The German version of this essay has been published in the Jazzfest Berlin 2016 supplement [PDF, 1,7 MB].

Prologue: Late summer of 1944, German tanks have taken position directly in front of the Monschau house of my then 12 year-old mother’s family. Fearing the allied artillery the family flees into the woods for three weeks, before making their way in small groups to Cologne to wait there for the war to end. My mother only tells me about this in the summer of 2011.

The igniting spark for this project came from Michael Schiefel over coffee before a concert in Turin. He told me about a mysterious “Hollywood Songbook” by Hanns Eisler to which pianist Eric Schneider had introduced him, and that he had been thinking about for some years. The connection between Hollywood and the composer Eisler intrigued to me, and what little Michael had told me about the music awakened my curiosity. Back in Berlin I immediately ordered the score. A quick search for a recording back then yielded only one result – a 1998 Decca Production from the series “Entartete Musik” with baritone Matthias Goerne and the same Eric Schneider who a while ago had played through a number of the songs with Michael. This music was definitely not the talk of the town.

“Back then I actually wrote – I later dropped the title – a ‘Hollywood Songbook’. Meaning I wrote a song almost daily, sometimes more than one – either on words by Brecht or Hölderlin (…) or other things for example something by Pascal. I wrote ‘Hollywood Songbook’ on the cover of the big file, or maybe ‘Hollywood Diary’ (I don’t quite remember) – And I said: ‘This is my pastime – what I do besides my work.’”
– Hanns Eisler, April 13th, 1958, from “Gespräche mit Hans Bunge – Fragen Sie mehr über Brecht”, Deutscher Verlag für Musik Leipzig 1975, p. 44

As I was back on tour after the Turin concert, I spent a lot of time with Goerne and Schneider’s (as it quickly turned out – wonderful) recording. I was immediately touched by the pieces that Eisler had composed to Brecht’s Finland-poems about his flight from Nazi-Germany. Brecht writes with a Haiku-like brevity. The poems contain not one word too many. They are snapshots, diary sketches whose intimacy gives them a universal humanity. The texts describe the little things, and thus relentlessly illuminate the horror that prompted them. These 70-year-old songs could not be more relevant had they been written today. The contemporary tragedy of ISIS-generated immigration makes for new and harrowing readings.

Michael Schiefel had been thinking about different ways to sing these songs for quite some time. The question was how to do that in a meaningful way? The words speak for themselves. When listening and studying the songs it becomes quickly apparent, that this is fantastic music – every piece is a jarring little gem in itself.

“Brecht’s greatness was experimentation. I myself hate artists who do not try anything. And Brecht hated them too. Also in music.”
– Hanns Eisler, July 18th, 1961, ibid. p. 172

The more I explored these songs, the more I asked myself how they might sound if we played them with the Wood&Steel Trio. The instrumentation alone with dobro, marimba/vibes and double bass would frame Eisler’s music completely differently, even if we just orchestrated the songs and did not change a note. We had worked on arranging piano music for the trio in the past. As one result, our recording of “Secret Ingredient” features a piano Notturno by Edvard Grieg.

I suggested trying out some of the songs to Michael, Christian and Roland, and the first results made us curious to see what further rehearsing would make us come up with. Besides the obvious power of Brecht’s words, we were fascinated by the scope of the musical language and the way each song seems to refine its subject into a fine distillate. This is simply unbelievably good material. We developed a way of treating the songs that seemed (to us at least) to do justice to the music while allowing us to transport the songs from their 1940’s Kunstlied-context into the here and now: We took fragments or a few bars of music from some of the songs and improvised interludes from the material which we juxtaposed with freely associated parts. We left the dry laconicism of the songs themselves untouched.

“Looking back I consider this to be a very strange and successful assignment – especially these elegies. And it is surprising how four lines suffice to outline a complete subject. Brecht later transported this clarity into other things as well.”
– Hanns Eisler, April 13th, 1958, ibid. p. 45

Eisler lived a life in exile. Caught between the vilification of his work in Ziegler’s exhibition “Entartete Musik”, his persecution as a communist in the USA by J. Edgar Hoover’s House Un-American Activities Committee, the impossibility of finding tenure in post-war Vienna and the patronizing formalism debate in Ulbricht’s GDR he remained an uncomfortable and outspoken citizen, and a very productive one at that. Whether he could feel at-home anywhere at all, I cannot say.

Eisler and his second wife Lou went to New York in 1938. Eisler soon became visiting professor at the New School for Social Research in New York, but the pay was meagre and a permanent visa remained a problem. He was, like many immigrants, dependent on friends and aid societies. His money problems, Brecht’s arrival in Los Angeles and the prospect of a teaching position at the University of California prompted the couple’s move to Santa Monica.

“It was the terrible idyll of this landscape, (…..). Brecht complained (….). Everything was too tepid and mild for him, (….) and the constant blossoming of the vegetation was sickening. (…) And this led to this very brief and concise style as an antidote. ‘One must under no circumstances let oneself go when the air is so mild’, he said.“
– Hanns Eisler, April 13th, 1958, ibid. p. 45

Eisler’s life in Los Angeles oscillates between his work on his own artistic projects, his collaboration with Brecht and his self-enslavement in the name of Hollywood Kitsch. And while all this was happening, seemingly on the side – he wrote this wonderful songbook. Eisler calls it his ‘pastime’, but it seems to me to have been a heartfelt project. These are powerful songs, created by uprooted people. Lines like this last one linger in my ear, maybe in part because of the family story my mother told me.

“The refugee sits in the alder-dell, once again taking up his difficult handicraft: hope.”
– Brecht/Eisler from “Frühling”, in: “Hollywooder Liederbuch”

Michael Schiefel & Wood&Steel Trio: “Eisler’s Hollywood Songbook”, November 2nd, 2016 at Jazzfest Berlin.