Contrary Voices: Heine, Holderlin, and Goethe in the music of Hanns Eisler
Contrary Voices examines composer Hanns Eisler’s settings of nineteenth-century poetry under changing political pressures from 1925 to 1962. The poets’ ideologically fraught reception histories, both under Nazism and in East Germany, led Eisler to intervene in this reception and voice dissent by radically fragmenting the texts. His musical settings both absorb and disturb the charisma of nineteenth-century sound materials, through formal parody, dissonance, and interruption. Eisler’s montage-like work foregrounds the difficult position of a modernist artist speaking both to and against political demands placed on art. Often the very charisma the composer seeks to expose for its power to sway the body politic exerts a force of its own. At the same time, his text-settings resist ideological rigidity in their polyphonic play. A dialogic approach to musical adaptation shows that, as Eisler seeks to resignify Heine’s problematic status in the Weimar Republic, Hölderlin’s appropriation under Nazism, and Goethe’s status as a nationalist symbol in the nascent German Democratic Republic, his music invests these poetic voices with surprising fragility and multivalence. It also destabilizes received gender tropes, in the masculine vulnerability of Eisler’s Heine choruses from 1925 and in the androgynous voices of his 1940s Hölderlin exile songs and later Goethe settings. Cross-reading the texts after hearing such musical treatment illuminates faultlines and complexities less obvious in text-only analysis. Ultimately Eisler’s music translates canonical material into a form as paradoxically faithful as it is violently fragmented.
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