Dr. James Parsons, professor of Music History, presented his paper “Defying Misinformation with Song: Hanns Eisler’s ‘Rat Men’” at the International Conference “Music and Musicology in the Age of Post-Truth” at University College Dublin in Dublin, Ireland on September 7, 2018.
In his paper, Parsons brought together a number of mid-twentieth-century flashpoints. With World War II recently over, another conflict took its place: the Cold War. And just as German-born Hanns Eisler’s life finally seemed to be settling down after having fled Nazi Germany in 1933, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), first on May 12 and then in September of that year. Unfortunately for him, Eisler, one-time student of Arnold Schoenberg, friend and collaborator of Bertolt Brecht and writer of film music in Hollywood, had a family lifted from the pages of Greek tragedy. His brother, Gerhart, likely was a member of the disbanded Communist International organization, or Comintern. His sister, Ruth Fischer, had founded the Austrian Communist Party in 1918 only to be thrown out in 1926 because she dared questioned Joseph Stalin’s dictatorial control of the organization. In 1947 USA, Ruth became hell-bent on destroying her two brothers. She nearly succeeded. Eisler was forced to leave the USA in 1948, eventually settling in East Germany.
Eisler memorializes his brush with the equally-despotic HUAC in his song, or Lied “Rat Men,” one of 47 he wrote for a collection begun in 1942 yet only completed in 1947, the year of his HUAC encounter, a song he subsequently renamed “Nightmare.” Parsons’s principal point in presenting his paper is that Eisler was not a victim of either Nazism or HUAC repression. Rather the song expresses a cleverly thought out indictment of the repression of power disparity that remains as valid today as when it was composed in 1947.