Labor, Labor Movement and Music
Hanns Eisler's Speech to the Choir of the
International Ladies' Garment Workers Union
Hanns Eisler on the
This speech by Hanns Eisler is taken from "HANNS EISLER A REBEL IN
MUSIC" published simultaneously by International
Publishers, New York and Seven Seas Books, Berlin. ©1978
When I speak to you about labor, or the labor movement and music I do
so with a certain responsibility, for I must not only give you some
ideas, but must also show you how they can be practical and progressive.
If we are going to speak about music we must first make a general outline
of the specific situation in musical life today. When doing this perhaps
it is better to omit abstract philosophical formulations, and be concrete
Let us imagine that we are interviewing different types of musicians
and music lovers. Perhaps their answers will be illuminating.
Let us put the following question to any famous conductor (and I know
a number of them), "What is the purpose of music in your opinion and
from your point of view as a conductor, and whom do you believe is served
by your work?" The usual answer will be, "Music has no special purpose.
The purpose of music lies in itself. My job is to give the people beauty,
and to try and give them as much as possible."
That sounds all very well, but is it the truth? Does that really serve
the people, or does the typical concert conductor not really serve a
certain small section of the people - the wealthy upper class? And when
a conductor performs serious classical or modern music on the radio,
are the people, the working class and the petty bourgeoisie really able
to understand such music? Was music always written without a particular
purpose? The answer to all these questions is, no.
First of all, music for the sake of music, or art f or art's sake is
a very young slogan, not more than a hundred years old. The great masters
in the history of music never used such slogans. For example, Johann
Sebastian Bach(1) said of himself, "My duty is
to serve the Lord and the Church with my music." His feelings were not
so much those of an artist as those of an artisan or preacher. Beethoven
was thoroughly influenced by his times, the era of the great French
Revolution. If you read Wagner's theoretical writings from 1848, you
will find that they are directly antagonistic to slogans such as "art
for art's sake."
What is the reason for the present disavowal of the attitude of the
truly great masters and their traditions? We will find the answer if
we examine the second part of the conductor's statement, that he wants
to serve the people. We know that today very few people really understand
and find pleasure in serious classical or modern music.
Of course, I realize that some of the great works enjoy a certain popularity,
but that is mainly among the intellectuals in the big cities. However,
New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston are not the
United States alone. When broadcasting companies send out questionnaires
on the program wishes of their listeners, 99 percent answer, "Give us
more entertainment music and less symphonies." If classical music has
so small a basis, what chance is there for serious modem music?
This is an important point. Why? Because a sound musical situation requires
a constant flow of new musical works. Let us now question a modern composer,
someone as well known as Arnold Schonberg. He will certainly answer,
"I am completely isolated. Very few people understand my music, perhaps
a hundred or two." If we ask him why he continues to write under these
abnormal conditions he will say, "I have to express myself, and perhaps
in a couple of hundred years people will understand what I have written."
Yet this is not only true of composers with world-wide reputations like
Schonberg, every student who writes in modern style, and every young
composer is in the same terrible fix.
Was this always so? No, absolutely not. Beethoven and Wagner(2)
were isolated for some years, but this dilemma did not endure the whole
of their lifetime. And in the history of music there was never a period
where all musical production was in such a predicament as it is today.
What is wrong? Are modern composers not proficient? Are the people lacking
in understanding? Again the answer is, no. Arnold Schonberg is an excellent
composer and there are understanding people in all countries. But something
is wrong. The disaster begins when you divide music into entertainment
and serious categories. Ask the music critic of a well-known liberal
newspaper in New York. Most likely he will answer, "My dear friend,
this division has always existed. Don't worry about it. It has always
been that some people have more appreciation of art than others. Don't
take it to heart, my dear Mr. Eisler. Do you really think that Beethoven
was understood by all the people of his time? Or Mozart? Certainly not."
In answer to this we could say to our friend the music critic, "But
don't forget that now there are more practical opportunities for hearing
and understanding music. just think of the radio. But has the radio
brought about any definite Changes?" Again my answer is, no.
