On Sunday, Fabio Luisi conducts Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem at the Barbican. Why “A” German Requiem as opposed to “the” or just plain “German Requiem”? Lots of reasons. An opportune time to consider another “German Requiem”, Hanns Eisler’s Deutsche Sinfonie “an Anti-Fascist Cantata”, effectively a Requiem for Germany 1933-45 and thereafter, a work which developed in gestation throughout the period, completed only in 1957. A conventional Requiem would have been out of the question, considering the Holocaust, and in any case Eisler was agnostic. “I wanted”, he wrote, “to convey grief without sentimentality”, and (to express) “struggle without the use of militaristic music”
Eisler’s Deutsches Sinfonie is elegaic, even heroic, but muted. The Präludium sets the mood. Long string lines, rising slowly upwards. Like smoke “Auferstanden aus Ruinen”, though the national anthem of the DDR is, understandably, more upbeat. Not many national anthems are wreitten by composers like Eisler. From this haze, hushed voices emerge “O Deutschland, blieche Mutter, wie bist du besudelt mit dem Blut deiner besten Söhne!” Eisler works in a quote from the Internationale, so the piece connects the defeat of the Nazis and the establishment of the East German state, so the reference to Auferstanden aus Ruinen is quite appropriate and possibly ironic. Though he was unshakeably a Communist, Eisler’s individualism and modern tastes in music didn’t necessarily endear him to the more conservative forces in the regime.
The mood changes again with the Passacaglia, slippery, wayward woodwinds defying heavy staccato.The text is Bertolt Brecht, An die Kämpfer in den Konzentrationslagern : the “fighters” in the concentration camps, being socialists, dissidents, Jews, gays, and anyone who fell foul of the Reich. Like the woodwinds, the alto lines moves in quirky dance-like angles until the choir joins in with more affirmative confidence. The timpani blast, the choir becomes hushed, but the soloist returns, the winds and brass “marching” alongside. The Étude for orchestra is marvellously compressed – dizzyingly angular lines, interspersed by scurrying, marching figures, trumpets blasting single chords: jazz-age militarism, madly awry but deftly orchestrated. Woodwinds dash ahead of the tumult. Use your imagination and “see” street fighters battling forces of oppression.
Muffled drumstrokes and a funereal march, from which the solo baritone’s voice rises, . The song Zu Potsdam, unter der Eichern describes men who are carrying a coffin down the tree-lined streets of Potsdam, the soul of Prussia. The cross is decorated with oak leaves, commemorating those who had fallen in Verdun. It’s a political demonstration, the protestors seeking a future “fit for heroes”, so the police barge in,smashing things up. A short, ironic ditty, and bitter. After the truly haunting Zu Potsdam, Sonnenberg, where male and female soloists alternate, is relatively straightforward, though the orchestra screams protest. Perhaps we need to catch our breath between Zu Potsdam and the Intermezzo which follows. Like the Étude, this section is highly condensed, long, shifting lines, intercut with sprightly passages which thrust the music forward to an eerily quiet resolution. For the time being, that is.
An ominous bass voice introduces the Burial of the Trouble-maker in a zinc coffin.This is a mini cantata, where the bass interacts with soprano, chorus and orchestra. Who is sealed inside the box? “Wer sich solidarisch erklcrt mit allen Unterdrückten, der soll von nun an bis in die Ewigkeit in das Zink komen wie dieser da, als ein Hertzer und verschart werden”. The “Millionmassen der Arbeit” who agitate for change and are suppressed. As in the Hollywood Liederbook, Eisler writes cantata with cantata. The Bauernkantata here comprises four individual songs, three of which seem fairly standard “proletarian” in that a bass sings about peasants and peasant revolt. But Eisler throws a curveball The third song isn’t a song so much as an occluded mystery with spoken voices whispering scraps of text in hurried snatches. “Die Regierung will niht, dass es bekannt wird, es Leute gibt, die den Krieg bekämpfen”. (The Government doesn’t want it known that there are people who oppose the war) What do we make of this, particularly in conjuntion with the politically safe farmer songs ?
The Bauernkantata is followed by the Arbeiterkantata, a much more cohesive song which runs more than twice as long as the four songs of the Bauernkantata. Further contrasts : written for soprano, baritone, choir, spoken voices and orchestra, the song is a sophisticated “art” work with a complex structure. The text (also Brecht) is interesting because it incorporates shifting ideas. Who is the “Class Enemy” here? The protagonist or protagonists have obediently gone to war, followed orders and welcomed in the new regime. The generals names change, but the system hasn’t. Is a classless society possible if struggle is part of the system. “Da mag euer Anstreicher dtreichen, diesen Riss streicht er uns nicht zu ” (when there are cracks in the foundations of a building, a housepainter, ie Hitler, can’t paint them over)
So how do we interpret the Allegro, the longest and most complex of the three orchestral commentaries? Again, long planes of sound, searching and probing, wildly independent woodwind figures darting agilely ahead, defying the drums, rising about massed strings. And the brief epigrammatiuc Epilog , where the pure,clean voice of the soprano sings as if in a void, her words echoing those in the Präludium. The children (of Germany) have been freed “vom eingefrornen Tank” Suddenly the chorus and orchestra interject “Warm them !”
Eisler’s Deutsche Sinfonie op 50 is a panorama, with multiple images and allusions, covering an extended time span. A bit like a collage in an art film. Eisler is sometimes written off because his politics made him aware that music should communicate, but he didn’t compromise his artistic integrity. Like the Hollywood Liederbook, the Deutsche Sinfonie is immensely rewarding. There are several recordings on the market. The ones to go for are
Lothar Zagrosek with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig on Decca, recorded 1995 with a particularly wonderful Zu Potsdam with Matthias Goerne, easily the best Eisler singer in the business now.
Max Pommer with the Rundfunks Sinfonie Orchester Berlin, 1987, on Berlin Classics, where Rosemarie Lang is the alto.
Adolf Fritz Guhl with the Rundfunks Sinfonie Orchester Leipzig from 1964 which isn’t available anymore. I own it but it’s stored away in a cupboard I can’t reach. Sound quality a bit rough.
Original Source: Hanns Eisler Deutsche Sinfonie : Anti Fascist Cantata