Event Highlights: Ask Me More About Brecht: A Theatrical Reconstruction of Conversations Between Hanns Eisler and Hans Bunge
On October 7, the Center for the Study of Europe welcomed a dramatic reading and multimedia performance by Sabine Berendse and Paul Clements, editors of Brecht, Music and Culture: Hanns Eisler in Conversation with Hans Bunge.
The book consists of Hans Bunge’s series of fourteen recorded conversations with the notoriously left-wing composer, Hanns Eisler, conducted in East Berlin in 1958. Eisler’s intent in giving these interviews was to keep alive the memory and spirit of his closest friend, the Austrian composer Bertolt Brecht. After it was published in Germany in 1975, the book achieved monumental success. For the first time, Berendse (daughter of the late interviewer Hans Bunge) and Clements have brought these illuminating insights to the English speaking world.
Throughout the conversations, Hanns Eisler lively and humorously discusses the puzzling relationship between politics and aesthetics by delving into topics such as his and Brecht’s period of exile in Europe and the USA between 1933 and 1947, the role that music plays in Brecht’s work, and the time when Brecht was brought before The House of Un-American Activities Committee.
Born to a bourgeoisie family, composer Hanns Eisler questioned who he was actually composing music for in 1922. After striking up a friendship with playwright Bertolt Brecht, Eisler began to compose pieces based on (and often to be included in) Brecht’s plays. Both Eisler and Brecht were sharp, opinionated, and philosophical men trying to make sense of the relationship between art and politics very heavily, also seeking to discover how music can change, shape, inform, and influence the changing world.
These questions and conversations were presented in the form of an engaging and compelling performance by Berendse and Clements. Berendse assumed the role of her father, Hans Bunge, and posed the questions to Paul Clements, who assumed Hanns Eisler’s role.
As the interviews reveal, Eisler was undoubtedly an eccentric character. He was vivaciously brought to life by actor and editor Paul Clements. Clements embodied Eisler’s spirit and even adopted some of his mannerisms to color his retelling of the conversations—within a moment, the switch flipped from the cool and composed Clements to a flavorful Eisler persona, and the transition was rather brilliant.
“[Eisler is] funny, he’s a great gossip, and he’s also very thoughtful,” remarked Clements. “I wanted to convey his huge scope, to give a flavor of the enormous breadth, and also to evoke his conversational style—the energy he brings to his conversations, his vitality, and his sense of mischief as well.”
Berendse’s performance was remarkable as well—she was clearly quite emotionally invested in delivering the very questions her father had asked Hanns Eisler—and she provided a little bit of insight about what the process was like for her father to interview such a distinctive individual and the process of trying to get his interviews published in post-war East Germany.
“My father was considered a maverick, he didn’t speak well to authority. He planned to publish three of the fourteen conversations, but [where he worked] wouldn’t let him—he was fired, essentially, in 1966 and couldn’t get any work,” recounts Berendse. “I was four years old at the time and I wanted food, so he had to do something—he organized and made sure that he got those conversations published elsewhere.”
The performance was peppered with eight actual recordings of some of Eisler’s work in different genres, varying from the fast-paced, symmetrical ‘Lied von der belebenden Wirkung des Geldes’ (translation: Song of the Invigorating Effect of Money) to the haunting softness of ‘An die Nachgeborenen II’ (translation: To Those Born Later). Four of the recordings featured Eisler singing and accompanying himself at the piano, while others featured the immensely talented Ernst Busch, a German singer and actor who Eisler held in high regard.
Honest, intriguing, and insightful, Ask Me More About Brecht transported the audience to 1958 East Berlin in an exceptionally clever melange of historical and theatrical reenactment.
-Toria Rainey ’18