Summing up for the conductor, the composer and the critic, we can say,
music today is in a crisis. And we, as the class-conscious political
and artistic avant-garde, must say that this crisis is an expression
of the deep economic and political world crisis.
One characteristic of this crisis in music is the division of entertainment
and serious music. Is this not a very strange division? Must we be entertained
only by the cheapest musical rubbish and must we look serious and behave
like snobs when listening to serious classical music? Again history
can teach us. In the history of music we seldom find any circumstance
where music was a direct and natural expression of and for the people
without any restrictions or difficulties. Only in primitive society,
for example among the American Indians, or in ancient oriental culture,
or in the ancient Germanic, Roman and Celtic societies, do we find an
unbroken unity of sacred and secular music. But in the Middle Ages we
find a special differentiation between church music and popular music.
This division does not entirely correspond with our division of serious
and entertainment music. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries we
find a highly developed church music, a very refined music for the aristocratic
courts and for the wealthy merchant class in the new bourgeois cities
in Italy, France and the Netherlands. Next to these more specialized
forms of art music we find typical "useful" music of and for the ordinary
people, mainly dance music and folk songs.
We must remember that a musician like Bach served both the church and
the aristocracy. There was certainly a constant connection between this
art music and folk music. Church music often used folk songs and vice
versa: the people often sang church melodies. At that time folk music
had a real cultural basis and tradition. From earliest times primitive
manual labor and craftsmanship were connected with music. The purpose
of this music was to organize primitive cooperative labor - sailing,
fishing, farming and other crafts. Some festival and religious songs
testify by their words that they were directly connected with this primitive
labor. Further, we must not forget that until the seventeenth century
the church was open to everybody and was a decisive factor in cultural
musical life in general.
I won't go into further detail here about historical material. However,
you may be interested in an example of familiar song. I am sure you
all know the famous "Volga Boatmen's Song."(3)
You can hear it in any White Russian tea room or cabaret. Former so-called
noblemen tenderly remember the good old times when they could cheerfully
kick a peasant in the pants. But was this song always an expression
of the ideas of these filthy noblemen-bandits?
No. It is an old and revered song. It was actually used by boatmen on
the Volga River, not only to express themselves, but also to organize
their work of pulling the boats upstream. Obviously when so many men
have to pull a heavy boat they have to use their force at the same time,
that is to say, in a definite rhythm provided by the song. Otherwise
they would be unable to move the boat or to use their labor force most
economically. Later on, this song became a real folk song and was used
for many kinds of manual labor. Let us go farther. Suppose a smart businessman
hears the boatmen singing and likes it. He thinks that song may mean
business. He hires some carpenters to build benches on the river banks;
he then sells tickets to the ladies of rich city merchants to hear for
the first time the original Volga boatmen singing the original "Volga
Boatmen's Song." And the beautiful ladies enjoy the song very much.
As you know, generally speaking, art and music today are the prerogatives
of rich ladies. They come to listen again and again, and the "Volga
Boatmen's Song" is a great hit. But after a time the women say, "Today
the performance was not very good, in fact, it was rather poor. Yet
last Monday the performance was first class. Divine! What has happened?"
They ask the boatmen and the answer is curious. The boatmen say, "Today
the boat was quite light, it was not loaded. But last Monday we had
to pull very heavy stones. We had to work very hard and so we sang with
all our might."
This is not meant as a joke. You can certainly see the difference between
music today and the old folk music culture, where the people sang for
themselves and not for listeners. In genuine old folk music no difference
existed between entertainment and serious music. In old art music, let
us say that of Mozart, no differences existed. In his operas, The Magic
Flute and The Seraglio, the music is both serious and entertaining.
