American Record Guide
, July 2009
German composer Paul Dessau (1894–1979) lived long enough to see several different modes of German composition come and go, and quite a lot of it owing to the effects of the Nazis and their depredations on German culture. German romanticism, already outmoded in the wake of Schoenberg’s Second Viennese school, was pushed into France as the country began to drain itself of composers and other artists, especially those of Jewish heritage. Any hope of a new German romanticism vanished in the wake of the Nazis and their hyper-inflated sense of racial pride. Paul Hindemith is probably the last great romantic to come out of Germany and he had to get out of Germany to do it.
Paul Dessau, older than Hindemith by one year, took to romanticism in the heyday of the Second Viennese School but dropped it quickly. One relic of that period is his First Symphony (in one movement) of 1926. It’s full of youthful flourishes with hints of German-Jewish melodies (Dessau’s father was a cantor) and a free tonal neoclassicism (and you will hear moods that are very much reminiscent of Paul Hindemith). Martial declarations might also remind the listener of the then-young Shostakovich. I did not find the work derivative or immature (the composer was 32 when he wrote it), but given the strident—and very conscious—push away from romanticism that Dessau takes later in his life, it’s clear that this symphony was a creative dead-end for him.
The change happens in the 30s for Dessau. Les Voix (1939) is the new direction. It is a vocal cycle based on the poems of Paul Verlaine and is the first work of Dessau’s 12-tone period. Rene Leibowitz (1913–72) was a Polish exile, teaching out of Paris and was almost instrumental in keeping Schoenberg’s 12-tone system alive and vibrant. Leibowitz had studied with Webern (and later taught Boulez). Les Voix (the soprano here is Ksenija Lukic) is highly expressive but more akin to Schoenberg than Webern: it’s more mind than heart. But it’s only 11 minutes long and performed quite well.
The two minor works that follow were unearthed by musicologist Daniela Reinhold. They are a pair of songs written during Dessau’s exile in France in the 30s. ‘Danse et Chanson Espagnole’ (1937) and ‘Examen et Poeme de Verlaine’ (1938) are pleasant, genuinely romantic fragments that, unfortunately, are too short. Danse et Chanson is only 2 minutes long; Examen et Poeme de Verlaine is 3- 1/2. These are only filler and are probably of value only to scholars.
The major works on this release are the Second Symphony (1934, 1962) and In Memoriam Bertolt Brecht (1957). The Second Symphony has a fractured history. The first three movements were written in 1934 but were abandoned when the Nazis took power and the entire mood in the country shifted. Dessau resurrected the work, adding a fourth movement in 1962 and dedicated that movement to Bela Bartok. But he put the new movement in place of the original third movement, moving that movement to fourth place. No one knows what he was thinking, but it really doesn’t work. As it stood, the original three movements made for a tight, late-romantic symphony, one of the last works in this mode that Dessau wrote in the early years of the Nazi party’s rise to power in Germany.
In Memoriam Bertolt Brecht (1957) is a brooding homage to a man Dessau had worked with since 1943 and is a clear masterpiece. Much of the serialism that speckled Dessau’s writings in the 40s and 50s is gone. In place is an intellectual confidence that shows the man’s true gift for both melodic ideas and an over-arching intelligence that allows the work to rise from merely gloomy to celebratory. Neat trick, and he pulls it off.
I have reviewed the works in reverse order from the disc. The more contemporary works begin the program, and it ends with the Symphony in One Movement. Dessau clearly did not have a consistent creative vision from one end of his life to the other—not that there is any crime in that. Starting off with In Memoriam Bertolt Brecht, though, is a bit off-putting. It was new to me and seemed garrulous and mean. Then I played the works in the reverse order, and it helped.