Labour, labour movement and music

Hanns Eisler’s Speech to the
International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union,
New York, 25 June 1938.

Notes by Günter Mayer, tr. P Tagg

See background notes by G Mayer and list of Eisler’s writings in English.

Taken from Hanns Eisler – Musik und Politik – Schriften 1924-1948, ed. Günter Mayer
(1973: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, Leipzig), pp. 414-429 © Stephanie Eisler.
Page turns in the 1973 edition are inserted here according to the principle that [411-412] means the change from page 411 to 412.


Speaking you about labour, or the labour movement and music, has for me a certain responsibility. I must give you not only ideas, but also show the possibility of practical and progressive results. When we speak about music we must first have a general outline of the special musical situation today. In order to make such an outline it may be sometimes better not to use abstract philosophical methods, but rather to find concrete, realistic ways.

Let us imagine that we interview different types of musicians and music lovers. Maybe their answers can give us something.

Let us question a famous conductor (and I know a lot of them): ‘What purpose has music, in your opinion, and from your point of view as a conductor; and whom do you believe you serve by your work?’ Generally we get such answers: ‘Music has no special purpose. Music finds a purpose in itself. My duty is to give the people beauty, and to try to give them as much as possible.’

All this sounds very nice, but is that the truth? Does this really serve the people, or does the typical concert-conductor not really serve a certain small section of the people the rich upper class? And when a conductor does radio work, serious classical or modern music, have the people, the working class, the petty bourgeoisie really the possibility of understanding such music? Was music always without a special purpose? We must, to all these formulations, say: ‘No, No’.

First, music for music’s sake (or ‘Art for art’s sake’) is a very young slogan, not older than ioo years. The great masters in the history of music never used such slogans. For example

J. S. Bach said about himself: ‘My duty is to serve the Lord and the church with my music’. His feeling was not as an artist, but rather as an artisan or as a preacher. And Beethoven was throughly influenced by his time: the era of the Great French Revolution. And if you read Wagner’s [414-415] theoretical writings in 1848,1 you will find a direct antagonism to such slogans as ‘art for art’s sake’.

What is the reason for this decline far below the really great masters and traditions? We will find the answer if we examine the second part of the conductor’s statement: ) ‘To serve the people.’ We know generally, in the present day, that very few people really understand and find pleasure in serious classical or modern music.

Surely, I realise that there exists a special popularity for some of the master works, but that is true mainly for intellectuals in the great cities. But New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, are not in themselves the United States. When broadcasting companies send out questionaires about the programme wishes of radio-listeners, 99% answer: ‘Give us more entertainment stuff, less symphonies.’ If classical music has so small a basis, what basis has serious modern music?

This is an important point. Why? Because a sound musical situation must have a constant living and growing new production. Let us now question a modern composer, a well known one like Arnold Schonberg. He will certainly answer: ‘I am completely isolated. Very few people, maybe one or two hundred, can understand my music.’ If you ask him, why he continues to write under these anormal conditions, he will answer: ‘I must express myself, and perhaps in a couple of hundred years somebody can understand me.’ But this is not only true for a composer with such a world-wide reputation. Each student who writes in a modern style, each young composer is in the same terrible situation.

Was this always so? No, absolutely not. Beethoven, Wagner were for several years a little isolated, but this dilemma lasted never for their whole life. And there was never a period in the history of music where all new musical production was in such a situation as today. What is wrong? Are the modern composers not good ones, or are the people not good enough for them? The answer is again: No! Arnold Schonberg is an excellent composer, and the people in all countries are excellent. But there is something wrong. The disaster begins when you separate music into two parts, entertainment music and serious music. Ask the music critic of a well known liberal newspaper in New York. He will most likely answer: ‘Look, my dear friend, this separation always existed. Don’t worry about it. At all times, certain people have more feeling for the dignity of art, and other [415-416] people less. That’s all, my dear and sorrowful Mr. Eisler. Do you really think that Beethoven was understood by all people of his time? Or Mozart? Certainly not.’

