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Collaborating with Bertolt Brecht — and Walt Disney

Lawrence Bush
June 27, 2017

German composer and conductor Paul Dessau died at 84 on this date in 1979. Dessau was the creator of operas, ballets, symphonies, vocal music, orchestral works, and more. In the 1920s, he composed music for early films by Walt Disney and for silent German films, and established himself as a conductor at prominent German opera houses. Fleeing the Nazis in 1933, he earned a living in Paris composing music for émigré film directors from Germany, and began to explore Jewish themes in his compositions, writing the oratorio Hagadah shel Pessach after a libretto by Max Brod. In 1938, Dessau composed music for the Paris performance of the Brecht play “Fear and Misery in the Third Reich” (then titled “99%”); he met Brecht again five years later at an anti-Nazi concert that included a Dessau piece on the program. That same year he moved to Hollywood and made a living composing or arranging orchestration for movie studios while collaborating with Brecht in several projects and becoming a member of the Communist Party. “Dessau’s musical aesthetics shifted in a new direction after his working relationships with Brecht began,” according to the Bach Cantatas Website. “Influenced by the latter, Dessau’s music can be described as a parallel along the text. Its function is to interpret instead of to support. There are many contradictions in his music language that requires the listeners to resolve by themselves, thus fostering a heightened political awareness.” Dessau returned to Germany, settling in East Berlin, in 1948. To hear his 1956 tribute to Brecht, look below. To see an early Disney silent film with music arranged by Dessau, look below that.

“The untimely death of Brecht in August 1956 . . . affected Dessau’s career as he sought to find other lyricists who were compatible with his aesthetic views. Dessau now. . . turned to the 12-tone system as his major vehicle, attracting young admirers in the avant-garde movement ... while he continued to put his ideas of music education in a socialist state into practice ... During the new phase, he also completed two operas which were based on Brecht’s ideas. Puntila was premiered in 1966, and Einstein, 1974.” --Bach Cantatas Website

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.