Braunfels/Eisler: Songs from Suppression

Pianist Constanze Beckmann and Baritone Samuel Chan, have put together an exploratory program of German Art Songs, contrasting and reviving the music of Jewish-German composers Walter Braunfels and Hanns Eisler. This program explores the musical and artistic language of these two composers, and how religious and ethnic persecution influenced their musical language and ideology. The program, made up of two sets of Braufel’s songs (Op.1 and Op. 4) alongside a selection of songs from Hanns Eislers’ Hollywood Liederbuch use romantic and progressive harmonic languages to explore the musical world of the first 4 decades of Germany in the 20th Century.

As we are exiting a pandemic, we have seen the effects of xenophobia, anti-semitism, and bigotry rise in our contemporary culture due to the effects of the political sphere on society. This program looks back on the question of ‘does history repeat itself’, and asks us how our societal awareness in today’s day and age is more important now than ever before. We also aim to both educate and explore how past similarities effect our contemporary times, and how education and understanding can eradicate ignorance and intolerance in music, society, and culture. 


Walter Braunfels: Sechs Gesänge Op. 1 nach Dichtungen von Carl Wolfskehl, Walter Wenghöfer und Stefan George

  1. An den Nachtwind (Karl Wolfskehl)

  2. Blondel (Karl Wolfskehl)

  3. Die stillen Kähne (Walter Wenghöfer)

  4. Aus dem ,,Jahr der Seele” (Stephan George)

  5. Die Tolle (Walter Wenghöfer)

  6. Innere Landschaft (Walter Wenghöfer)

Walter Braunfels: Sechs Gesänge Op. 4 nach Dichtungen von Hölderlin, Hebbel, Fr. Hessel, und Goethe

I. Abbitte (Hölderlin)

II. Einziges Geschiedensein (Hebbel)

III. An ein junges Mädchen (Hebbel)

IV. Der junge Knabe singt (Hessel)

V. Rastlose Liebe (Goethe)

VI. Flussübergang (Des Knaben Wunderhorn)

Hanns Eisler: Hollywooder Liederbuch

Der Sohn   

I Wenn Sie Nachts Lag Und Dachte   

II Mein Junger Sohn Fragt Mich

An Den Kleinen Radioapparat

In Den Weiden


Speisekammer 1942

Auf Der Flucht

Über Den Selbstmord

Die Flucht

Gedenktafel Für 4000 Soldaten, Die Im Krieg Gegen Norwegen Versenkt Wurden

Epitaph Auf Einen In Der Flandernschlacht Gefallenen


I An Die Hoffnung

II Andenken

III Elegie 1943

IV Die Heimat   

V An Eine Stadt

VI Erinnerung   

On Reviving Walter Braunfels’s Music

There has been a revival in the last two decades of the works of German composer Walter Braunfels, particularly of his operas. It was not until 20 years ago that Braunfels’s opera Jeane d’Arc (1939-43) received its first premiere in Munich. Since then, a live Decca recording of its concert premiere in Stockholm (2001) received the prestigious Echo Klassik award just last year. 

Braunfels (b. 1882, Frankfurt; d. 1954, Cologne) was an important composer and pianist in Germany and had a successful career in the 1920s and into the early 1930s. Hitler knew Braunfels’s opera The Birds and was simultaneously unaware that the composer was of Jewish descent. He asked Braunfels to compose a national anthem in 1923 but Braunfels was indignant and refused to comply. The composer’s grandson, renowned architect Stephan Braunfels, said, “My grandmother declared that Mephisto will never set a footstep in my home again.“ Walter Braunfels’s success lasted until the 1930s, at which point his music was banned as it was deemed degenerative. He, too, was banned by the Nazis, as he was a half-Jew. His ban came in the form of being dismissed from all official offices, including his position as the Director of the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne which he himself had founded in 1933. He was also expelled for having written what the Nazis called “Entartete Musik.“ Consequently, he withdrew from public life but, because he never wanted to leave his homeland of Germany, he entered a life of internal exile. 

Braunfels moved to Überlingen-Lake Constance and continued composing during World War II. Though the war ended in 1945, he was not able to reclaim the success that he had enjoyed in the past decades. After his death in 1954, he was largely forgotten for several more decades since the avant-garde circles also did not accept him or his works. As a contemporary of Richard Strauss, Braunfels considered his own work to have a strong connection to antiquity. The best example for that is his opera The Birds which is based on Aristophanes. His music is filled with love, honesty, and an extraordinary intelligence. Braunfels does not do anything without a purpose, and he always has an imagination in his compositions that acts upon emotional energy which words alone would be incapable of conveying. As such, not only are his operas considered to be scenic and imaginative but his symphonic pieces are as well, notably The Fantastic Appearance of a Theme from H. Berlioz.

Due to a major injury that he suffered when serving in the army in World War I, he converted to Catholicism. Braunfels understood his religion as having a continuous effect on a changing antiquity. In his internal exile, he turned to more religious and spiritual themes in his compositions.

Walter Braunfels had a hand at drama and his operas demonstrate his careful consideration of texts. This also shines through in his songs, with which he learned his craft and all but two of which he composed prior to The Birds. Braunfels has a unique tonal language of a totally transparent structure.

On Hanns Eisler: A contemporary parallel

A composer who was also documenting his cultural, political, and spiritual identity through his musical works was Austrian born composer Hanns Eisler (b. 1898, Leipzig; d. East Berlin 1962), most well known in North America for his film scores, his association with playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, an artistic partnership that lasted for decades. Politically and artistically active throughout his lifetime, his works have been subjected to much censorship due to his unabashed protest themes, his Jewish identity, and his left-leaning Marxist views. Now celebrated and recognised in Germany for his musical and compositional output, he was a founder of the Hanns Eisler Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. (Coincidentally, Walter Braunfels was a founder of the Kölner Musikhochschule in Cologne). 

A student of Arnold Schoenberg, Eisler was a well-respected composer in 1920’s Berlin, with a musical style which married expressionism with more ‘popular’ styles such as jazz and cabaret. Eisler was an early adopter of a musical art style called ‘News Items’ (or better characterised as “newspaper clippings”) which were musical compositions that parodied a journalistic periodical in a newspaper, or included lyrics and text directly from daily newspreads, magazines, and other contemporary media. Eisler wrote music for several of Brecht’s plays, most famously The Mother (1932), and together, they contributed to the rich artistic turmoil that characterises 1930’s Weimar Germany.

In 1933, similarly to Walter Braunfels, both Eisler and Brecht were forced into physical and artistic exile. Like Braunfels, Eisler was blacklisted by the Nazi party due to his Jewish ancestry. Eisler travelled for many years, working around Europe, Mexico, and the United States. He finally settled permanently in 1938 in the US, and moved from New York to California in 1942, reuniting with Brecht. Here he wrote his most famous scores for film, two of particular note being the scores for Hangmen Also Die! (1944) and None but the Lonely Heart (1945) which were both nominated for Oscars. From 1927 till his death, he wrote the music for 40 films, making film music one of the largest percentages of his compositional output. 

However, Eisler’s largest compositional output was his vocal music, and a well-respected example of that was his Hollywooder Liederbuch (1942-1943), a collection of German and English language art songs written in Santa Monica which document the trials and tribulations of exile, despair for the happenings in Nazi Europe, incomprehension for the opportunists who stayed behind, alienation in a contemporary culture that is perceived as shallow, and a longing for a lost German cultural identity. The songbook only indirectly references Hollywood, using the ‘for the masses’ aesthetic of the Hollywood film industry as a counter to the concentration on identity explored through the form of Art Song. The book’s musical style spans from Romantic style Kunstlieder, 12-tone expressionist theory, impressionistic and expressionistic influences, and free-tonal exploration.