Paul Dessau

Biography

Born: December 10, 1894; Hamburg, Germany   Died: June 27, 1979; Konigs Wusterhausen  
Paul Dessau was a composer whose varied musical style was as colorful and controversial as his personal and political life. His music divulged a post-Romantic character early on and often contained Jewish themes. Although he adopted the twelve-tone system in mid-career, he had to forego use of it in many compositions owing to his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, who favored popular musical styles. Dessau was born into a Jewish family in Read more Hamburg. From early childhood, he divulged strong musical talent, taking violin lessons at age six. He traveled to Berlin and enrolled at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory in 1910, where he studied violin with Florian Zajic. While Dessau possessed talent on the instrument, Zajic saw limitations in his abilities and counseled him to abandon his studies in 1912. He concurred with the judgment and obtained a position as répétiteur at the Hamburg City Theater that same year. Here, he was able to observe some of the finest German conductors, including Felix Weingartner and Arthur Nikisch. Dessau hoped to develop a career as a conductor himself, but also aspired to be a composer. As early as 1910, he had begun an opera -- Giuditta, which he did not finish -- and soon embarked upon other works, like the vocal piece Inspiration (1912 - 1914) and his piano sonata (1914 - 1915). In 1914, he received his first important post, that of kapellmeister at Bremen's Tivoli Theater. After service in the German army during World War I, he briefly obtained a conducting post with the Hamburg Kammerspiele, where he also served as a composer. There followed a string of appointments in first-rate German opera houses -- Cologne (1919 - 1923), Mainz (1923 - 1924), and Berlin (1925 - 1926). Dessau married Gudrun Kabisch in 1924. He would have three more wives: Elisabeth Hauptmann in 1948, Antje Ruge in 1952, and Ruth Berghaus in 1954. While he remained active as a composer during the post-World War I era, it was not until his Berlin years that he experienced his first successes. His 1924 concertino for violin, flute, clarinet and horn (1924) was awarded a Schott prize in 1925, and his Symphony No. 1 (1926) was premiered in Prague. He began composing for film in 1928, the same year he became the Alhambra Cinema's music director. Because of increasing hostility toward Jews in Nazi Germany, he left Berlin for Paris in 1933, where he gradually grew sympathetic to left-wing politics. He moved to the United States, settling first in New York (1939), then in Hollywood (1943), where he composed film scores and shared the camaraderie of Arnold Schoenberg and Brecht. He collaborated with the latter many times over the coming years, including in songs, operas, and other vocal works. In 1946, Dessau joined the Communist Party in the United States. Two years later, he returned to Germany, to the Eastern (Communist) sector, where his twelve-tone compositions and even more mainstream works often placed him at odds with the Party arts censors. His opera Die Verurteilung des Lukullus (1949 - 1951; libretto by Brecht) drew sharp criticism from the Party. Still, Dessau was highly respected: in 1952, he was voted membership into the Academy of Arts in East Berlin, then was appointed its vice president in 1957, serving until 1962. From 1962 to 1975, he taught at a primary school in the Berlin suburb of Zeuthen, where he lived since 1954. He remained active in composition in his last years and never acquiesced to Party officials, who often condemned his works. Read less

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