Photo: Jeremy Knowles
“Valerie Eickhoff from Germany impressed after a brilliant second rendition with a slim, colorful mezzo and great naturalness and taken-for-grantedness in style: in the Stéphano’s couplet from Charles Gounod’s ‘Roméo et Juliette‘ as well as in the Sesto aria (‘Deh, per questo istante solo‘) from Mozart’s ‚La clemenza di Tito.‘“
Hanns Eisler became famous as the composer of the German Democratic Republic’s national anthem, but he was much more than that. A student of Arnold Schönberg, Eisler left behind a vast oeuvre which not only includes film music but also numerous other genres. Among these works are around 500 songs, or lieder, among them the “Hollywood Songbook,“ which mezzo soprano Valerie Eickhoff has chosen for this recording. The title already hints at the fact that Hanns Eisler, a stylistic chameleon with a political agenda who was often underestimated, also had an exciting life.
Vienna – Hollywood – East Berlin, those were the crucial stations in Hanns Eisler’s life. For a long time, his role in music history was reduced to his composition of the GDR national anthem, but the former student of Arnold Schönberg created much more than that. The beginnings were hard for this self-taught musician, who, being Jewish and a communist, had to flee from the Nazis into American exile. There, he managed to became a professor at the University of Southern California. But for the staunch communist, for whom music always also had a political component, the McCarthy era spelled trouble: he was deported. Whether he was happier in the GDR is a tough call, given that he could not live completely freely here either. However, his loyalty to communism remained, and his devotion to music as a tool for political discourse remained strong as well.
Not only beginning during his American exile did Eisler compose, in addition to film music, many songs (lieder), piano and orchestral works and chamber music – a huge oeuvre that spans a thematic and compository breadth ranging from powerful worker’s songs to highly artificial twelve-tone art songs. In a musical sense, Eisler, who worked closely with Berthold Brecht and others, was always very flexible. His numerous soundtracks for Hollywood movies are testament to this. However, the music he wrote for Brecht’s play “The Mother“ or the very popular solidarity song from the feature film “Kuhle Wampe“ clearly show his political preferences.
These preferences are something like a red thread weaving through Eisler’s life, and through the “Hollywood Song-book,“ as well. The composer himself did not consider the songbook as a coherent cycle or from the “time in Hollywood.“ The extent and order of the pieces were at no time fixed or binding. Eisler wrote many songs just to pass time, yet these are no works of coincidence, but rather soulful and smart miniatures and evidence of self-assertion and individuality among a series of artfully made entertainment music for the film industry: a musical diary, a collagelike retrospective of that time. Most of the songs include motifs of pacifism, flight, or exile, turned into sound using a tonal language with classical-romantic, also impressionistic, expressionistic, free tonal and twelve-tone technique sounds, and even inspiration from Schlager (pop songs) and blues. A wild mix, which is in the best hands with Valerie Eickhoff and Eric Schneider. “I can’t exactly explain why, but for me, this music was like love at first sight,“ says Valerie Eickhoff. “My first contact with Hanns Eisler’s music occurred in June 2021 during my Liederabend (song evening) as part of the ‘Schumann Fest Düsseldorf,‘ which also marks the start of my collaboration with Eric Schneider. Eisler’s lyrics are as up-to-date today as when they were first published. These themes are artfully packaged in beautiful music, meaning that the tragedy of the text might only become apparent at the second listen.“
Mezzo soprano Valerie Eickhoff took her first vocal lessons at the early age of ten. In 2012, she began her junior studies in the class of Prof. Konrad Jarnot at the Robert-Schumann-Hochschule Düsseldorf, where she studied until completing her concert exam. Numerous stipends (among them the Internationale Meistersinger Akadamie, ‚Live-MusicNow,‘ Werner Richard – Dr. Carl Dörken-Stiftung) and master classes with Brigitte Fassbaender, Bernarda Fink, Edith Wiens, Richard Bonynge and Ann Sophie von Otter offered the young vocalist opportunities to further her musical education. In September 2021, she received 3rd prize at ARD Musikwettbewerb in the vocal category. In two categories, she won the Emmerich Smola Prize in January 2022. Most recently, she received the Victoria de Los Angeles Prize during the finals of the Tenor Viñas Competition. Early on, she started singing important roles at international opera houses, among them the renown Royal Opera in Copenhagen, where she gave a brilliant performance as Mercédès in Barrz Kosky’s “Carmen“ production. Her repertoire also includes important roles like Angelina in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola,“ Cherubino in “Le nozzedi Figaro“ (Mozart), or Prince Orlovsky in “The Bat“ (Strauß). In addition to repeated engagements at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein as Hänsel and Cherubino, the young singer had her debut as Uli in the premiere pf Lucia Ronchetti’s “Das fliegende Klassenzimmer“ and as Lucienne in Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt“ in May 2023. At Theater an der Wien, she impressed the audience as Ramiro in “La Finta Giardiniera“ and as Dryade in “Ariadne auf Naxos“ at the Bayerische Staatsoper. In addition to her opera work, Eickhoff keeps up a rich collaboration with pianists Eric Schneider and Benjamin Mead in the area of the Kunstlied (art song).
Eric Schneider grew up in the Bergisches Land and studied piano and mathematics. When he was 22, he graduated cum laude from the Musikhochschule Köln. After some first awards and performances as a soloist, he discovered his passion for lied (song) and chamber music. He continued his studies in song accompaniment with Hartmut Höll. He received crucial impulses from Paul Badura-Skoda, Alfred Brendel, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He is especially thankful to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf for her styleforming teaching. In the 1990s, Schneider completed training in orchestral conducting with Rolf Reuter. He has collaborated intensively for many years with singers such as Christiane Oelze, Anna Prohaska, Christine Schäfer and Matthias Goerne. Schneider performs internationally in renown concert halls. Among his CD publications of the last years are “Winterreise“ und “Apparition“ with Christine Schäfer, “Die schöne Müllerin“ and “Wanderers Nachtlied“ with Matthias Goerne and “Sirènes“ and “Behind the Lines 1914-2014“ with Anna Prohaska. Eric Schneider lives in Berlin and teaches lieder repertoire at the Universität der Künste.