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A componist would come to me and ask me 'Make me two or three or three parts that I have to finish'. Then I made two or three parts and even get 50 dollars for!
Paul Dessau, joking (1974)

Dessau is cursing Eisler, who has called and begged him to write 12 minutes of film music for the studio. Eisler promised him to share his check of $1,000. Dessau wrote 4 minutes and Eisler, not satisfied, withdraws. Dessau wanted at least $100. Four weeks have passed and Dessau is living in poor conditions...
Bertolt Brecht in 1947

Paul Dessau born in Hamburg (1894) to Jewish parents was meant for the music world: when he's six years old he picks up violin, encouraged by his grandfather who was a cantor. In 1909 he enters the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory, which he follows until 1912. However, Dessau chooses to be a conductor. In 1912 he coaches conductors like Arthur Nikisch and Felix Weingartner.
After Dessau's military service in the First World War, he's assigned by Otto Klemperer as a co-conductor for the Cologne Opera (1919-1923). After serving under Klemperer, he moves to Berlin to be a conductor under Bruno Walter. In the mean time, Dessau, starts composing. His Concertino for solo violin with flute, clarinet and horn even wins a price.
Dessau breakthrough as a composer is with his Erste Sinfonie (in C), first performed in Prague in 1927. Dessau, attracted by the experiments of 'moving images', then focusses on composing music for film. In 1929 his first experiment Episode, played at the Baden-Baden festival, is a success. At the same festival he has met with the radical poet Brecht
In 1933, Dessau moves to France and earns his living by composing music for movies of German èmigrè film directors. He also meets René Leibowitz (1936) with who he starts to study the 12-tone system.
When the Spanish Revolution breaks out, Dessau writes several political marching songs like the 'Thälmannkolonne', with the text written by his (first) wife (Gudrun Kabisch).
In 1938 he composes the music for the Paris performance of the Brecht play Fear and Misery in the Third Reich The year after that, Dessau decides to emigrate to the US, New York. Here he has a hard time to survive living on commisions and the odd musical teachings on schools and synagogues.
For an Anti-War Concert (1943), he meets with Brecht and sets one of his anti-fascist songs to music. In October 1943, persuaded by other German refugees like Brecht and Eisler, he moves to California where he mainly composes for the Hollywood film studios. In Hollywood Dessau intensifies his friendship with Brecht, resulting in a membership of the US Communist Party in 1946. From then on Dessau's music runs almost parallel to Brecht's literary works, visions and life.
In 1948 Dessau (who now has married his second wife Elisabeth Hauptmann) returns to Germany and (finally) becomes a citizen of East Germany: a country that fits his ideas of music and politics. However, Dessau's ideas (which were formed in the former Weimar Republic clashes with the ideas of Communistic Germany: in 1951 the music for the Trial of Lucullus (text by Brecht), is sent back to him because of its 'formalism' instead of the new music trend 'Social Realism'. Brecht (who already altered the text and changed the title of the opera) pursues Dessau to change the music. At the end of the year, the revised opera is finally shown in the theatres.
In 1952, Dessau is elected for the 'Akademie der Künste' where he concentrates in educating music to school children. The untimely death of Brecht (1956) practically ends Dessau's musical inspiration and career. He turns to the 12 tone system of Schoenberg, while continuing to put his socialistic ideals in music, for which he receives the prestigeous 'Karl Marx Order' in 1969. He completes two operas and several songs (mainly based on Brecht's works) before he dies in 1971, in Königs Wusterhausen.

List of key works

  • Die Reisen des Glücksgott (1945)
  • Die Verurteilung des Lukullus (1949-1951)
  • Puntila (1956-1959)
  • Die heilige Johana der Schlachthöfe (1961)
  • Einstein (1969-1972)
Plays/film music
  • 99%- eine deutsche Heerschau (Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches) (1938)
  • Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder: Chronik aus dem Dreißigjährigen Krieg (1946-1949)
  • Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (1947-1948)
  • Galileo (1947)
  • Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (1949)
  • Mann ist Mann (1951-1956)
  • Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (1953-1954)

Source: Fritz Hennenberg: Paul Dessau. Eine Biographie

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