Paul Dessau, In Memoriam Bertolt Brecht

By Laura Silverberg, Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow, Columbia University

Written for the concert Music of the Other Germany, performed on Jan 25, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Along with his contemporary Hanns Eisler, Paul Dessau (1894–1979) was one of East Germany’s most prominent composers. The grandson of a Jewish cantor, Dessau fled Germany when the Nazis came to power, living in Paris before moving to New York and later California. Dessau’s first meeting with Bertolt Brecht in 1943 led to over a decade and a half of collaboration that produced numerous songs, incidental music to Brecht’s plays, two operas, and the cantata Deutsche Miserere. After settling in East Berlin in 1948, Dessau worked with Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. The poet and playwright played a hugely influential role in Dessau’s political and artistic development. Like Brecht, Dessau strove to develop a new, socially engaged art that maintained a critical relationship to bourgeois models and had relevance for contemporary social conditions.

Despite Dessau’s socialist convictions and party membership, he endured frequent party criticism for his modernist musical inclinations. In particular, his opera Die Verurteilung des Lukullus—another Brecht collaboration—came under fire in 1951 for its “formalist” (i.e. modernist) musical language. Dessau’s musical language became more acceptable following a general thaw in the cultural climate after 1956, and Dessau played a critical role as a teacher, mentor, and advocate to the next generation of East German composers. Musicologist Frank Schneider once described Dessau’s home in Zeuthen as an “East Darmstadt”—i.e., an East German substitute for the West German music festival in Darmstadt—where younger composers could discuss taboo contemporary music from the West.

Following Brecht’s death in August 1956, Dessau occupied himself with two compositions inspired by his friend and colleague: an opera based on Brecht’s play Puntila and In memoriam Bertolt Brecht, the work on tonight’s program. Dessau conducted the premiere on February 10, 1958—Brecht’s sixtieth birthday.

In memoriam Bertolt Brecht takes on a loose ABA form and consists of three movements: a slow introduction (“Lamento”), a march, and a slow epitaph. Compared to contemporaneous works in the GDR and even Dessau’s own music from the 1950s, the outer movements of In Memoriam Bertolt Brecht sound audaciously modern for their extreme dissonance, lack of melody, and development of motivic fragments (including the BACH motive, based on the German spelling of B-flat, A, C, and B-natural). The interval of a falling half step, characteristic of laments for centuries, dominates the motivic framework.

The formal and conceptual core of In memoriam Bertolt Brecht is the march. Its subtitle, “Der Krieg soll verflucht sein” (“War should be cursed”), comes from Brecht’s play Mother Courage and her Children, and in 1946 Dessau had supplied Brecht with the play’s incidental music. While a chaotic web of motives appears in the piccolo, horns, and percussion, the trumpets perform Mother Courage’s song from the play’s first act. The song itself is emblematic of the collaboration between writer and composer: the melody originated in Brecht’s own Ballade of the Sea Robbers, which Brecht requested that Dessau reuse in Mother Courage. Through this act of quotation, Dessau’s musical memorial pays tribute not only to Brecht’s creative output, not only to his anti-fascist political convictions, but also to his artistic methods. By combining the well-known song from Mother Courage with jagged rhythms and strident harmonies of the mid-twentieth century, Dessau translated Brecht’s technique of Verfremdung, or alienation, into musical terms. Rather than offer the audience a simple reiteration of the well-known song, In memoriam Bertolt Brecht prompts the listener to consider Brecht’s political and artistic contributions anew.