The present differentiation began with the Industrial Revolution at
the beginning of the nineteenth century. What did the Industrial Revolution
mean for society in general? It meant the birth of a new type-the industrial
worker. The industrial worker lost his simple rural culture, he lost
his old mores and habits and he lost his craftsmanship and his small
property. These were all taken from him by force, in order to make of
him a proletarian who had nothing to sell but his labor power. All this
occurred as the technique of the division of labor progressed. Read
the reports of the factory inspectors of the 1840's, 1850's and 1860's
and you will realize the dehumanizing, degenerating and humiliating
effects the Industrial Revolution had on the working class. In these
reports there are the most horrible details about child labor, female
labor, killing exploitation, the unlimited powers of the employers and
the helplessness of the employees. At that time, the bourgeoisie grew
in strength and reached the heights with geniuses like Beethoven, Goethe,
Byron, Shelley and Balzac. The worker was no longer a human being. On
the one hand there was a glorious bourgeois culture, and on the other
there were the uncultured faceless masses, But from these helpless masses,
the vanguard, the industrial workers in magnificent cooperation with
Progressives of all professions, sought and found a way out of their
condition. They became class-conscious. They discovered the economic
reasons and the driving forces behind all these developments; and it
was only a short time for the tremendous development from utopian socialist
ideas to the scientific methods of Marx and Engels and the beginning
of political organization.
I could go on talking about these things, but they belong more to a
lecture on the history of the working class. But for us there is one
interesting point: What did the Industrial Revolution do to music culture?
It destroyed most of the old folk music. The explanation is simple.
Factory workers cannot sing at work in the same way and for the same
reasons as the Volga boatmen sang. The tempo and rhythm of their work
is dictated by their machines and not by the workers themselves. Spontaneous
music culture dies under such conditions. Two generations after the
Industrial Revolution the majority of the population was without any
music culture at all. And this is how the division between entertainment
and serious music arose!
In order to understand serious music it is necessary to have a high
general level of culture and to have a high standard of living. That
is to say you must have time, money and education enough to be able
to play at least one instrument; you must have a more or less theoretical
training and a certain general knowledge of the fine arts, literature
and so on. You must have the opportunity of hearing musical works again
and again, you must learn to play them yourself. All this can make you
a really proficient music lover and musical amateur. It is evident that
all this is available only to the middle class or to the upper class.
Without a similar social background and similar social conditions you
are more or less helpless.
It is also true that the nineteenth century composer, the romantic composer,
wrote for and expressed the sentiments of this section of society. Schumann,
Chopin, Liszt, Brahms(4) and others were the musical
lions of upper middle-class drawing rooms. The thousands of love songs
and piano pieces were sung and played by the young Daughters of the
In addition, by the nineteenth century, art music was no longer solely
music for the social soirees of emperors, princes and noblemen, but
for the first time became merchandise and a business. A hundred years
before the Industrial Revolution a man like Bach was at one and the
same time a servant of the church, servant of the court, composer, piano,
violin and organ player, teacher of Latin, French and musical composition.
He also printed some of his own works; he was a copyist and librarian
for his church. He was not a romantic figure like Liszt, but a normal
good citizen with twelve children.(5) The Industrial
Revolution created the travelling music virtuoso, who was like a travelling
salesman. The composer became a specialist, he was only a composer,
like Beethoven. The music teacher became a specialist, the special music
theoretician, like Albrechtsberger; he taught only theory, but was neither
a virtuoso nor a composer. The music publisher also came into being,
and thus also the owners of concert halls, which were formerly located
in the castles of noblemen. Then came the concert manager, often the
same person as the concert virtuoso. Later he became independent, a
sheer businessman in music, buying and selling the "merchandise" music.
The music historian also appeared, a new and often curious type. So
we see that quite a number of new and special types developed and became
involved in the break between serious and entertainment music; they
took into their hands the process of distribution and merchandising,
of the buying and selling of music as a commodity.
Despite these negative features, this development in the nineteenth
century was a progressive one. On the one hand we find a number of very
talented composers and virtuosi, on the other hand a new and highly
cultivated type of listener and musical amateur. At that time no musical
crisis existed in the form that it does today, although characteristic
of the times around the year 1800 a musical crisis started. But this
apparently relatively peaceful and normal picture is altered sharply
if you consider not just the new organization of musical life, but the
dreadful background of the overall social conditions at this period.
In England where the earliest and most radical industrial revolution
took place, go percent of the population lived in ignorance and cultural
darkness. It leads us to say that the social conditions of the time
were a fundamental danger to further cultural development.
