Deutsche Sinfonie, Op. 50 (1936-58)

By Misha Donat

Written for the concert Music of Conscience, performed on Feb 25, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In July 1935 Hanns Eisler wrote enthusiastically to Bertolt Brecht from Moscow, about an idea he had had for a new work:

I want to write a large symphony which will have the subtitle ‘Concentration Camp Symphony.’ In some passages a chorus will be used as well, although it is basically an orchestral work. And I certainly want to use your two poems ‘Burial of the agitator in a zinc coffin’ (this will become the middle section of a large-scale funeral march) and ‘To the prisoners in the concentration camps.’

By this time Eisler had already been a fugitive from Nazi Germany for two years, during which he had traveled almost continuously, both in Europe and in America. He composed the first two movements of what was to become his German Symphony in the summer of 1936, in London. They were submitted to the jury of the International Society for Contemporary Music, whose fifteenth festival was planned to coincide with the Paris World Exhibition, in the following year. Eisler was awarded the prize for the most outstanding work; but before arrangements for a performance could be finalized, the Nazis intervened. The chairman of the jury, Jacques Ibert, proposed a compromise whereby saxophones would be substituted for the chorus, so that Brecht’s offending texts would not be heard. (Whether Ibert had spotted the presence of the communist Internationale on the trumpets in Eisler’s opening movement is doubtful.) Eisler, needless to say, refused, and at the last moment the new work was rep

By the time of the ISCM fiasco, Eisler had written six more movements of his symphony. The first of them to be composed, “In Sonnenburg,” continues the concentration camp theme; but as Eisler worked further on his magnum opus, it became not only a protest against the camps themselves, but also a wider indictment of fascism. The purely orchestral sixth and tenth movements were added in 1939 and 1947 (though Eisler had begun work on the latter piece eleven years earlier), and the tiny epilogue in 1958. Finally, the instrumental content of the work was further increased by the insertion of the Etude for orchestra–originally written in 1930, as the “Aural Training Exercise” finale of Eisler’s First Suite for orchestra–to form the symphony’s third movement. Taken together, these three non-vocal movements form what can be heard as a symphony within a cantata, with the second of them standing simultaneously for slow movement and scherzo (its solemn outer sections enclose a quick, scherzo-like interlude). The two later movements both have a recapitulatory function, clearly drawing together the threads of what might have run the risk of being too heterogeneous a work. The Intermezzo, which arose as Eisler’s repugnant reaction to Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler, uses the same twelve-note row as the setting of Brecht’s “To the Fighters in the Concentration Camps”; while in the Allegro tenth movement the trombone and trumpet transform the opening threnody of the symphony’s Prelude into an ironic dance of jubilation.

The German Symphony is designed to have the effect of a gradual crescendo, from the smaller scale and leaner textures of its opening movements, towards the complex and more expansive cantata movements (Nos.8 and 9), and the symphonic Allegro that follows them. The slow Prelude begins and ends with the sound of strings alone, and reaches its climax with the simultaneous sounding of the themes of the Internationale on the trumpets, and the revolutionary song “Unsterbliche Opfer” (“Immortal Sacrifice”) on the trombones. The second movement unfolds as a passacaglia: beneath the clarinet’s opening twelve-note melody, the cellos and basses give out the passacaglia theme–a transformation of the time-honored B-A-C-H motif, in repeated eighth-notes.

Following the orchestral Etude, the setting of “Remembrance (Potsdam)” begins as a distant slow march, with the sound of military percussion, and a twelve-note theme given out by the muted horn, and ends with a sudden surge of energy and violence (the dispersal of the procession by the police in Brecht’s poem). The stanzas of “In Sonnenburg” (No.5) are punctuated by the violent motif of its opening bar (at the climax of the piece the singer is instructed to give the fascist salute); while the equally ironic “Burial of the agitator in a zinc coffin” is the funeral march to which Eisler referred in his letter to Brecht.

The first three sections of the “Peasant Cantata” (No.8) adapt texts not by Brecht, but from the novel Bread and Wine by the Italian writer Ignazio Silone, in disfavor with the Soviet authorities ever since his outspoken opposition to the Moscow show trials of the early 1930s. (For this reason, Silone’s name does not appear in the published edition of the score.) The last of these sections is a remarkable melodrama–a whispered dialogue against the background of hummed notes from the chorus, and mysterious, rapidly repeated notes on the strings. The “Worker’s Cantata” that follows is the longest single movement of the work–a piece of symphonic proportions in itself, and one that absorbs the elements of a Mahlerian march. After the equally forceful orchestral Allegro–one of Eisler’s most impressive achievements–the Epilogue has the effect of a post-echo. Eisler may well have added it in tribute to Brecht, who had died in 1956. At the same time, its subject matter clearly recalls that of the symphony’s Prelude, with its lament for Germany’s lost sons.