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CLASSICAL  February 2010

CLASSICAL February 2010

Subject:

Music by Dessau

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 24 Feb 2010 18:27:29 -0800

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text/plain

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Paul Dessau

*  In memoriam: Bertolt Brecht (1957)
*  Symphony No. 2 (1934; 1962)
*  Danse et Chanson (1937)
*  Examen et poeme de Verlaine (1938)
*  Le Voix (1939)
*  Symphony in One Movement (Symphony No. 1) (1926)

Ksenija Lukic, soprano
Manuela Bress, mezzo
Holger Groschopp, piano
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Roger Epple
Capriccio 5019  Total time: 69:32

Summary for the Busy Executive: Witness to horrors.

This CD presents works by German composer Paul Dessau, regarded as a
promising light in his day, but effectively forgotten in the intellectual
diaspora from the Nazis during the Thirties.  He wasn't alone.  Those
killed by the Nazis or left waiting in the terminal, so to speak, include
Toch, Krenek, Wilhelm Grosz, Schulhoff, Hartmann, David, and Pepping.
On the assumption that few have heard Dessau's work or have some idea
of his artistic aims, I've decided to provide a brief introduction.

Born in 1894 and raised in Hamburg and the grandson of a cantor, Paul
Dessau, like many Jewish boys whose parents had dreams of another Heifetz
in their heads, learned the violin at an early age.  He attended a
conservatory in Berlin, where his violin teacher advised him to give up
his ambitions with the instrument.  Dessau switched to composition and
conducting.  He quickly left the conservatory and through family connections
became the Kapellmeister in a Bremen theater.  He also held conducting
posts in Cologne, Mainz, and Berlin.  Bruno Walter appointed him to the
last position.  However, early success as a composer led him to give up
conducting for full-time devotion to composition.  He began to score
films, a fairly lucrative job, even in Europe.  When the Nazis took
power, Dessau had the sense to leave for France.  He continued writing,
increasingly influenced by political events.  He always was a man of the
left, and events like the Ethiopian War and the Spanish Civil War pushed
him even further.  He began to re-evaluate his rather stern idiom in
favor of a style more popularly based, along the lines of Kurt Weill and
Hanns Eisler.  Like Eisler, he wanted to appeal to the workers in order
to rouse them to political action.  However, the avant-garde also appealed
to him, and he studied Schoenbergian dodecaphony with Rene Leibowitz.
With the fall of France, Dessau again fled the Nazis, winding up in
Hollywood, U.S.A., of all places.  There he again found (mostly uncredited)
work composing for film studios, mainly horror films like House of
Frankenstein but with occasional prestige projects like Hitchcock's
Paradine Case.

In Los Angeles, he met Bertolt Brecht, his major artistic collaborator.
He composed the original incidental music for Mutter Courage and Der
gute Mensch von Sezuan.  After the war, however, a ferocious anti-Communist
movement began to gain strength.  To Dessau and Brecht, it was "deja vu
all over again." The parallels with the Nazis were simply too strong for
them, and they skedaddled to the Soviet zone of Germany, finally settling
into what became East Germany.  Brecht died relatively early (1956).
Dessau for the moment was adrift, but it turns out that the loss of his
friend actually freed him.  He had had to suppress his more radical
artistic side in deference to Brecht's musical tastes.  Now he could
write as he wished.  Like most good composers under the thumb of Communist
states, he produced two kinds of work: the stuff the Party officials
liked and the stuff they condemned as "formalistic." However, he didn't
leave the latter in his desk drawer and sought out and received performances.
When his radical work started winning prizes abroad, the Party made token
noises but didn't seriously hinder him.  Furthermore, Dessau used his
position to protect younger artists subject to the same pressures, and
in the increasing liberalization of the artistic atmosphere in East
Germany during the Sixties, Dessau increased his role as a gadfly to
power.  He died in East Berlin, 1979.

The CD program goes in roughly reverse chronological order, with the
most recent work first and the earliest last.  It doesn't matter to me,
but some may try listening to these pieces in the order in which Dessau
wrote them, as a way of easing oneself into "hard Dessau." There are,
of course, far more complicated and forbidding scores than these.  If
you can take a work like Schoenberg's Pelleas et Melisande, you can
certainly handle anything Dessau throws your way.  In fact, I will review
these scores in chronological order since that makes Dessau's stylistic
evolution more apparent.

That Dessau began in a post-Mahler idiom with overtones of Jewish
cantorial chant shouldn't surprise anybody.  Jewish themes influenced
him early on.  By the first symphony (also known as the Symphony in One
Movement), Mahler has disappeared utterly and only wisps of chant hang
on.  The expressionism of Weill, Toch, and Hindemith has taken their
place.  If you know Weill's first symphony, you will recognize this as
its cousin.  However, as the Twenties proceed, Dessau, along with Weill
and Hindemith, moves toward the Neue Sachlichkeit (the new objectivity
or realism), which sought to reach a broader base of listeners, usually
by incorporating popular idioms or clear song-and-dance structures.  We
see this in the Symphony No.  2, where Hindemith is the main influence.
This score has a checkered history, by the way.  Dessau completed three
movements in 1934 and gave them the title Petite Suite symphonique.  What
with one thing and another, including the political upheavals that touched
Dessau's life, the suite was almost never played.  In 1962, Dessau added
another movement, an "Homage to Bartok" in Bulgarian rhythm, and designated
the score as his second symphony.  All movements show a sharp increase
in Dessau's ability to construct a coherent musical narrative.  However,
the best movement by far is the newest -- a rare imaginative and truly
musical use of the percussion battery.

Danse et Chanson comes from Dessau's political commitment.  There's
nothing overtly political about it, except its idiom -- a Spanish jota
for the Danse, and a vocalise by a wailing soprano.  The Examen et poeme
de Verlaine sets a poem by Verlaine, a poet I would have thought had
little appeal to Dessau, but there you go.  It's an odd title with its
mixture of German and French.  Dessau wrote it in France as a kind of
compositional "exam" in creating proper balance between singers and
orchestra, but his innate musicality makes it much more than a mere
exercise.  The poem exhorts the reader to "dance the jig," and Dessau
dresses his music with sprightly rhythms.

Le Voix sets yet another Verlaine poem, and may constitute the composer's
first real attempt at 12-tone composition.  Verlaine apparently uses
Poe's Bells as his model, as he invokes the "voice of pride," "voice of
hate," etc.  It's not one of my favorite Dessaus, however -- muddy texture
and emotionally overwrought.  On the other hand, I've read reviewers for
whom this counts as their favorite work on the program.  De gustibus,
and all that.

My very own favorite happens to be In memoriam Bertolt Brecht, the most
recent score.  I first encountered Dessau's music in a college German
class, of all places.  The professor brought in the Berliner Ensemble's
(Brecht's own acting company) recording of Mutter Courage with Helene
Weigel (Brecht's widow) in the title role.  "Das Lied der Mutter Courage"
knocked me off my pins, and I started looking for the score.  I also
marked Dessau down as someone whose music I wanted to know more of.  I
suppose I'll turn off more than a few readers when I mention that In
memoriam uses dodecaphony.  To me, the idiom matters less than the work
itself.  The piece takes a look back over the century and becomes both
a lament and a song of defiance, not just for the loss of a particular
friend, but of an entire civilization.  This is one of the most expressive
pieces of dodecaphony I know, free of the usual cliches from second-hand
Schoenbergs, Bergs, and Weberns.

The performances are good enough without breaking through to the
extraordinary.  On the other hand, they give the music a fair shake.

Steve Schwartz

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