Hanns Eisler (1898–1962)
Kriegskantate, Op 65 (1937) for female voice, 2 clarinets, viola & cello
[from the programme booklet for Vienna Lost and Found (Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, February 2010), chiefly featuring music by Kurt Schwertsik and H K Gruber]
Although he was born and died in Germany and spent a significant if ultimately difficult decade in exile in the USA, Eisler was another composer with Viennese connections: he spent most of his youth there (his family having moved from Leipzig in 1901), and returned to the city after war service to study with Schoenberg between 1919 and 1923. The twelve-note method which Schoenberg was developing at this time later evolved into the abstract post-Second World War modernism, shorn of local or national character, against which Schwertsik and Gruber reacted so strongly. But as practised by Eisler in the second of this cantata’s two movements, the technique carries stylistic fingerprints strongly reminiscent of Schoenberg’s own music – the jerky rhythms, the angular lines, the frequent note repetitions.
Yet Eisler had also broken with his teacher (as Schwertsik in turn would break with his own teacher, Stockhausen) by restoring elements of tonality to his work, and the first movement here, after a brief recitative-like opening sentence, makes a more overtly tonal use of the row, besides featuring a pulsing accompaniment not unlike those found in much popular music of the time.
The work, fifth in a series of nine short ‘chamber cantatas’ for solo voice and a small instrumental group, was written in exile, while Eisler was staying with Brecht in Denmark in 1937, and was premiered in Prague – the circumstances, like the subject matter, determined by war and displacement. Eisler revived the Baroque form of the cantata at a time when his chief aim was to achieve maximum clarity, and a quasi-Brechtian ‘objective’ effect, in presenting texts which addressed the political situation in Europe (the Civil War in Spain, as well as fascism in Italy and in the Germany he had escaped four years earlier). In Kriegskantate, as in several of Eisler’s works of this period, the text is drawn from the novel Brot und Wein by Ignazio Silone (1900–1978), co-founder of the Italian Communist Party.