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Eisler, Charlotte (1894–1970)

Eisler, Charlotte (1894–1970)

Austrian musician who emerged from the shadow of her famous composer husband to create a distinguished musical career of her own . Born Charlotte Demant in Tarnopol, Austria-Hungary (now Ternopol, Ukraine), on January 2, 1894; died in Vienna on August 3, 1970; married Hanns Eisler (1898–1962), a composer (divorced 1934); children: Georg Eisler (1928–1998, an Expressionist painter).

Born in the provincial town of Tarnopol in the final decade of the 19th century, Charlotte Demant experienced extraordinary musical, intellectual and political transformations in her lifetime. Like many Austrians yearning for broader horizons, she studied music in Vienna with several of the geniuses to be found there during the period between 1900 and 1938. Her Viennese teachers included Anton von Webern and Edward Steuermann. At first her musical talent took a vocal form, but in some of her Lieder recitals Demant revealed her considerable pianistic abilities by serving as her own piano accompanist.

While moving in the musical circle of the composer Arnold Schönberg, Demant met a brilliant young composer, four years her junior, named Hanns Eisler (1898–1962) who became her husband. Both she and Hanns were as radical in their political orientation as they were in their musical views; the shattering experiences of World War I and the emergence of what was seen as a new Socialist commonwealth in Soviet Russia in 1917 made them highly sympathetic to Communism. Charlotte became a member of the minuscule Austrian Communist Party in the early 1920s and remained loyal to Marxist ideals for the rest of her life. Although compatible musically and politically, the Eislers began to drift apart emotionally by the late 1920s despite the birth of a son, Georg Eisler, in 1928. When Hanns went to Berlin in 1925, Charlotte remained in Vienna, and the couple saw each other only occasionally from that point on, both artists concentrating on the pursuit of their own individual careers.

The onset of Nazi dictatorship in Germany in 1933 resulted in Hanns Eisler's return to Vienna, but irreconcilable differences in their relationship led to a divorce between the two in 1934. Charlotte never remarried. She spent her time and energy on raising her son, continuing her musical career, and engaging in dangerous underground political work for the now-banned Communist movement. In 1936, fearing a Nazi takeover in Austria, Charlotte Eisler immigrated with her son to the Soviet Union. While she worked in Moscow at the Soviet State Music Publishing House, editing among other works the vocal compositions of Gustav Mahler, her young son Georg was enrolled at the German-language Karl Liebknecht School. By 1938, the arbitrary savagery of Stalin's purges had made life precarious for Charlotte and her son. His school had been closed, and she was informed that her visa to remain in the Soviet Union was no longer valid. Mother and son were fortunate in being able to emigrate from the Soviet Union, first for a time to Czechoslovakia, and then on to England.

Settled in Manchester, Eisler resumed her musical career in a country that was in many ways culturally alien to her. She performed successfully throughout the United Kingdom both as a singer and pianist. Eisler's son Georg, who would return to Austria after World War II to win international recognition as an Expressionist painter, for a time lived away from his mother with a Quaker family. In September 1946, Charlotte Eisler returned to war-devastated Vienna (her son had already returned some months earlier). She resumed her interrupted career and soon received an appointment at the municipal Music Conservatory as a professor of piano. Eisler became a mainstay of musical Vienna in the next two decades, presenting many live concerts and recitals over the radio.

By the 1960s, Charlotte Eisler was seen by many Viennese as one of the few remaining active survivors of their city's pre-1938 cultural life. As one of a handful of intellectual emigrés who had returned after 1945, Eisler began to be appreciated by a younger generation of Austrian musicians and music lovers for both artistic and personal reasons. With her immense knowledge of the Second Vienna School of Berg, Schönberg and Webern—much of it based on firsthand experiences—Eisler became a major link in the chain of Austrian cultural continuity. Because of the years she had spent in exile in the United Kingdom, she was also regarded as an expert on contemporary British music, particularly that of Benjamin Britten. Charlotte Eisler died in Vienna on August 3, 1970.


Betz, Albrecht. Hanns Eisler, Political Musician. Translated by Bill Hopkins. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Blake, David, ed. Hanns Eisler: A Miscellany. NY: Har-wood Academic Publishers, 1995.

Brockhaus, Heinz Alfred. Hanns Eisler. Leipzig: VEB Breitkopf & Härtel, 1961.

Pass, Walter, Gerhard Scheit, and Wilhelm Svoboda. Orpheus im Exil: Die Vertreibung der österreichischen Musik von 1938 bis 1945. Vienna: Verlag für Gesellschaftskritik, 1995.

John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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