Lionized in the GDR as the founding father of socialist German music, Hanns Eisler (1898–1962) was an ardent socialist who once declared that true musical progress “is not only the adoption of new technical methods, but the adoption of new technical methods to new social goals.” His remarkably diverse oeuvre, which includes workers’ choruses, dodecaphonic chamber music, and Hollywood film scores, reflects his unusual career trajectory. A favorite student of Arnold Schoenberg, Eisler composed atonal and twelve-tone works during the early 1920s. As he became involved with the German Communist Party, he turned to writing tonal, tuneful mass songs and music for Bertolt Brecht’s didactic plays. Eisler fled Germany when the Nazis came to power and spent over a decade in New York and Los Angeles. His music from this period of exile shows a fluid integration of various techniques and styles, from folklike and diatonic to twelve-tone. After a series of hearings and threat of deportation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Eisler left the United States in 1948 and eventually settled in East Berlin. Faced with the task of writing music for the fledgling socialist state, Eisler returned to texted genres and a simpler musical language.
The opposition between Germany’s shared past and its divided future became especially apparent in 1949, a year marked by celebrations of Goethe’s 200th birthday and the official founding of two separate German states. Lacking political recognition outside the Eastern Bloc, party leaders in the GDR focused on the realm of culture to assert East Germany’s superiority to the West, maintaining that the GDR was the sole heir to Germany’s cultural heritage. Composers, artists, and writers were therefore encouraged to create a new socialist art that connected Germany’s past to East Germany’s present.
Composed for the Goethe year festivities, Eisler’s Goethe Rhapsody had its premiere in Weimar in August 1949. In his selection and presentation of Goethe’s text, Eisler not only emphasized the continuity between Germany’s past and present, but also reinterpreted the heritage in a manner relevant to contemporary society. The text to the Rhapsody includes two fragments from Act III of the second book of Faust, which ties together antiquity and medieval Germany through Faust’s romance with Helen of Troy. But the lines from Faust also held relevance for contemporary Germany, still in ruins in the devastating aftermath of the Second World War. As Eisler noted in a radio interview shortly before the premiere, the basic idea of the work is found in the line “Doch erfrischet neue Lieder”—that “music today can give us strength and refreshment.” Borrowing material from Eisler’s music for the 1948 film Kreuz Drei, the one-movement Rhapsody begins with a slow and dissonant introduction that, according to Eisler, evokes “the shattered houses and shattered people, from which we must rise… and build something new.” The tuneful soprano solo emerges from the chaos of the opening and quickly moves through the entire Goethe text. A lengthy instrumental Allegro section follows, developing themes from the introduction. The Rhapsody concludes with a reprise of the work’s central theme: “Doch erfrischet neue Lieder/ Steht nicht länger tiefgebeugt” (“But new songs will refresh them/No longer bow them to the floor”).
During Warsaw’s Goethe celebrations in October 1949, poet and future Minister of Culture Johannes R. Becher showed Eisler his recently completed text to the East German national anthem and asked if he would compose a melody. Eisler finished writing the music in a matter of days, and the new national anthem had its premiere in the Berlin Staatsoper on November 7, 1949—the 32nd anniversary of the November Revolution in Russia. Auferstanden aus Ruinen avoids the triumphant, militaristic character common in Soviet anthems. Becher’s text focuses on universal themes of peace, brotherhood, and renewal, while Eisler’s setting is simple and folklike. Becher had hoped that Auferstanden aus Ruinen could serve as an anthem for all of Germany; his repeated references to “Deutschland” and the line “Deutschland, einig Vaterland” (“Germany, our Fatherland”) attest to his hopes for German reunification. But by the early 1970s, as the two Germanys normalized diplomatic relations and each state entered the United Nations, Becher’s references to united Germany no longer fit the political reality. From that point until the collapse of the GDR, the anthem was only performed in an instrumental arrangement.