Three weeks before he died in East Berlin in September 1962, Hanns Eisler talked to his long-time interlocutor Hans Bunge about his headache of a commission from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, an assignment then already three years old. “I can’t tell you what hell it is for me, I actually don’t know why I’m writing a symphony…I don’t know who I’m talking to and who to reach.” The material he left behind in a folder only consisted of a few sketches derived from passages in previously written film scores. Yet here on this fascinating if frustrating release we have the premiere recording of his ‘Leipzig Symphony’ (probably not his own title), stretching to nineteen minutes.
As with Elgar’s Third Symphony and Anthony Payne, an intermediary had to step in to render the unfinished playable, though Payne’s masterly Elgar elaboration doesn’t automatically leap to mind while listening to the curious handiwork of the late composer Tilo Medek, prepared in time for the Eisler centenary in 1998. Eisler’s aural fingerprints might be evident enough – the terse timpani thumps, the aggressive rhythms, the flute arabesques, the pizzicato strings. But where is Eisler’s customary dialectical strength and clarity of thought? In Medek’s self-concocted Finale, derived from a 1957 Eisler song, Linker Marsch, they are smudged by added discordant layers. The second of the four movements, created from sections of three film scores, bulges even more out of shape, layered with other Medek implants of an alien nature. Any Eisler devotee will want to hear this hotchpotch, spiritedly dispatched by Jürgen Bruns and the MDR-Sinfonieorchester Leipzig. But Medek’s completion only enlarges the question that Eisler, as a Commnist believing in music’s role in social and political change, couldn’t answer himself: why was he writing the Symphony in the first place?
The collage and quotation approach assumed by Medek at least echoes Eisler’s own practice: indeed, along with Bach, Handel and Michael Nyman he’s one of the world’s great musical recyclers, especially in his orchestral scores. None of his own recycled products, though, have the limp impact of the nine-movement Trauerstücke, stitched together in 2015 by Bruns and Tobias Fasshauer from barely known scores for Aktion J and Esther, two East German television films of 1961 and 1962, themselves not impervious to quotes from the composer’s past. The shortest movement lasts twenty-nine seconds, the longest two and a half minutes. Alongside Eisler in funereal mood, we hear consolatory music for strings, and the usual idiosyncratic trumpet and wind solos, all effectively conveyed by Bruns’s Leipzig soloists. But without any glue or dialectical framework connecting the material, the Trauerstücke obstinately remain a string of film cues, not fit for any larger purpose.
And then, at last, with a change of performers (now the Kammersymphonie Berlin) this Capriccio album turns the corner. We reach Eisler’s largely original score written under considerable time pressure for Alain Resnais’s milestone documentary of Holocaust horrors, Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog), released in 1956 – and a score never before made available on disc. At the front and end Eisler recycles solemn music for strings from his incidental music to Johannes R. Becher’s play Winterschlacht, set during Germany’s Russian campaign in World War Two. In between come eleven sections of typically piquant instrumental musings: music gently sorrowful, meditative, graceful, calmly rotating before us like different facets of a Rubik cube; music placed in deliberate counterpoint to Resnais’s sober assemblage of some of the most appalling images of concentration camp atrocities ever brought before the public.
In the Winterschlacht material, Bruns’s massed musicians, slightly blowsily recorded, miss the memorable cut and thrust of the original soundtrack performers, an anonymous group conducted by Georges Delerue; but their vivid colourings elsewhere are a joy. The loss of the terrible images themselves might be thought another drawback, though their absence also brings the removal of the film’s constant if undemonstrative spoken commentary. The obvious benefit here is the extra room this allows for Eisler’s music to work its own restrained, unsentimental magic, building and growing with shared motifs and an unassailable unity of purpose.
The Leipzig Symphony and the Trauerstücke make this an album just for Eisler completists; Nuit et brouillard makes it an essential album for everyone who cares about twentieth-century history and music, and humankind’s inhumanity.