The Migrant and the Nation: Hanns Eisler and German Identity

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Few 20th-century musicians were affected by outbursts of nationalist politics as directly as those displaced by the century’s extremist regimes, among them the refugees from Hitler Germany. With some of music history’s most canonical figures among them, the story of the refugees from fascism has been increasingly well documented, with studies usually seeking to highlight the exilic or diasporic status of the displaced. As they embarked on their journeys as migrants, their commitment to their Austro-German musical heritage became increasingly destabilized.

My chapter focuses on the migratory journey of Hanns Eisler. I discuss how shifts in his compositional approaches reveal a musical turning away from nationalism in search of more internationalist idioms on the one hand, and a recourse to traditional Austro-German forms on the other. I argue that this seemingly paradoxical confrontation with the national manifests itself as a dialectical engagement. Indeed, the dialectics between internationalist outlook and nationalist memory, which permeates several of Eisler’s works, is a strategy Lydia Goehr has termed the ‘doubleness of exile’. For example, as a migrant, Eisler re-focused his employment of certain compositional avant-garde idioms, notably that of the Schoenberg School.

In the tense political climate of World War II and under the circumstances of exile from Nazi Germany, such artistic strategies cannot be seen solely as manifestos of a convicted avant-gardist; they also bear the early imprints of nostalgia. They are nods to interwar serialism’s promise of utopia, which was being expulsed around Eisler in a place of dystopia, just as they are references from the heterotopia of migration to a place of nostalgia. As Eisler’s national cultural heritage was fast disappearing under the onslaught of fascist cultural politics, perceived aesthetic stabilities turned into personal uncertainties and political battlegrounds. At the same time, the insertion of well-rehearsed, more traditional compositional principles renders his works internationally recognizable, and therefore elevates them beyond nationalist memorialization and nostalgia.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Eisler was, of course, displaced twice, falling victim to McCarthyism in the immediate postwar era. This second migratory journey saw Eisler re-emerge into the limelight of music history as composer of the national anthem of the GDR. He now confronted the national very directly, composing a national anthem and actively participating in the creation of new German folksongs for a new Germany. And yet, the socialist promise of the new nation, which resounds in Eisler’s music, ultimately disappointed his search for utopia. Eisler remained an outsider, retaining his Austrian citizenship and finding himself increasingly ostracized in the context of East German national cultural politics. Even in East Berlin, Eisler thus confronted the national from a place of heterotopia.

In observing Eisler’s compositional strategies in the heterotopia of mobility, I highlight how, paradoxically, migration acted as a catalyst for a dialectic engagement with nationalism and, in the process, undermines nationalist historiographical approaches to understanding his musics fixated on place.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationConfronting the National in the Musical Past
EditorsElaine Kelly, Markus Mantere, Derek B. Scott
ISBN (Print)9781138287426
Publication statusPublished - 19 Apr 2018

Structured keywords

  • Migration Mobilities Bristol

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