Paul Dessau (1894-1979)

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In Memoriam Bertolt Brecht, Bach Variations - 1964 - Philips 802 784 LY

Born: December 19, 1894 - Hamburg, Germany
Died: June 28, 1979 - Königs Wusterhausen, Germany

The German composer and conductor, Paul Dessau, was born into a musical family. His grandfather, Moses Berend Dessau, was a synagogoue cantor, his uncle, Bernhard Dessau, a violinist at the Royal Opera House, Unter den Linden, and his cousin Max Winterfeld became generally known under the name Jean Gilbert as a composer of operettas. He first took up violin lessons at the age of 6, and 1909 (or 1910) he majored in violin at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin. However, he chose conducting as his career goal. In 1912 he became répétiteur at the City Theatre (Stadttheater) in Hamburg. There he studied the works of the composers Felix Weingartner and Arthur Nikisch and took classes in composition from Max Julius Loewengard. He was second Kapellmeister at the Tivoli Theatre in Bremen in 1914 before being drafted for military service in 1915.

After World War I, Paul Dessau became conductor at the Intimate Theatre (Kammerspiele) in Hamburg, and was répétiteur and later Kapellmeister at the opera house in Cologne under Otto Klemperer between 1919 and 1923. In 1923 he became Kapellmeister in Mainz and from 1925 Principal Kapellmeister at the Städtische Oper Berlin under Bruno Walter. Meanwhile his composing career also produced an abundance of works. His Concertino for solo violin with flute, clarinet and horn won him a prize in Donaueschingen. The aspiring musician was soon attracted by the new medium, film, and started a prominent career as music director at various film theatres. During this period, he strove to bring new music and sound techniques into film. His first experiment in sound movies, Episode, entered the 1929 Baden-Baden festival, where he had met Bertolt Brecht for the first time two years before. While his major output was film music, there were also concert pieces as well as works for proletarian children's choirs.

In 1933 Paul Dessau emigrated to Paris, earning a living by composing music for other èmigrè film directors from Germany. In 1936, he met René Leibowitz and started to study the 12-tone symtem. As the Spanish Civil War broke out, he composed such political marching songs as Thälmannkolonne to the text by his wife Gudrun Kabisch (both under pseudonyms). This exile period also saw his attempts in compositions with Jewish themes as he struggled to find the root of his religious background. In 1938 he composed music for the Paris performance of the Brecht play Fear and Misery in the Third Reich (then titled 99%) which was directed by Slatan Dudow. The next year (1939) he moved to New York. The first years in the USA was particularly difficult for him, surviving on various odd assignments like teaching music lessons or commisions from synagogues.

In 1943, Paul Dessau met Brecht again on the occassion of an anti-Nazi concert where his 1936 song Kampflied der schwarzen Strohhüte was included on the program. The German refugees from California subsequently persuaded Dessau to work in the film industry. In October 1943, he moved to Hollywood. In addition to close contact with Arnold Schoenberg, he mainly composed or arranged orchestration for movie studios. A new phase began in his career as he collaborated with Brecht in various projects. He was now more committed to political causes and historical dialecticism, which eventually led to his joining of the USA Communist Party in 1946.

Dessau's musical aesthetics shifted in a new direction after his working relationships with Brecht began. Influenced by the latter, Dessau's music can be described as a parallel along the text. Its fuction is to interpret instead of to support. There are many contradictions in his music language that requires the listners to resolve by themselves, thus fostering a heightened political awareness.

In 1948, Paul Dessau returned to Germany with his second wife, the writer Elisabeth Hauptmann, and settled in East Berlin.Besides his work for Berthold Brecht, he first made acquaintance with Hans Werner Henze in 1949. In 1951 his music for the Trial of Lucullus was charged with formalism when socialist realism was held as the official principle. While Brecht, throughout the course, has been changing parts of the scripts and subsequently, the title to avoid misinterpretation, Dessau remained reticent. On Brecht's insistence due to the antiwar message, the newly revised opera received its official premiere in October of the same year. Then, it was not performed until 1960. Starting in 1952 Paul Dessau taught at the Public Drama School (Staatliche Schauspielschule) in Berlin-Oberschöneweide where he was appointed to a professorship in 1959. In 1952 he was elected member of the Academie der Künste (and was vice-president of this institution between 1957 and 1962) and was now enthusiastically involved in music education for school-age children. He taught many Meisterschüler (pupils in a master class), including Friedrich Goldmann, Reiner Bredemeyer, Jörg Herchet, Hans-Karsten Raecke, Friedrich Schenker, Luca Lombardi and Karl Ottomar Treibmann. The next major project in theatre The Caucasian Chalk Circle began in 1953 as Brecht finally settled on Dessau as the composer. This score absorbs a variety of folk traditions and its exotic nature fittingly underlines the alienation effect generated through the setting of the play. After the premiere of this latest play in October 1954, he moved to Zeuthen in the suburb of Berlin. There he would live until his death.

The untimely death of Brecht in August 1956 also affected Dessau's career as he sought to find other lyricists who were compatible with his aesthetic views. Dessau now once again turned to the 12-tone system as his major vehicle, attracting young admirers in the avant-garde movement such as Luigi Nono, while he continued to put his ideas of music education in a socialist state into practice as he taught at the Zeuthener Grundschule. The result of the latter effort would be published in Musiarbeit in der Schule. During the new phase, he also completed two operas which were based on Brecht's ideas. Puntila was premiered in 1966, and Einstein, 1974.

Paul Dessau was married four times: Gundrn Kabisch (1924), Elisabeth Hauptmann (1948), Antje Ruge (1952), and choreographer and director Ruth Berghaus (1954). Their son Maxim Dessau (b 1954) studied at the College of Film and Television (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen) in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Maxim Dessau is now a movie director. Paul Desaau also had a daughter Eva (b 1926), and another son Peter (b 1929). Dessau died on June 28, 1979 at the age of 84, in the then East German city of Königs Wusterhausen, on the outskirts of Berlin.

Paul Dessau composed operas, scenic plays, incidental music, ballets, symphonies and other works for orchestra, and pieces for solo instruments as well as vocal music. Since the 1920’s he had been fascinated by film music. Among others he wrote compositions for early movies of Walt Disney, background music for silent pictures and early German films. While in exile in Paris he wrote the oratorio Hagadah shel Pessach after a libretto by Max Brod. In the 1950s in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht he focussed on the musical theatre. During that time his operas were produced. He also wrote Gebrauchsmusik (utility music) for the propaganda of the German Democratic Republic. At the same time he lobbied for the musical avant-garde (e.g. Witold Lutosławski, Alfred Schnittke, Boris Blacher, Hans Werner Henze and Luigi Nono).

His Awards include: Award of the music pSchott (1925); National Prize III. Category (1953); National Prize II. Category (1956); National Prize I. Category (1965); Vaterländischer Verdienstorden (Decoration of Honour for Services to the GDR) in Gold (1965); Karl-Marx-Orden (Karl-Marx-Decoration) (1969); National Prize I. Category (1974)