Eisler’s and Meyer’s Musical Readings of the Spanish Civil War in the GDR

Dr. Diego Alonso (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

This presentation analyses three examples of the uses of music in the early GDR as part of the processes of remembrance of the Spanish War as the first great battle of communism against fascism and thus a fundamental milestone in the "prehistory" of the new anti-fascist state. My research is based in unpublished sources kept at the AdK-archives in Berlin.

First, I analyse the score composed by Ernst H. Meyer, one of the most respected musicians in the early GDR, for Martin Hellberg’s "Wo du hin gehst" (1957), a film about a German member of the International Brigades, fighting against fascism in Spain. Instead of representing wartime Spain as an exotic Other by means of well-known topoi such as hemiolas, Phrygian melodies, castanets, and the like, Mayer employed quotations of a Spanish propaganda song from the civil war period that he found particularly appealing, namely Enrique Casals Chapí's Los campesinos (1937).

I then discuss two songs by Hanns Eisler. The little-known Lied der Tankisten (1956), commissioned by the "People's Army" for the grand celebration in East-Berlin of the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war; and Spanien (1961), an unpublished song with lyrics by Ernst Busch in which Eisler subtly expressed through dissonant harmonies his adverse reaction to the official romanticisation of the Spanish war in the early GDR. My aim is to understand how these composers reacted creatively to the idealisation of the Spanish War that formed part of the GDR official propaganda in the first phase of the Cold War. My research is a continuation of the studies by Gerd Rienäcker, Wolfgang Asholt and others that have been looking since the 2000s at the institutional strategies for the (official) remembrance of the Spanish war in the GDR.


Diego Alonso has been a visiting scholar at Humboldt University (Berlin), the University of Cambridge, Goldsmiths, University of London and the Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung (Berlin). He leads the study group “Deutsch-Ibero-Amerikanische Musikbeziehungen” of the German Musicological Society.  He was the main investigator of the DFG-founded project Hanns Eisler in Republican Spain at Humboldt University. Currently he works as a Research Fellow (tenure track) at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. He has published in leading musicology journals including Acta musicologica, Twentieth-Century Music, Music Analysis, Die Musikforschung, Journal of War and Culture Studies and Musicologica Austriaca (Best Paper Award 2019).