What kind of music was practised and was necessary for the uncultured
go percent? It had to be the kind of music which could be produced and
consumed as quickly and cheaply as beer or gin, as glaring and as bad
as the new factory-made clothes. But just as gin is not very healthy
and just as cheap clothing is neither beautiful nor durable, so also
was the new "entertainment" music. It was cheap, factory-made and without
any cultural value. This music was only digestible for those bereft
of any musical taste. One condition alone was necessary, that they were
not deaf. Naturally, such music was not created by great masters, nor
yet by the people themselves. It was by no means folk music of the old
type. It was music watered down for the people by mere music merchants.
Fourth and fifth-rate composers were paid by these merchants to write
this sort of false "popular" music, and publishing houses printed it
- cheap music, cheap words on cheap paper - and sold it in the streets
like newspapers or candy. The production of such music increased with
the invention of mechanical musical instruments. As entertainment music
of this kind increased, serious music decreased.
Today entertainment music has become so predominant on the radio and
in films that it can be heard at any time of the day or night. If you
turn on the radio, if you go to a restaurant for a glass of beer, you
always hear such music.
What does this kind of music give the people? I ask you to answer this
question. What does a big glass of whiskey give you? Nothing but a headache
after a very short period of pleasure. If you drink too much you end
up in hospital. In particular, if young people hear too much of this
music they become mentally dull and disinterested in the real needs
and potentialities of the working class.
Let us now turn to the present day, the period of an unprecedented musical
crisis. Though the nineteenth century be the father of this musical
crisis, we must nonetheless judge the child. The great economic crisis
after the world war largely affected the middle classes as well as most
professionals throughout the world. The younger generation, influenced
by new conditions, with new habits and new standards prefers sport and
films to concerts. In this country in particular serious music is promoted
and sponsored only by wealthy women. Of course middle-class youth, students
and intellectuals are to be found at the concerts, but that does not
alter the general picture. If there were to be a very special, very
peculiar earthquake which would allow up only wealthy women, then on
the following day conductors, singers, pianists and composers would
be found on the bread lines. Although it is the wealthy who sponsor
serious music, they no longer have a monopoly on understanding good
music as had the middle class and the aristocracy in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries. Today concert-going is mostly an opportunity
for displaying dress, jewellery and snobbishness. The fashionable and
handsome Stokowskis(6) are admired more than the
musical compositions that these gentlemen try to conduct. Composers,
conductors, singers and teachers must have close relationships with
these wealthy women, whose sponsorship is not too wholesome. It is sometimes
awful to see what parasites some artists become, rather than as free
men making their talents responsible to the people. How can musical
standards be maintained under such protective conditions? Let me give
you some facts. The Metropolitan Opera is the wealthiest of its kind
in the world. For about fifty years a number of wealthy families have
supported the opera with large donations. How many of you have ever
attended a Metropolitan Opera performance? I suppose half a dozen, or
perhaps no one. Have you any knowledge of the great operatic works of
Mozart, Beethoven, Handel or Wagner? You may even say that although
the Metropolitan Opera does not serve the people directly, they are
creating a fine opera tradition which someday may be of use to the country.
But I must answer, no. Of course the technical standard of the orchestra
is very high and they have some excellent singers. However, the conductors
are not first class, only experienced and good routine musicians. Culturally
the whole standard is rather low. Nothing is done to modernize the productions;
the performances are not usually first class. The old operas are performed
again and again in a routine way. This is not a cultural institution,
it is a luxury club for snobs. Further, who selects the conductors?
Wealthy women select wealthy conductors. Musical ability is of secondary
importance. Who works out the concert programs? The same wealthy women
work out rather bad programs. They are generally like round-trip express
trains from Beethoven to Sibelius. Is anything done for modern American
composers? No. Who is responsible for this? The wealthy women sponsors!
Which class do these wealthy women represent? The bankers, manufacturers,
merchants and department store owners. Can this class be a leading force
in the musical life of the people? No. Who can help the people? The
There are few good concerts available to the people today. Except for
some popular concerts, only the cheap trash of Broadway and Hollywood
is offered. I don't consider jazz and swing entirely bad. Men like Duke
Ellington and Benny Goodman are really talented musicians. But Duke
Ellington makes his fortune in night clubs and his development as an
artist is therefore handicapped. Benny Goodman, a very fine clarinettist,
has made stupid and boring films in Hollywood and thus ruins his real
craftsmanship. What is being offered to the people as musical fare?