To this we could tell our friend the music critic: Don’t forget that at now we have more practical possibilities to hear and understand this music. Don’t forget the radio. But has even the radio caused any definite change in the situation? Again my answer must be: No!

In summing up the statement of the conductor, the composer and the critic, we have to say: music today is in a great crisis. And as conscious political and artistic avantguarde we must say: this crisis is a further expression of the deep economic and political world crisis. Top of document

One characteristic of this crisis in music is the separation into entertainment and serious music. Is this not a very strange separation? Must you entertain yourself only with the cheapest trash of music, and must we make a serious face and behave like snobs when listening to serious classical music? Again history can teach us. Clearly, in the history of music, we very seldom find any situation where music was a direct and natural expression of the people and for the people without restrictions and difficulties. Only in primitive society, for example the American Indians, or in ancient oriental culture, or in the ancient German, Roman and Celtic societies, do we find such unbroken unity of sacred and useful music. We find a special differentiation in the Middle Ages between church music and popular music. But this separation does not entirely correspond to our separation of serious music and entertainment music. In the 15th und 16th 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 of Italy, France and the Netherlands; and next to these more specialised forms of art music we find typical ‘useful’ music of the ordinary people and for the people, mainly dance music and folk songs.

And, friends, remember that a musician like Bach served both the church and the aristocracy. There certainly was a constant connection and inter-relation 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. Don’t forget that primitive manual labour and craftmanship was connected from earliest times with music. The purpose of this music was strictly directed to the organisation of primitive cooperative labour, sailing, fishing, farming, and other crafts. Some festival songs, religious songs, still prove by their words to be directly connected with this primitive labour. Further, we must not forget that until the 17th century the Church was open for everybody and a decisive factor in the general cultural and musical life.

But I don’t want to go into further details of the historical material at this place and occasion. But you might be interested in a very familiar example; I am sure all of you know the famous ‘Volga Boat Song’. You can hear it in any White Russian coffeehouse or cabaret. Former so-called noblemen love the tender remembrances of the good old times where they could cheerfully kick a peasant in the pants. But was this song always an expression of these dirty noblemen-bandits. No! It is an old and honorable song. This song was really used by boatmen on the Volga River, not only to express themselves, but also to organise, to coordinate their work of pulling boats. It is evident that when so men must pull a heavy boat they must use their force at the same time, and that means: in a definite rhythm given by the song. Otherwise they would not be able to move the boat, or to use their labour force in the most economical way. This song became later on also a real folk song and was used for every kind of manual labour.

Let us go further. Suppose, a smart business man hears the boatmen singing, and finds it very nice. He thinks, that song might mean business. He hires some carpenters to build several benches on the river bank. He then sells tickets to the ladies of rich city-merchants, to hear the original Volga boatmen sing the original Volga boatmen’s song for the very first time. And the beautiful ladies en5oy the song very much.

You know that, generally speaking, in modern times art and music belong to the rich ladies. They thus come to listen again and again, and the Volga boatmen’s song is a great hit. But after a time the women say: ‘Look, today the performance was not so very good; it was rather lousy. But last Monday the performance was first class, was divine! What has happened?’ And they ask the boatmen. The answer is quite curious. The boatmen say: ‘Look, 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 therefore we sang with all our might.’ [417-418]

This is not only a joke. You can certainly see the difference between old folk music culture, where people sang for their own purpose and not for listeners separated from them. In real old folk music there existed no difference between entertainment and serious music. Also, in the old art music, let us say of Mozart, there existed no difference between entertainment and serious music. In his operas, ‘The Magic Flute’, ‘The Abduction from the Seraglio’, the music is both serious and entertaining.

