DESSAU: In Memoriamn Bertold Brecht. Examen et poème de Verlaine. Les voix. Symphony in One Movement. Symphony No. 2.
Ksenija Lukic, soprano; Manuela Bress, mezzo-soprano; Holger Groschopp, piano; Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin/Roger Epple, cond.
CAPRICCIO 5019 (F) TT: 69:32

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, 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 René 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 "déjà 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 Pelléas et Mélisande, 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 had disappeared utterly and only wisps of chant hung 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 Sächlichkeit (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 Bartók" 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 poème 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, it doesn't matter. 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 clichés 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.

S.G.S. (December 2009)