Hanns Eisler (July 6, 1898 - September 6, 1962) was a German and Austrian composer.
Eisler was born in Leipzig where his father, Rudolf Eisler, was a professor of philosophy. In 1901 the family moved to Vienna. During World War I Eisler served as a front-line soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army and was wounded several times in combat. Returning to Vienna after Austria's defeat, he studied from 1919 to 1923 under Arnold Schoenberg. Eisler was the first of Schoenberg's disciples to compose in the twelve-tone or serial technique.
In 1925 Eisler moved to Berlin—then a hothouse of experimentation in music, theater, film, art and politics. There, he identified closely with the radical Communist Party of Germany although he never joined. His music became increasingly oriented towards political themes and, to Schoenberg's dismay, more "popular" in style with influences drawn from jazz and cabaret. At the same time, he drew closer to Bertolt Brecht, whose own turn towards Marxism happened at about the same time. The collaboration between the two artists lasted for the rest of Brecht's life. Eisler wrote the music for several Brecht plays, including The Measures Taken (1930), The Mother (1931) and Schweik in the Second World War (1944). They also collaborated on protest songs which played a role in the political turmoil of Weimar Germany in the early 1930s. Their Solidarity Song became a popular militant anthem sung in street protests and public meetings throughout Europe, and their Ballad of Paragraph 218 was the world's first song protesting laws against abortion. Brecht-Eisler songs of this period tended to look at life from "below"—from the perspective of prostitutes, hustlers, the unemployed and the working poor.
After 1933, Eisler's music and Brecht's poetry were banned by the Nazi Party. Both artists joined the generation of anti-Nazi exiles who sought refuge in the United States. In New York City, Eisler taught composition at the New School and wrote experimental chamber and documentary music. Moving shortly before World War II to Los Angeles, he composed several Hollywood film scores, two of which—Hangmen Also Die and None but the Lonely Heart—were nominated for Oscars. In 1947 he wrote the book Composing for the Films with Theodor Adorno. But in several chamber and choral compositions of this period, Eisler also returned to the twelve-tone method he had abandoned in Berlin. His Fourteen Ways of Describing the Rain—composed for Arnold Schoenberg's 70th birthday celebration—is considered a masterpiece of the genre.
Eisler's two most notable works of the 1930s and 40s were the monumental Deutsche Sinfonie (1935-57)—a choral symphony in eleven movements based on poems by Brecht and Ignazio Silone—and a cycle of art songs published as the Hollywood Songbook (1938-43). With lyrics by Brecht, Morike, Hölderlin and Goethe, it established Eisler's reputation as one of the 20th century's great composers of German lieder.
Eisler's promising career in the U.S. was interrupted by the Cold War. He was the first Hollywood artist blacklisted by the movie industry. In two interrogations by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the composer was accused of being "the Karl Marx of music" and the chief Soviet agent in Hollywood. Eisler's supporters—including his friend Charlie Chaplin and the composers Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein—organized benefit concerts to raise money for his defense fund, but he was deported early in 1948.
Eisler returned to Germany and settled in East Berlin. There, he composed the national anthem of the German Democratic Republic, a cycle of cabaret-style songs to satirical poems by Kurt Tucholsky, and incidental music for theater, films and television. His most ambitious project of the period, a modern opera on the Faust theme, was attacked by Communist censors and never completed. Ironically, less than five years after his deportation from the United States, Eisler was again forced to testify in hearings where his political loyalty was questioned. Although he continued to work as a composer and to teach at the East Berlin conservatory, the gap between Eisler and the cultural functionaries of East Germany grew wider in the last decade of his life. Eisler never recovered completely from Brecht's death in 1956 and his remaining years were marred by depression and declining health. He died in East Berlin and is buried near Brecht in the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery.