Paul Dessau


Paul Dessau was born in Hamburg on December 19, 1894. He grew up in a musical family and learned the violin at the age of six. He later studied violin at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Konservatorium in Berlin. In 1912, Dessau worked as a tutor at the Stadttheater Hamburg and two years later, he became the first kapellmeister at the Tivoli Theater in Bremen. His music career was interrupted by his military service during WWI. After the war, he worked in different musical capacities at theaters in Cologne, Mainz and Berlin.


Dessau was very versatile and worked in different musical genres: operas, ballets, orchestral works, vocal music, scenic plays and political songs. Since the 1920s, he also wrote film music, especially for silent films. He scored many German films, including Fritz Lang’s Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur, 1921). He also worked with Arnold Fanck on several productions, including the mountain film Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (Storms over Mont Blanc) with Leni Riefestahl as the leading actress. Dessau was also part of director Phil Jutzi’s team that created the Weimar era classic Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück (Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness, 1929), a masterpiece about a working-class family in the late twenties in Berlin. Dessau also composed music for a series of short animations, the Alice Comedies, for Walt Disney.


When the Nazis took power in 1933, Dessau left Germany and moved to France before he settled in the USA. During his French exile in Paris, he earned a living by composing music for other immigrant film directors from Germany, including Max Ophüls, Robert Siodmak and Curtis Bernhardt.


When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Dessau composed political marching songs such as Thälmannkolonne (The Thälmann Convoy) under a pseudonym. During his time in exile, he also included include Jewish musical themes in his compositions as he endeavored to find the root of his religious heritage. In 1938, he composed music for the Paris performance of Bertolt Brecht’s play Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches (Fear and Misery of the Third Reich), which was staged by filmmaker Slatan Dudow, who also was in French exile at the time.


Paul Dessau moved to New York in 1939. The first years in the USA were particularly difficult for him. He worked on various odd jobs like teaching music lessons or commissions from synagogues. The situation changed when he moved to Hollywood in 1943, and he composed and arranged film music. This was also where he met composer Arnold Schoenberg, who invented the twelve-tone method, in which Dessau showed great interest. He collaborated with German immigrant artists, especially Brecht, on many projects. While in the USA, he joined the Communist Party in 1946.


In 1948, Paul Dessau returned to Germany from his exile and settled in East Berlin. He picked up his American collaboration with playwright Bertolt Brecht and continued composing music for Brecht’s plays and several operas based on them. In 1951, his twelve-tone composition for the opera Die Verurteilung des Lukullus (The Condemnation of Lucullus), based on a libretto by Brecht, drew sharp criticism and was charged with formalism by officials.


Paul Dessau started teaching at the Staatliche Schauspielschule in Berlin-Oberschöneweide in 1952 and was appointed as a professor in 1959. From 1952 to 1975, he also taught at a primary school in Zeuthen, a Berlin suburb. As a member of the Academy of Arts, he had many master students who became famous avant-garde composers, including Friedrich Goldmann, Reiner Bredemeyer and Friedrich Schenker.


Since the 1950s, Dessau scored documentaries and feature films for the East German DEFA Studios, and his name is credited to the 1960 film adaptation of Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children); Dessau had originally scored Brecht’s play for the legendary 1949 stage production at the Deutsches Theater.


Dessau died on June 28, 1970.


1968 Abschied (Farewell)
1966 400 cm3 (doc.)
1963 Das russische Wunder (The Russian Miracle, doc.)

Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children)

1958 Unternehmen Teutonenschwert (Operation Teutonic Sword, doc.)

Du und mancher Kamerad (You and Some Comrade, doc.)

1955 Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children, production canceled)
1948 The Vicious Circle
1948 Devil’s Cargo
1946 Winter Wonderland
1946 The Wife of Monte Cristo
1945 House of Dracula
1945 Hotel Berlin
1944 The House of Frankenstein
1938 Gibraltar (It Happened in Gibraltar)
1938 Carrefour (Crossroads)
1937 Yoshiwara
1937 Cargaison blanche (White Cargo)
1936 Tarass Boulba
1934 Nordpol – Ahoi! (North Pole, Ahoy!)
1933 SOS Eisberg (SOS Iceberg)
1931 Salto Mortale
1930 Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (Storm over Mont Blanc)
1929 Mutter Kraussens Fahrt ins Glück (Mother Krausen’s Journey to Happiness)
1928 Der erste Kuss (The First Kiss)
1928 Die schönste Frau von Paris (The Most Beautiful Woman in Paris)
1928 Die Pflicht zu schweigen (The Duty to be Silent)
1928 Alice Comedies (short animation, series)
1928 Seine Mutter (His Mother)
1921 Der Tiger von Eschnapur, Teil 1 (The Tiger of Eschnapur, part 1)

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