This new Cd of music for silent and early sound films is of interest to film
music enthusiasts for several reasons. First, little music survives from
the European films of this period. Second, it includes documentaries - for
which we have hardly any music. And, lastly it celebrates a "lost" film composer,
a musician of considerable ability.
Eisler was a wonderful writer for voices, as we are now rediscovering with
his Hollywood Songbook, his choral Deutsche Simfonie and his
songs for the plays of Berthold Brecht - a few are included on this disc.
He was also a talented orchestral composer but most of all he was a musician
who believed that music should be at the service of everyone. Sadly, he had
the great misfortune to be a German, a Jew, a communist and working in the
middle years of this century. Consequently he managed to fall foul of the
Nazis, the US un-American Activities Committee and finally, the East German
Communists during a creative and productive life. A rotund and smiling little
man, sometimes he had little to be happy about.
If he is known by film music lovers at all it is usually for the scores he
wrote for RKO studios in Hollywood from 1943 to 1947. Or for his co-authorship
of the 1947 book, Composing For the Films. Yet he had begun scoring
in Germany in 1924 for a Walter Ruttmann experimental film and the Suites
on this disc represent his main work immediately after that.
In Suite No. 2 the music from the 1931 pacifist story Niemandsland
(GER.dir Viktor Trivas - all copies destroyed by the Nazis) establishes Eisler's
pre-war style immediately. Jazzy, with atmospheric woodwind writing, black
and white montages create themselves in your mind.
Suite No. 4 is from a 1932 documentary made by the great Dutch film
maker, Joris Ivens. Called Pesn o gerojach in Russian [Heroes Song],
it celebrates the Magnitostroj mines in the Urals. Eisler uses (as was usual
in Soviet filmscoring) local songs as his inspiration. The result is a mixture
of marches, heroics and jazzy Jewishness, both lively and tender.
Trivas is also the director for the 1933 French production Dans les
Rues, which provides the music for Suite No 5. Its eight sections
display a more reflective side to Eisler's writing to contrast with the brass
scoring of the marches.
All the suites are interspersed with ballads and songs performed in a typical
German cabaret-style which surely would have appealed to Eisler, cynicism
mixed with a streetwise sadness, The disc's closing suite is No 3 from the
1931 film Kuhle Wampe (GER - Dir.Slatan Dudow). This tale of unemployment
in Berlin is notable for being one of Brecht's few film scripts. Eisler's
score drives the film along, giving the montage sections an optimism which
sometimes contrasts with the events, notably in the 'searching for work'
sequence - section  of this suite. It ends with an orchestral arrangement
of the once world-famous up-beat 'Solidarity March', in this performance
suitably bright and manic.
Some of the orchestral works exist on a Berlin Classics disc. But the bounce
and tightness of the Ensemble Modern performances with their brisk tempos
will appeal to today's audiences. And although the songs have no immediate
movie connections as Gruber presents them they add a gutsy supporting period
flavour to the whole collection. If you are exploring music as well as movie
history this disc will repay your time.