The present differentiation began with the industrial revolution at the beginning of the 19th century. What does the industrial Revolution mean, generally, for society? It meant the origin of a new type of human being: the industrial worker. The industrial worker lost his primitive country culture, he lost his old customs and habits, he lost his craftmanship and his small property. All that was taken him by force, in order to turn him into a proletarian who has nothing to sell but his labour force. All this happened as the technique of the division of labour progressed. You should read the reports of the factory inspectors in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s; and you would see the dehumanising, the degenerating and the humiliating effects of the industrial revolution on the working class.2 In these reports which I just mentioned, you can read horrible details about child labour, women’s labour, exhausting exploitation, about the unlimited powers of the employers, and the helplessness of the employees. At that time, which gave only misery to the majority of the population, the bourgeoisie increased, jumped to the stars with geniuses like Beethoven, Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Balzac. The worker was no longer a human being. On the one hand, a wonderful bourgeois culture, on the other hand, uncultured, faceless masses. But from these helpless masses, the vanguard, the industrial working class, in a wonderful cooperation with progressive intellectuals, sought and found a way out of their situation. They became class-conscious about their condition. They discovered the economic reasons and the driving forces behind all these developments; and it needed only a short time for the tremendous development from the utopian socialistic sentiment to the scientific methods of Marx and Engels, and the beginning of political organisation.

I could go on with this, but all this belongs more to a speech on the history of the working class. For us there is one interesting point: what did the industrial revolution do to musical [418-419] culture? The industrial revolution disturbed most of the old folk music. It does not need further explanation than that it is useless for factory workers to sing in a factory in such a way and to such a purpose as the Volga boatmen sang. The tempo and the rhythm of the work is dictated by the machine, no longer by the workers themselves. Spontaneous musical culture dies under such conditions. After two generations the greatest section of the population was without any culture at all. (And thus arose the separation between entertainment music and serious music!) Top of document

In order to understand serious music it is necessary to have a high level of general culture, to have a high standard of living. That means you must have time and money and education enough to be able to play at least one instrument; you must have a more or less theoretical training, a certain general knowledge in the fine arts and in literature, etc. You must have the opportunity to hear such art music again and again; you must learn to play this music yourself. All this can make you a really good music lover and musical amateur. It is evident that all this can be available only to the better middle class or to the upper class. Without such social conditions and background you are more or less helpless in the ‘serious’ type of music.

It is further true that the 19th century composer, the romantic composer wrote for and expressed the feelings of that part of society. Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and others were the musical lions of the salons of the upper middle class. The thousands of love songs, piano pieces were sung and played by the young daughters of the industrial revolution.

We must say further that, by this time, art music was no longer only the social representation music of Kaisers, princes and noblemen; but music became also for the first time a business, a merchandise. A hundred years before the industrial revolution, a man like Bach was at the same time servant of the church, servant of the court, composer, piano, violin and organ player, teacher of Latin and French and of musical composition. He also printed some of his own works, he was a copyist and librarian for his church. He was not an artistic, romantic figure like Liszt, but a good normal citizen with 12 children.3 The industrial revolution in music created the travelling 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 [419-420] special music theoretician, like Albrechtsberger; he taught only theory, but was neither a virtuoso nor a practical composer. Also the music publisher came into being, and thus the owner of concert halls (the former concert halls were in the castles of noblemen). Then came the concert manager, often the same person as the concert virtuoso. Later he became independent, a sheer business man in music, buying and selling the merchandise ‘music’. Also the music historian appeared, a new and often curious type. (We see, quite a series of new special types developed and interfered in this break between serious and entertainment music, and they took in their hands the process of distribution and merchandisation, of the buying and selling of the music as a commodity.)

With all these negative characteristics, this development in the i9th century was simultaneously a progressive development. On the one hand we find a very talented number of composers and virtuosi, on the other hand we find a new very highly cultivated type of listeners and musical amateurs. At that time there did not exist a musical crisis like today, although it is characteristic enough that about the year I 8oo a real musical crisis arose. But this relatively peaceful and normal picture is roughly disturbed when you mention not only this new organisation of musical life, but when you see also the terrible background of general social conditions in this time and society. In the country where the earliest and most radical industrial revolution took place, in England 90% of the population lived in cultural darkness and ignorance. Thus, we must say that the social conditions of that time created a fundamentally dangerous weakness for further growth.

What kind of music belonged to and was necessary for the uncultured 90%? There had to be a type of music which could be made and consumed as quickly and cheaply as beer or whisky, as colourful and bad as the new factory-made clothing. But just as whisky is not very healthy, and just as cheap clothing is not very handsome and durable, so also the new ~entertainment< music was cheap, factory-made and without any cultural value. This music is digestible for anybody without the slightest touch of musical culture. Only one condition is necessary: that you are not deaf. Naturally such music was not created by great masters or by the people themselves; it was by no means folk music of the old type; but it was music watered down for the people by mere [420-421] music merchants. Fourth and fifth class composers were paid by these merchants to wrote this sort of false ‘popular’ music, and publishing houses printed it, cheap music, cheap words on cheap paper, and sold it on the streets, like newspapers or sweets. The production of such music increased with the invention of mechanical musical instruments. As such entertainment music increased, so decreased serious music.

Today, through the radio and the movies, the entertainment type of music has become so predominant that it can be heard at any second during the day and night, when you turn on the radio, when you go to a restaurant for a glass of beer, you always hear that kind of music.

What does this type of music give to the people? I ask you (to answer this question): what does a glass of whisky give you? Nothing but a headache after very short pleasure. If you drink too much whisky you end up in a hospital; if especially young people hear too much of this music, they become mentally stupid, disinterested in the real necessities and possibilities of the working class. Top of document

Let us now jump into the present time, the time of a musical crisis such as was never experienced before. If the 19th century is the father of this musical crisis, let us now judge the child. The great economic crisis after the world war greatly affected the middle classes, and mainly intellectuals through the entire world. The younger generation, influenced by the new conditions, with new habits and standards, prefers sport and the movies instead of the concert halls. Serious music, especially in this country, is protected and supported only by rich upper class women. Of course you can find middle class youth, students, intellectuals in the concert halls, but that does not change the general situation. If there were to be a very special, a very ingenious earthquake which were to demolish only rich women, the following day conductors, singers, pianists and composers could be found on the bread lines.

Though the rich people are sponsors of serious music, they have no more the monopoly of understanding good music which the good middle class and aristocracy of the i8th and i9th century had. Today, concert-going is mostly an opportunity for the display of dress, jewelry and snobbism. They admire the well-dressed, fashionable and handsome Stokowskis4 more than the musical composition which those gentlemen try to conduct. Composers, conductors, singers, [421-422] teachers must have a close contact with these rich women whose protection is certainly not very wholesome. It is sometimes terrible to see what parasites artists must be instead of free men whose speciality and responsibility is to the people. Can musical standards be very high under such high protection? Let us talk about facts. The Metropolitan Opera is the richest operatic institution in the world. A number of rich families have for about 50 years supported the opera by large gifts. How many of you have ever heard a Metropolitan opera performance? I suppose half a dozen of you, or perhaps no-one. Have you any knowledge of the great operatic works of Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Wagner? You may say that even though the Metropolitan opera does not directly serve the people they are building a fine opera tradition which someday may be useful for this country. But I must say to you: No. Of course the technical standard of the orchestra is very high, they have some excellent singers. The conductors, however, are not first-class, only well experienced routine workers. The whole standard is from a cultural point of view, rather low. They do nothing for modern production of operas, they do not generally give first-class performances, they do the old operas again and again in a mere routine way. But that is not a cultural institution, that is a snobbish and luxurious institution. Further, who chooses the conductors? Rich women choose rich conductors. Musical ability is of secondary importance. Who makes the programme? Rich women make rather bad programmes. These programmes are generally routine express trains from Beethoven to Sibelius, and return. Is something useful done for modern American composers at symphony concerts? No! Who is responsible for all this? The rich women. Which class is represented by these rich women? The bankers, the manufacturers, the merchants and store owners. Can this class be a leading force in the musical life of the people? No! Who can help the people? The people can help the people!!

The people find very bad musical conditions in these times. They find, with the exception of some popular concerts, all the cheap trash of Broadway and Hollywood. I don’t believe that jazz and swing music is 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 clarinetist, has made stupid and boring movies in Hollywood, and ruins his real craftmanship by [422-423] such methods. Don’t forget what is now musical meat for the people. Songs like ‘Bei mir bist du schön’, ‘Ti Pi-tin’, and similar stupidities. And I shiver when I think of the thousands of routine sentimental love songs produced by Broadway and Hollywood. Some will say: that’s harmless; that’s just entertainment, don’t be afraid. But as a musician I am afraid. I know all that is poison, is opium for the people. But what is the solution? Shall our working people wear long beards and with great dignity go to hear only serious music? That is ridiculous and impossible.

Let me say, before I can go further, some words in favour of the United States. I am happy to be able to say that the administration in this country, that President Roosevelt is progressive in the cultural fields also. I feel that a great deal of the WPA5 work in theatre and music is admirable. But can the Government give a solution for so many difficult musical questions? 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 speak about your possibilities as a worker’s chorus. I believe that since your union has worked so very successfully in the theatre field that you also intend to do something really important in your field. I want to speak very frankly to you. I have had no personal experience with your organisation, I have never heard your performances, I don’t know your conductor and your quality as a chorus, and I don’t know what you sing. But I can give you some results of international experiences. Of course the United States is a different country from France, England, Germany, Switzerland, Austria before Schuschnigg and Hitler, Germany before Hitler, Czechoslovakia (I hope never have to say ‘before Hitler’),6 Denmark, Jugoslavia, and last but not least the Soviet Union.

I have lived and worked as a musician in all these countries. Maybe some of my experiences can be useful for you. I have seen highly successful choral organisations, like the excellent People’s Front Chorus in France with 250 voices, and a similar organisation in London under the leadership of Alan Bush. I have heard millions of people singing my songs on the Red Square on the First of May in Moscow. But I have also heard and seen workers choral organisations in different countries in less happy situations. I must confess that [423-424] sometimes you can’t tell whether they are alive or dead. What is the reason for this? Top of document

A weak workers chorus generally has no special line. They are neither meat nor fish, neither bourgeois nor proletarian. They sing popular lyric choral music, for example in Germany they used to sing ‘Wer hat dich, du schöner Wald’, a sentimental popular chorus by Mendelssohn. Or they sing some popular works by good composers. But they sing mostly cheap lyrical trash by 4th or 5th -class composers. That is not only boring to sing sometimes, but becomes intolerable for the listeners. These pieces were written mostly at the end of the 19th century and before the war; they have nothing in common with great art, but also do not express real modern life. Weak choruses sing some folk songs, more or less badly arranged for 4 voices. Finally they sing also what we call in German ‘Tendenz’-choruses, that means choruses with conscious social significance. In Germany, in the Netherlands, and in England there were special ‘tendenz’ choral compositions from the 1890’s to the 1920’s. Some of these pieces are really excellent. But most of them sound today rather old-fashioned. I am sure you know such pieces. The words are generally quite innocent and mild; take the following: ‘To day we are struggling in the night, but we hope that tomorrow there will be light.’ Or: ‘Some day we shall be free’.7

The music is equally old-fashioned, and so is the behaviour and the concert performance of the chorus. These brave people work very hard for half a year to build up such a programme. They rent a hall, wear their best clothes, stand with great dignity and solemnity on the stage, follow very carefully the signals of the conductor, and try what is called ‘their best’. The listeners are generally relatives of the singers, fellow union members, and other friends. But the whole atmosphere is like that of a funeral. But the question remains: ‘Who is dead?’ Maybe progressive music. The programme begins. First comes a couple of folk songs, or rather cheap pieces which try to imitate real folk songs. It is always shocking for me to hear a group of hard-boiled union workers, toughened by many class-struggles, singing: ‘La, la, la, la, la, la, laaa, aaaa’. Or: ‘I am so lonesome when I remember you’.

After these wonderful songs comes the classical must-repertory, two or three pieces by better composers. If the performance is not very good, the listeners know of better [424-425] performances over the radio. Finally come the social significant choruses. You hear performed with iron dignity and monotony, the promise that ‘sometimes the sun will come again’, or ‘Freedom, we love you’.8

Sometimes the conductor has a friend or a wife who plays the violin or piano, or sings solo. And on the programme appears a soloist. Pieces like Liszt’s ‘Love’s Dream’ with funny arpeggios up and down; or pieces like the ‘Sweet Kreisleriana’ for violin; or if she or he is a singer, pieces like Grieg’s ‘I love you’, and certainly at the end ‘Smile, Bajazzo’. The listeners are very polite, and the concert ends peacefully

with the presentation of a bouquet of flowers to the conductor, arranged by the fest-committee. And all this is the result of 6 months’ hard work. I often ask myself »What do the singers do in the rehearsals, especially the 2nd basses and the 2nd tenors?< 0000000lalalalalalalalalalaa!

The bass line is in itself stupid, may be they console themselves with the thought that the whole thing may not sound so badly. I am sure that after such a concert is over there is held an important executive committee meeting, I am sure somebody takes the floor and asks why the audience was so small in number. The chairman will answer: ‘Too little publicity, and not enough activity in selling tickets.’

I don’t believe this, because I know you can’t use a machine gun in order to sell tickets. The chairman, I am sure, will ask again, why so few people come to rehearsals. I can understand the feelings of those people, especially my good friends the second basses. Sometimes it is very hard to find a person younger than 40 years in such choruses.

The reasons for all this are quite obvious. We have spoken of the crisis in music a while ago, of the separation between entertainment and serious music. This concert had nothing to do with the musical crisis. Surely a concert like this is neither entertainment nor serious music. It is only a boring, meaningless, unartistic, utterly conventional affair.

Half a century ago a concert like this was a sign of real progress for the working class. Today it means less than nothing. The younger generation, of course, does not like such an affair. They prefer the movies, the radio, sport; and if they are politically interested they go to meetings, left theatre groups etc. But if a cultural organisation cannot attract the youth it fails in function. It cannot live and cannot die. [425-426]

What is the way out for such an organisation?

If each member understands that these difficulties are a part of a more general crisis and of the special social conditions of the working class he can more easely find a way out.

Let me state facts:

1. The main question is the repertory. The repertory must be chosen in such a way that it is not only interesting for an audience, but also for the singers (last not least for the 2nd basses!), and for each voice of the chorus who will be rehearsing those pieces for half a year. The music and words must be interesting, stimulating.

How can we build up a repertory like this? There is only one way: close contact with modern progressiv composers.

I told you about the terrible situation of the modern composer who is either isolated and starving or who must live as a parasite, living on those rich women. But you can give him a new chance! And he will give you a new chance! This mutual chance is the very best one: collabouration of the progressive working class with progressive composers.

This insight is absolutely vital for a progressive choral organisation. Close contact with such an organisation brings fresh air to the composer, new ideas, possibilities for publication, in two words: a new life.

When we build a new repertory we must have a good balance between classical art music and modern music. One important point is to lose all the old-fashioned dignity. A modern conductor or composer can easily find for you not only good classical pieces, but very interesting new works of various modern composers in various countries. I need only mention the folk songs of the 15th and t6th centuries, the wonderful madrigals of composers like Orlando di Lasso, Marenzio, and numerous others of the highest standard.

Also in modern music we have plenty of material, classconscious compositions from all countries, including the Soviet Union. Finally you can ask modern composers to write for you new things.

But even if you did all this I am sorry to say that it is not enough. You can have by this a concert composed mainly of short pieces, and such a concert is usually very boring. That is why I give you fact number 2.

2. Methods of better organisation of concerts:

To hell with all this iron dignity and noble concert manners! We have better things to do. Choose a good speaker; put him on the stage; let him explain the numbers which are to [426-427] be sung, and not in a boring academical manner, but in a fresh, witty and alive spirit of the working class. That is a step forward.

But I am sorry again, it is not yet enough. More is necessary to organise a concert in a better way. You must try to cooperate with other artistic working-class groups, like actors, dancers, bands etc. Your composers and poets must write for you larger cantatas, musical plays with action and music in which the chorus has the most important part. The whole responsibility for the political and social context in this new production belongs to you. Through your rehearsals you have good possibilities for control and discussion of the matter.

3. It is important that all your affairs have humour, pep, satire. You can use jazz and swing music for your production. People like thatand you can use it in a adequate way. Not in the corrupt way Hollywood and Broadway use it. Real modern music has rhythm, pep, humour, vitality, and you must use it. I come to my conclusion. What is the most vital thing?

A good modern conductor, a good contact with (and a little money for) your modern composers; and the best ones only are good enough for you! You must have the best young poets. All this is possible. Try it! Remember that the death of art is cheap sentimentality, empty bombastic furor, artificial and vulgar imitation of folk song. The absence of social significance makes a piece boring also, especially in these hard times. In our art there must be the finest unification of entertainment, highly developed technical standard, consciousness, humour, real power of propaganda, social feeling. The most dangerous enemy of the worker’s art is cheap quality and boredom. May I make a practical proposal to you especially. You, in a strong union, have certain possibilities and certain experiences. Try this: You can easily make, with some actors, with one good speaker and a (young) modern director, with a (young) modern poet and composer, 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 your history, and it is wonderful also from an artistic point of view. (Let us say your composer and poet write) There can be for example a choral number about the Jewish immigrant, sitting on his trunks in Ellis Island, seeing New York across the bay. Perhaps another scene will show the half illegal work of the union in its beginnings, the fight with gangsters, the death of a militant [427-428] brother; the chorus can sing an explanation of this. (A number of scenes can follow.) For each scene you can project on your screen the date, some lines explaining the historical situation. And the chorus (does) should not act. That would be generally too difficult and too bad. They only sit on chairs, and stand up to sing their numbers. You can have a couple of actors, perhaps one or two solo singers. With the same energy which you used to prepare a very uninteresting and boring concert of the type, (I analysed before) you could make a wonderful affair, important for you and for your listeners, with stimulating rehearsals and a sound organisational life.

Is all this difficult to do? Yes, and no! I am sure you will make mistakes at the beginning. That is quite normal. But you must choose this way, if you want to be a progressive workers chorus. In these times of cultural barbarism, of political danger we have a very interesting phenomenon. Capitalistic culture is declining. Now it is your turn to protect and recreate culture, better than the way in which the rich women do it.

Let me end with two personal lines:

I am thankful to Messrs. Schaffer and Liebman for the opportunity to speak to you. I hope something of what I have said may be useful, and I hope I can very soon congratulate you on your first flop!

Top of document

1. Eisler is probably referring to Wagner’s revolutionary tracts from 1848-9: the flyer of 14 July 1848 ‘What is the relationship of republican aims in relation to the kingdom?’ [Wie verhalten sich republikanische Bestrebungen dem Königtum gegenüber?]; the essay ‘Humans and traditional society’ (1849) [Der Mensch und die bestehende Gesellschaft]; the flyer ‘The Revolution’ (1849); all in Richard Wagner, Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen, 6th edition, Leipzig 1911, vol 12, p. 220, ff. See also the essays ‘Art and Revolution’ (1849) and ‘The Art Work of the Future’ (1850) [Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft], op. cit., vol. 3. p. 29, ff.

2. See Friedrich Engels, Die Lage der arbeitenden Klassen in England (1845) [The Condition of the Working Classes in England]; Karl Marx, Das Kapital, vol. 1 (1864), especially the chapters ‘Der Arbeitstag’, ‘Maschinerie unde große Industrie’, ‘Das allgemeine Gesetz der kapitalistischen Akkumulation’.

3. Bach had 20 children: 7 from the first marriage (4 survived), 13 from the second marriage (7 reached an adult age).

4. Eisler is referring to those popular star conductors of the day who in the USA were in the mould of Leopold Stokowski.

5. Abbreviation of ‘Works Progress Administration’.

6. In October 1938 the northern and western border regions of [what is now] the Czech Republic were annexed as ‘Sudetenland’ as part of fascist Germany.

7. Eisler is referring here to choral music written by G A Uthmann (see ‘Geschichte der deutschen Arbeitermusikbewegung von 1848’).

8. See footnote 7.

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