Songs like, Bei mir bist du scon, Ti-pi-tin, and similar stupidities.
And I shudder to think of the thousands of sentimental love songs produced
by Broadway and Hollywood. Some of you will say, that's harmless, that's
just entertainment, don't worry. But as a musician I do worry, for I
know all is poison, opium for the people. But what is the solution?
Should the working people grow long beards and with great dignity attend
only concerts of serious music? That is ridiculous and impossible.
Before I continue, let me say a few favorable words about the United
States. I am happy to say that the administration in this country and
President Roosevelt are also progressive in the sphere of culture. I
think that a great deal of the WPA(7) work in the
theater and in music is admirable. But can the Government provide the
solution? That is impossible. A progressive government can certainly
help the people. But that is only a temporary help and not a definite
change. The main support for the people, I repeat, is the people themselves.
But who are the people? You are the people. Let me say something about
your possibilities as a workers' choir. I believe that since your union
has worked so successfully in the theatrical field you will also want
to do something important in your field. To be frank, I have had no
personal experience with your organization. I have never heard any of
your performances; I don't know your conductor or your qualities as
a choir, and I don't know what you sing. But I can tell you about some
of the conclusions I have drawn from international experience. Of course,
the United States is different from France, England, Germany, Switzerland,
Austria before Schuschnigg and Hitler, Germany before Hitler, Czechoslovakia
(I hope never to have to say "before Hitler"), Denmark, Jugoslavia and
last but not least the Soviet Union.
I have lived and worked as a musician in all these countries. Perhaps
some of my experiences may be of use to you. I have seen highly successful
choral organizations like the excellent People's Front Choir in France
with 250 voices and a similar organization in London under the leadership
of Alan Bush. I have heard millions of people singing my songs on Red
Square on the first of May in Moscow. But I have also seen and heard
other workers' choral groups and I must confess that sometimes I was
unable to tell whether they were alive or dead. What is the reason for
A weak workers' choir usually has no special line. They are neither
fish nor fowl, neither bourgeois nor proletarian. They sing popular
lyrical choral music. For example, in Germany they used to sing, Wer
bat dich, du schoner Wald, a sentimental popular chorus by Mendelssohn.
Or they sing some popular works by good composers. But mostly they sing
cheap lyrical rubbish by fourth or fifth rate composers. Such music
is not only boring to sing, but is intolerable to listen to. Most of
these pieces were written at the end of the nineteenth century and before
the war. They have nothing in common with great art, nor do they express
real life today. Poor choirs also sing some folk songs, usually badly
arranged for four-part choir. Finally, they also sing what we call in
German Tendenz choruses, that is choruses with conscious social significance.
In Germany, the Netherlands and in England many Tendenz choral compositions
were written between 1890 and 1920. Some of these pieces are really
excellent, but most of them sound rather old-fashioned today. I am sure
you know such pieces. The words are usually innocuous and quite mild
like: "Today we are struggling in the night, but we hope that tomorrow
there will be light," or "Some day we shall be free."
The music is equally old-fashioned and so is the behaviour and the concert
performance of the choir. These good people work very hard for six months
on such a program. They hire a hall, put on their Sunday best, stand
with great dignity and solemnity on the stage, follow very carefully
the indications of the conductor, and do what is called their best.
The audience is usually made up of relatives of singers, fellow union
members and other friends. But the whole atmosphere is funereal. So
the question remains, "Who is dead?" Maybe progressive music. The program
begins. First come a couple of folk songs, or rather something masquerading
as folk songs. I am always horrified to hear a group of union workers,
toughened by many class struggles singing, "La, la, la, la, la, la,
laaaa, aaaa," or "I am so lonesome when I remember you."
After these wonderful songs comes the obligatory classical repertoire,
two or three pieces by better composers. If the performance is not very
good, no matter, the audience has heard better performances on the radio.
