much of its time, in the sense
that Noll and Anders were interpreting
Eisler for a new market. Eisler believed
in communicating. His message was important,
even if the medium was adapted. At least
Goebbels and Krause, Noll and Anders
did something original with the material.
They couldn't recreate the exact context
in which Ernst Busch brought the music
to life in Eisler's time. Busch remains
the most authentic and powerful interpreter
of Eisler's music ever, but he was unique.
He wasn't just a singer but an active
part of the political ferment of times.
He spent his war years, unlike Brecht
and Eisler, in a concentration camp.
He also one of the lead actors in Kuhle
Wampe. When he did cabaret his edge
it wasn't for amusement. When he spat
out songs against capitalism and Hitler,
he was speaking from genuine experience,
which later interpreters, like Robyn
Archer, fortunately, can only imagine.
He created the style, and was the true
original. Fortunately, his recordings
are readily available these days, remaining
the ultimate benchmark.