Paul Dessau : Agitprop? No; Abstract music? Yes.


Paul Dessau (19 December 1894 – 28 June 1979) was a German-Jewish composer and conductor.  He was born in Hamburg into a musical family. His grandfather, Moses Berend Dessau, was a cantor, his uncle, Professor Bernhard Dessau, concertmaster at the Royal Opera House, His cousin Max Winterfeld became generally known under the name Jean Gilbert as a composer of operettas and his second cousin, Robert Gerson Muller-Hartmann, was a composer and collaborator with Vaughan Williams.

He was prescient enough to leave Germany in 1933 for Paris, and again in 1939 to leave Paris for the US, first to New York and then to Hollywood. Dessau returned to Germany with his second wife, the writer Elisabeth Hauptmann, and settled in East Berlin in 1948.  He remained in East Germany for the rest of his life, dying in 1979 at the age of 84, in the then East German city of Königs Wusterhausen, on the outskirts of Berlin.

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 1920s 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 focused on the musical theater. 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).

dessau sqHis politically inspired works have not fared well, today sounding dated, which is true for most political art which generally has a short half life.  However, his purely instrumental (abstract) music is worthwhile.  He wrote seven string quartets which are in an expressionistic style and well worth hearing.  The complete set has been recorded by the Neues Leipziger Streichquartett  on CPO.

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