A composer’s life during the turmoil of the 20th century
Written tradition in Cold War conditions
The composer in conflict between Jewish tradition and the communist claim to redemption and power
The eventful history of the 20th century has left its mark on Paul Dessau’s biography and his oeuvre. He was born in Hamburg on December 19, 1894. In his parents’ home he absorbed Jewish ways of life, an artistic environment and developed an early orientation towards a career as a performing artist. He went on to study at the renowned Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin and wrote his first compositions. He served in the First World War, was wounded, buried alive and eventually served in a military band. After the war, apprenticeship years as a conductor at the Hamburg City Theater, the Hamburg Kammerspiele, the City Theaters in Cologne and Mainz, and the Berlin Municipal Opera followed until 1926. His subsequent conducting work at the Alhambra cinema in Berlin brought him in touch with the film art during its transition from silent to sound film; it became his main field of work between 1928 and 1933.
In 1933, Dessau fled Nazi Germany for France, where he remained until he moved to the United States in the summer of 1939. Here he increasingly turned towards his Jewish musical heritage and the Jewish community. At the same time, he aspired to take a political stand with his art and wrote songs for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He began setting texts by Bertolt Brecht to music and adopted Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique.
When he returned to Germany in 1948, he chose to live in the Soviet occupation zone. In the United States, he had become even more politicized as an artist and joined the Communists. Above all, the death of his mother in Theresienstadt in 1942 became a key personal experience for his anti-fascist commitment. He felt morally, politically and artistically committed to the GDR until his death, even though he came into conflict with the state cultural authorities from the very beginning. In addition, his marriage to the director and choreographer Ruth Berghaus and his home in Zeuthen in Brandenburg became stabilizing factors. Here his circle of friends and students from East and West found a free space without restrictions for discussion and encounter. In the GDR he was among its much-honored artists, but his concept of writing contemporary music about the hardships of the world using the language of modernity remained politically undesired until his death on June 28, 1979.
He frequently visited his hometown of Hamburg despite the difficulties associated with the East-West conflict. Today, a memorial plaque near his birthplace at Am Hohlen Weg 21, which was destroyed in the war, and a street in Bahrenfeld commemorate him, as does a “stumbling stone” at Hansastraße 35 in memory of his mother.
Dessau’s first artistic response to his emigration was his increased interest in the Hebrew and Yiddish languages, Jewish liturgy and folk music. After an initial meeting in Prague between Dessau and Max Brod, whom the composer had until then known only from reading his works and had written to in 1933 about his “Hagadah” idea, the two came to an agreement on the text of the planned work largely by correspondence between 1934 and 1936. The writer Georg Mordechai Langer, an acquaintance of Brod, translated it into Hebrew because, as Brod wrote to Dessau, “one does not want to see […] the Hitler language anywhere now.” Letter dated April 5 , Academy of Arts, Paul Dessau Archive 2167 Only once more, in June 1935, did the authors meet in Paris. The surviving text drafts show their working method. Georg Mordechai Langer not only translated Brod’s text and the selected parts from the Passover Hagadah, Bible and Midrash into Hebrew, but also provided everything with phonetic transcriptions and stress marks for the composition. Dessau drafted the music as a short score, deleting individual passages of text. His questions about pronunciation – like Brod, he only had a superficial knowledge of Hebrew – and the short score were then sent back to Brod and Langer for correction of the accentuation of the language and for evaluation of the composition. When Dessau ran out of text in the Moses aria – “And that’s where he ran out of ideas!”, he whimsically wrote at the margin of the sheet – asking for lyrics for the aria: “Dear Max Brod! Can you and Mr. Langer quickly write this for me?” His wish set to music was fulfilled. Even the adaptation to the given melody line was largely successful. And so the “little Verdi in the vest pocket,” as Dessau ironically characterized the aria, was inserted into the extensive oratorio.
Immediately after Max Brod had reported on the “Hagadah” project in an interview with the Jüdische Rundschau [Jewish Review] newspaper in November 1934, the conductor Hans Wilhelm Steinberg indicated interest to perform it. After his dismissal as General Music Director in Frankfurt am Main in 1933, he had built up an orchestra at the Jewish Cultural Association Jüdischer Kulturbund there. Dessau, who knew Steinberg well from their time together in Cologne, kept him informed about the composition process. The first performance was announced for the end of April 1936, but it failed, just as it did in Berlin, Teplice Teplitz or Amsterdam. A composition rooted in Jewish liturgy, which also ended with the emphatic words “Leschana habaa bijruschalajim, leschana habaa bene chorin” (“Next year in Jerusalem, next year free men”), was apparently no longer performable in 1936. At the same time, the extraordinary demands of the composition made it difficult to realize quickly. The enormous choral and orchestral apparatus did not correspond to the conditions under which Jewish ensembles of that time worked. Dessau, however, made no concessions to the real limitations, of which he was aware. For him the realization of his spiritual and musical intentions had priority. Thus even the premiere with the Palestine Orchestra planned after Steinberg’s emigration could not be realized.
