Monday, March 29, 2010

Hanns Eisler in Hollywood - a tribute to the composer

Hanns Eisler and Bertold Brecht in the DDR

Hanns Eisler in Hollywood
Friday March 26, St. Matthew's Church
Saturday, March 27, Villa Aurora
Pacific Palisades, California

by Rodney Punt

Pity the Austro-German creative intellectual at mid-twentieth century. If he isn’t shackled, or worse, by the Nazis for Leftist politics or for being Jewish, he is lucky to escape his native country within a whisker of his life. Arriving at the sanctuary of American shores during the Second World War, he enjoys but a few years’ safety only to be branded and revictimized after the war by McCarthyism, the USA’s homegrown version of fascism. Then he gets deported back to the nightmare of a devastated Europe that had sent him packing in the first place.

Such was the fate of the German-born, Austrian-trained composer Hanns Eisler, once a promising pupil of composer Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna. Moving to Berlin, he became friendly with Bertolt Brecht from 1930, under whose influence he composed in a style akin to the visual arts' socialist-realism. It created a painful rift with modernist visionary Schoenberg.

Years later and settled in Los Angeles, Eisler lived not far from Brecht’s home in Santa Monica and Schoenberg’s in Brentwood. Now reconciled with his former teacher, he composed distinguished film music from 1942 to 1948, two scores of which were Oscar-nominated.

In his spare time he wrote a collection of 47 fascinating songs, loosely assembled under the title Hollywood Songbook. A performance of these songs became the emotional center of a two-day tribute to the composer this past weekend. It was organized by the Villa Aurora Foundation, housed in the former home of émigré writer Lion Feuchtwanger in Pacific Palisades, and now a center for artist residencies sponsored by the German government.

In the afternoon prior to the Saturday evening performance, a panel discussion lent insight into Eisler’s Hollywood experience. UCLA German professor John McCumber sketched a harrowing account of Eisler’s run-in with the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

In addition to the composer’s well-known communist sympathies, there were extenuating family circumstances that hardly aided Eisler’s cause – a brother, Gerhart Eisler, who was a likely Cominterm agent, and their Trotskyite sister, Ruth Fischer, who turned state’s evidence against her brothers. With help from siblings like these an already tainted émigré was toast in the post-war paranoia of the USA. He was on his way to a deportation in 1948.

Eisler’s various troubles, beginning already in 1942, were productively sublimated into creative output. He worked out some of his frustrations, from May 1942 through December 1943, composing, on the run but hardly haphazardly, the songs that would become his Hollywood Songbook. (For the troubled Eisler, it was .... a long, long while from May to December?)

All of Eisler’s influences and troubles came to bear in these songs: his own bitter experiences, the sarcastic polemics of Brecht, timeless works of classic German poets like Goethe, Hölderlin, and Mörike, as well as the musical influences of popular song, vernacular music of the communist movement, European art music, and even the high-minded, modernist 12-tone system of Schoenberg he had studied in his youth.

In this seeming miscellany, Eisler emerges as a modern master of both the German lied and the American art song. (I had the privilege of hearing a young Matthias Goerne sing them at Hollywood’s Temple Israel in 1998, recorded that year on the Decca label. Highly recommended.)

Kristina Driskill and Mark Robson at the Ernst Toch Blüthner piano. Photo: Michael Blum

The Villa Aurora’s living room was an appropriate Saturday evening setting for 31 of the 47 Hollywood songs, performed stunningly by mezzo-soprano Kristina Driskill, a relative unknown in these parts (hopefully to be corrected with more performances) and the very well known Mark Robson, performing on the Blüthner piano once owned by another émigré composer, Ernst Toch.

The two ably portrayed the creative range under Eisler’s command, from expressionistic angst and bitterness to bemused irony and light-hearted humor. It is this sweep within Eisner’s eclectic nature that makes the composer so eminently listenable today.

The purely expressionistic side of Eisner’s orchestral music had been given an earlier airing by the afternoon’s visiting panel from Germany. Johannes Gall of Hamburg and Horst Weber of Essen discussed the musical setting of a scene in John Ford’s film, The Grapes of Wrath, where the Joad family abandons Oklahoma in favor of the promise of California.

Two clips were screened, the first using the Alfred Newman score that so effectively features the American folksong, Red River Valley, as a nostalgic symbol of the past lives of the Joad’s motley crew as they load on their westward-bound jalopy. The second features an expressionistic, Mahler-drenched overlay of Eisler’s music on the same scene.

While Gall and his entourage found the Eisler more appropriate to the oppressive social conditions of the time, I expressed a contrarian opinion that in this instance the story of these simple folk would have been overwhelmed with Eisler’s European-derived score, both an unidiomatic aesthetic and one that forces too complex a political agenda on the scene. (I was pleased that music critic Mark Swed happened to agree in his article in the LA Times today.)

The two-day Eisler celebration had begun on Friday evening at St. Matthew’s Church in Pacific Palisades, only a short walk to the office of Belmont Music, home to Arnold Schoenberg’s legacy business interests. The church’s Music Director, Thomas Neenan, conducted a lively performance of Eisler’s charming and witty Septet No. 2. Composed in 1947, its blithe spirit belies the troubles the composer was facing as he prepared a reluctant departure from Los Angeles.

Also on the program: the lovely Schoenberg arrangement of Gustav Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer (topical, given Eisler's peregrinations), and Aaron Copland's chamber version of his Appalachian Spring Suite. (Copland, by the way, had courageously stood up for Eisler when he was under attack by the political establishment in our country.)

An ironic last offering of Eisler’s music came later in the program, a song composed in 1957, inconsequential of itself, but a cute slap in the face of the hostile country that had exiled him for the second time in his life. Addressed to the then hyper-hawkish American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, it was entitled simply: Sputnik.