Finally, the choruses with social significance are sung. With ramrod
stiffness and monotony, you hear - the promise that "Sometime the sun
will shine again," or "Freedom, we love you."
Now and then the conductor has a friend or a wife who plays the violin
or piano, or sings solo. And so a soloist appears on the program. Pieces
like Liszt's "Love Dreams," with -its arpeggios going up and down, or
the "Sweet Kreisleria' for violin; if he or she is a singer then you
hear pieces like Grieg's 'I love you," and certainly at the end "Laugh,
The, listeners are very polite and the concert ends peacefully with
the presentation of a bouquet of flowers to the conductor-organized
by the concert committee. And all this is the result of six months'
hard work. I often ask myself, What do the singers do at the rehearsals,
especially the second tenors and the second basses? oooooooooolalalalalalalalalalaa.
The bass line itself is stupid, but perhaps they console themselves
with the thought that the whole thing may not sound too bad. I am sure
that after such a concert, an executive committee meeting is held and
somebody asks why the audience was so small in number. "Too little publicity
and not enough ticket selling," the chairman will say.
I'm not convinced, even if you used a machine gun to sell tickets. The
chairman, I am sure, will want to know why so few people attend rehearsals.
I can understand the feelings of the choir members, especially my good
friends, the second basses. Frequently it is difficult to find a person
under forty in such choirs. The reasons for this are all quite obvious.
We talked about the crisis in music a little while ago, of the division
between entertainment and serious music. A concert of this kind has
nothing to do with the crisis in music. Surely such a concert is neither
entertaining nor serious music. It is merely a boring, meaningless,
inartistic, an utterly dreary affair. However, half a century ago, this
kind of concert would have been a sign of real progress for the working
class, but today it means less than nothing.
Especially to the younger generation who prefer the movies, the radio
and sport; and if they are politically minded they go to meetings, left
theater groups and so on. But if a cultural organization cannot attract
the youth then it is not fulfilling its function and will lose vitality.
What can such an organization do under these circumstances? If each
member realizes that these difficulties are part of a more general crisis
and of the specific social conditions of the working class, then a way
out will be found more easily. Let me give you some suggestions:
1. The main question is the repertoire. This must be chosen so that
it is both interesting for the audience add for the singers (last but
not least for the second basses) and for each voice of the choir-rehearsing
the pieces for six months. The music and words must be engaging and
How can a repertoire of this kind be formed? The only way is close contact
with modern progressive composers. I have told you about the dreadful
situation of the modern composer, who is either isolated and starving
or who lives as a parasite. But you can give him a new chance! And he
will give you a new chance! This collaboration between the progressive
working class and progressive composers is mutually beneficial. For
a progressive choral group this cognizance is absolutely vital. Close
contact with such a group carries a fresh wind to the composer, new
ideas, opportunities for publication, in short, a new life.
In building a repertoire there must be the right balance between classical
art music and modern music. One important point is to forget old-fashioned
rigidity. A modern conductor or composer can easily find not only good
classical pieces for you, but interesting new works by different modern
composers from various countries. Then there are the folk songs of the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the marvellous madrigals of composers
like Orlando di Lasso, Marenzio and numerous others of the highest level.
There is also abundant material in modern music of class-conscious compositions
from many countries, including the Soviet Union. Finally, you can ask
modern composers to write new works for you.
But unfortunately such a concert consisting of short pieces would add
up to a boring evening. Which brings me to suggestion number two.
2. Improved methods of organizing concerts:
To hell with all this old rigmarole and concert mannerisms! We have
more important things to do. Choose a good narrator. Let him explain
the numbers which are to be sung, not in a dry academic manner, but
in the fresh, witty and lively spirit of the working class. That will
be one step forward.
But again not sufficient. More is required if a concert is to be organized
effectively. You must try to cooperate with other artistic working-class
groups, such as actors, dancers, bands and so on. Your composers and
poets must write bigger cantatas, musical plays with action and music
in which the role of the chorus is the most important. The whole responsibility
for the political and social context in this new production lies on
your shoulders. Rehearsals will give you ample opportunity to control
and discuss things.