The premiere did not take place until April 22, 1962, in Jerusalem. Nehemia Vinaver, conductor and initiator, still knew Dessau from his American exile. The concert performance with a choir, youth choir and the Kol Israel symphony orchestra was a much shortened version, which the radio station broadcast at Passover for many years. In Germany, the “Hagadah” was performed for the first time on September 4, 1994 in Hamburg under the direction of Gerd Albrecht, also in a much shortened version and, contrary to the intention of the authors, in a German translation. It was not until April 5, 2012 that the complete Hebrew original was performed by the Collegiate Chorale Singers and the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Botstein in New York.
The work’s manuscripts also had to survive many an odyssey. The Viennese Jibneh publishing house was initially commissioned to print the work, but was quickly overwhelmed by its dimensions. Finally, Dessau and Brod as well as the Prague banking house Petschek & Co. financed the production of a piano score with a donation. When he moved to New York City, Dessau took with him the manuscripts of his already more than 100 compositions. When he moved on to Hollywood, he left, among other things, the complete composition draft of the “Hagadah” and the text draft for the last part with a cantor friend in New York, who later gave them to Dessau’s daughter Eva, who, unlike her father, had stayed in the United States.
But the extensive, large-format autograph manuscript comprising over 300 pages, which Dessau always kept with him, also had to survive hazards. In the early 1950s in the wake of the Czech Slánský trial, antisemitism in the socialist countries also made politically controlled waves in the GDR, and the dictum of a “Zionist conspiracy” made the rounds. Earlier, Dessau’s opera “Das Verhör des Lucullus” [The Interrogation of Lucullus] had attracted the attention of the GDR cultural administration. Fearing renewed “racial” persecution, Dessau separated the score from his other documents and hid it in the garden shed of his Zeuthen home. Long after Dessau’s death, Ruth Berghaus found it by chance. It was only when Dessau’s daughter brought the manuscripts that remained with her to Germany in the mid-1990s that the materials could be reunited – 60 years after their composition – in the archive of the Berlin Academy of Arts Akademie der Künste.
There had been Jewish cantors in Dessau’s paternal family branch for several generations. His great-grandfather was cantor for 40 years, finally head cantor in the German-Israelite congregation in Hamburg, and his grandfather held positions in the synagogues of Sülz, Den Haag and Hamburg. From this heritage as well as from his participation in the synagogue choir during his youth Dessau had an exact knowledge of synagogal music practice. But a strict religious upbringing had not been connected with it. Nevertheless, religion, including composition, was a natural part of Dessau’s life until the 1940s. Especially in the first years of emigration, his involvement in the ritual and social context of Jewish culture determined his thinking, which became even stronger when he moved to New York. Only after his encounter with Brecht and Dessau’s orientation back to Germany did the Jewish theme become less prominent.
From that point on, musical material of Jewish provenance played virtually no role in his oeuvre. At best, it now sounded beneath the surface. The “Jüdische Chronik” [Jewish Chronicle], written between 1960 and 1961 – an East-West joint composition with Boris Blacher, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Hans Werner Henze and Rudolf Wagner-Régeny – commemorated the Shoah and criticized increasing antisemitic defamation and desecration in the Federal Republic of Germany, but consciously avoided Jewish motifs. Thus, while his life in exile had led to a turn toward Jewish tradition, as exemplified by “Hagadah,” other themes prevailed during his life in the GDR. Dessau felt connected to the GDR until the end of his life because of its anti-fascist policy. His relationship with Israel, on the other hand, a place that had still served as a visionary goal of freedom in the “Hagadah,” became increasingly difficult. The outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967 brought the conflict to a head. Dessau wrote to the conductor Otto Klemperer, who demonstratively declared his support for the Jewish state in this situation, that he was a Jew but not an Israelite. Quoted by Otto Klemperer in letter to Paul Dessau, Zurich, July 25, 1967, Academy of Arts, Paul Dessau Archive 2133 This separation corresponded to the official anti-Israeli attitude of the GDR. Ultimately, Dessau thus doubly marginalized his personal past. As a convinced communist, he tried to endure the conflict between Jewish tradition and the communist claim to redemption and power. He succeeded only partially.
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Daniela Reinhold, musicologist. As research associate at the Music Archive of the Academy of Arts, Berlin, she is - among others - responsible for the Paul Dessau Archive; she publishes on music and music theater in the 20th century.
Daniela Reinhold, Paul Dessau’s “Hagadah.” A Passover Oratorio Reflecting Contemporary History, in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, April 28, 2021. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-265.en.v1> [June 04, 2023].