The works of Hanns Eisler encompass an extremely wide variety of musical styles. Attempts to detect the ‘real Eisler’ in one specific musical style or only in particular works will therefore – necessarily – miss the point.
Towards the end of the 1920s Eisler distanced himself from the aesthetic of ‘art for art’s sake’ and subordinated his musical works to social goals. As a Marxist he saw these goals in the class struggle, in the interests of the proletariat, and in the construction and safeguarding of a socialist, and ultimately communist, society. Eisler considered adapting the musical means to such goals, and indeed the discovering of these means in the first place, as his foremost compositional priority.
Eisler’s societal aspirations and the musical solutions he devised are, more than anything else, responsible for his position in the history of twentieth century music under the umbrella of ‘political music’. Ironically, however, those who took up the political cause which Eisler advocated often approached him with an all too narrow conception of his work. If he was valued above all as the composer of influential mass music in the late 1920s and early 1930s, as a kindred spirit of Brecht, and as the musical originator of the National Anthem of the GDR and other vocal works with texts by Johannes R. Becher – and was for the same reasons denigrated by his critics – he was just as often the victim of attempts to subject exemplary works to aesthetic categories such as ‘realism’ or ‘anti-formalism’, these being categories which Eisler sceptically opposed as doctrinaire and whose unproblematic applicability to music he doubted. It was for this reason that, during his lifetime, a considerable part of Eisler’s compositional achievement had already sunk into obscurity. [...]