3. Humor, pep and satire should be an important part of all your performances.
People like jazz and swing, they can be used in your productions, but
not in the corrupt manner of Hollywood and Broadway. Good modern music
has rhythm, humor and vitality, and you must exploit it. To conclude,
what is the most vital thing?
A good modern conductor and a good relationship with (and a little money
for) your modern composers-and only the best are good enough for you
I You must have the most talented young poets. All this is possible.
Try it! Remember that the death of art is cheap sentimentality, empty
bombast and vulgar imitations of folk songs. The absence of social significance
also makes a piece dreary, especially in these hard times. In our art
there must be the finest unification of entertainment, a highly developed
technique, awareness, humor, good propaganda and social feeling. Cheapness
and a boring quality arc the most dangerous enemies of workers' art.
May I make a practical proposal to you. With your strong union, you
have special possibilities and special experiences. Try the following:
with some actors, one good narrator and a young modern director, with
a young modern poet and a composer you could easily produce a marvellous
choral play. I will give you a tip-let us say the name of the choral
play is "Our Story," a play based on the history of your union. I know
its history and it is wonderful, from an artistic point of view as well.
For example, there could be a choral number about a Jewish immigrant,
sitting on his trunks on Ellis Island, seeing New York across the bay.
Another scene could show the semi-illegal work of the union in its beginnings;
the fights with gangsters, the death of a militant brother-the choir
could sing an explanation to this. A number of scenes could follow,
and for each scene you could project onto the screen the date and some
lines explaining the historical situation. The choir should not try
to act! In general it would be too difficult and not good enough. They
should be sitting and stand up to sing their numbers. You could have
a couple of actors and one or two solo singers. With the same amount
of energy that you used to prepare a concert of the kind I have analyzed,
you could prepare a fine performance, important for you and your audience,
with stimulating rehearsals and an active organization behind you.
Is all this difficult to do? Yes and no! The beginning will not be easy,
but you must take this way, the way of a progressive workers' choir.
In these times of cultural barbarism and political danger we can observe
a very interesting phenomenon. Capitalist culture is on the decline.
It is your turn now to guard and re-create culture despite all those
Let me end on a personal note. I would like to express my gratitude
to Messrs. Schaeffer and Liebmann for the opportunity of speaking to
you. I hope that something of what I have said may be useful and I hope
that soon I will be able to congratulate you on your first flop!
Source: Labor, labor movement and music, Typescript,
Hanns Eisler Archives.
EGW III/i, PP. 414-28.
The original English text was edited for this book. Eisler delivered
this lecture to the choir of the International Ladies' Garment Workers'
Union in New York, a choir with a rich tradition, on June 25, 1938.
1 With a quotation attributed to Bach, namely, that
it is his duty to serve the Lord and the Church through his music, Eisler
meant neither the acceptance of the church as an institution, nor the
justification for turning one's back on society. On the contrary Bach's
religiosity was on a par with his humanist thinking. "He always composed
for life, he fulfilled his commissions by writing for purposes which
were vital and for particular circles of people ... In contrast to his
predecessors, there is in Bach's works a humanizing of the content undreamt
of up to that time." (Ernst Hermann Meyer, Autsdtze fiber Musik, Berlin
I957, PP. 16-I7.)
2 Richard Wagner fought on the barricades during
the bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1848-49 in Germany, and at that
time wrote discourses such as, "Man and Existing Society," "Art and
Revolution," and "The Art of the Future."
3 The "Volga Boatmen's Song," an old Russian work
song, became well-known in Western Europe and America, especially through
the dolled-up interpretation of the famous bass, Feodor Chaliapin.
4 Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Brahms, indeed all
endeavored to reach the lower classes with their music, but the proletariat
was still in the process of being formed and lay outside their mental
horizon. On the other hand, they profited from the middle and upper
strata of the bourgeoisie.
5 Bach had 20 children: 7 children from his first
marriage, 4 of whom lived; from his second marriage 13 children, 7 of
whom reached maturity.
6 By "Stokowskis" Eisler meant star conductors of
the kind characterized by Leopold Stokowski in the U.S.A.
7 WPA is the abbreviation for Works Progress Administration.
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