Success and Value in Music

Hanns Eisler, Typescript, 1939. Unknown occasion of delivery

See also 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. 456-458 © Stephanie Eisler.
Page turns in the 1973 edition are inserted here according to the principle that |411-2| means the change from page 411 to 412.


Ladies and gentlemen — I shall open this symposium with some general introductory remarks about tonight’s topic, ‘Success and Value in Music’.

The very title implies the strange fact that there exists apparently an antagonism (between value and success in art). If I am allowed to make the rather simplified statement that music is made by human beings for human beings it becomes evident how strange, indeed, this antagonism is. It means nothing less than that in the historical development of our art, value became (something entirely) sometimes independent of success. But is not success the expression of the relation between the artist and society? (Thus) It happens today that the most advanced artist often finds himself not only in opposition (towards) to society, but even hostile (towards) to it and its relation to art, namely success — and, of course, vice versa. He will especially get angry at so-called ‘common sense’. As everywhere else, so in art: common sense creates the commonplace, which means the end of it. Saying such things I am expecting a music-lover to come up here, telling me: ‘My dear Mr. Eisler, don’t be discouraged. It has always been like that and it always will be.’

Well, let me give you a few historical facts. When we analyze the reports of anthopologists on primitive tribe society, we easily find that at that early stage of society value and success were not separated. This is rather obvious for in that pre-civilization-period poet, composer, dancer, preacher, actor, spectator and listener were not different personalities, but one and the same individual. |#456-7|

Though we can hardly use (our) modern terms ‘value’ and ‘success’ with regard to tribal society things look different if we think of the great epics of Homer. These epics are considered the greatest works of art ever created by human beings. They are perfect examples of a classic unity between value and success. If you ask me why, I could add that the function of these epics were not only artistic ones, but also practical ones. They served as news, like today our newspapers and the radio news today. Another classic example: the Chinese ancient collection of poetry, the Shi-King, contains not only the works of the greatest masters, Li-Tai-Po and Tu-Fu; it is also still today one of the most popular works of art known and sung by everybody in China. The artistic value is immense. It is the greatest poetry ever written. Value and success were identical.

But this unity was already in danger. The most important book against it, ‘The Condemnation of Music’, was written by the great philosopher Me-Ti. May I quote:

The occupation of musician has three disadvantages:
The hungry remain hungry,
Those freezing remain unclad,
The hopeless remain without hope.

Thus, if the rulers were really trying to help the people, they should abolish and exterminate music wherever it is to be found.1

By the way, Me-Ti died 500 years before Christ as a political refugee in exile.

Generally speaking, I would risk the statement that the separation of value and success starts with the development of division of labor. The more this division progresses, the more clearly differences between high-brow and low-brow art, namely folk music and art music, later on entertainment music and serious music become visible.

Throughout the Middle Ages the Church was the mother of art music. It is interesting for us to read some of the Church dogmatists. I quote now Saint Augustine from his Musica Divina.

The purpose of music is to bring about in the mind of the listener a state of repentence and submission and thus make him receptive to the word of God. Therefore the composer |#457-8| must be warned against the use of too much beauty which would distract the listener.2

In another chapter we find this:

‘The composer should never think of his audience, but always of the purpose he is to serve.’

You see, at that time Church music, which was then the leading art music, cannot be understood through such terms as value and success.

But some eight hundred years later at a time when Church music was still leading as art music, we find already a strange phenomenon, called musica reservata, which means in English music reserved for a certain group of connoisseurs. This style was a very complicated one which was written (consciously) deliberately for musicians themselves or for highly trained amateurs. The composers (of musica reservata) made it a point to be independent of the general taste.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the schools of the madrigalists had already two types of madrigals: the refined, the highbrow ones, and the vulgata. A composer like Orlando di Lasso does not represent only the highest standard of madrigal composing, but he also wrote pieces which were expressly termed popular.

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, success means success with a rather small group of society, namely the aristocracy, the upper bourgeoisie and the intellectuals. The democratization of success and the crisis starts with the industrial revolution in the beginning of the i9th century. The (new) predominant type of human beings (created) in this period — the industrial proletariat — was not only expropriated what concerns their material belongings, but also what concerns their cultural ones. This means the end of folk music in the industrialized countries. It was slowly replaced by entertainment music. On the other hand, (the great masses of) the middle class in the growing cities became the new and wider basis for the works of the classic (music) masters.

In the nineteenth century the gap between vulgar entertainment and art becomes wider and wider leading to our phenomenon (the antagonism between value and success), that success is no longer the guarantee of value and vice versa. The complicated relation between artist and society results in the isolation of advanced art from society.

Today we have reached a certain climax of this process. On the one hand we have an enormous market |#458-9| for music in which music is produced as a commodity and behaves like a commodity. On the other hand (all) artists who try to be independent of the market are punished with isolation.

In other words: the complicated monotony of daily life and work creates for 99% of our population the need for quick and cheap recreation. Certainly some advanced groups (of the population) ask for more: (they) want that new (advanced) music express their worries and their struggle. The advanced artist sees (in) the people only as consumers of cheap commodities, ready to consume everything just as they eat fast and cheaply in a cafeteria. The people call the advanced artists snobbish, cold and indifferent to their troubles. The advanced artist becomes discouraged when he watches the people, (this grey mass,) trying so hard to get some fun out of it. These are the two fronts. Are the people bad? No. Are the artists bad who try to be independent of the market? No. I like them for that if not for their work. Don’t expect any another answer from me today.