Paul Dessau, Haggadah shel Pesach

By Laura Silverberg

Written for the concert Passover in Exile, performed on April 21, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

On the eve of Hitler’s rise to power, German-Jewish composer Paul Dessau was enjoying a successful career as a conductor and composer. While still a teenager, Dessau was a rehearsal pianist and later Kapellmeister at theaters in Hamburg and Bremen, and after the First World War he held positions at the Kölner Oper and Berlin’s Städtische Oper. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he not only conducted and composed for two of Berlin’s leading cinema orchestras, but also supplied music for a number of films, including Disney cartoons and collaborations with director Arnold Fanck. Yet by the summer of 1933, the personal and professional conditions in Germany had become intolerable for Dessau. In August of that year, he fled to Paris, where he would spend six years before emigrating to the United States.

The grandson of a cantor, Dessau had sung in his synagogue choir as a youth and composed a handful of works on Jewish themes prior to his emigration, including arrangements of several psalms and the hymn Adon Olam.But the direct experience of anti-Semitism and exile prompted Dessau to explore his Jewish roots: over the next decade, he composed numerous settings of Yiddish and Hebrew folksongs, the score to the Zionist film Avodah, and vocal and instrumental works for the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. The Haggadah shel Pesach (1934–36), an oratorio for soloists, choir, and orchestra, is unquestionably Dessau’s most elaborate and ambitious work to emerge from this period.

The origins of Dessau’s Haggadah remain murky, and accounts by Dessau and Czech librettist Max Brod differ regarding the date in which their collaboration began. Dessau likely began work on the piece in 1933 or 1934—either immediately before or shortly after arriving in Paris—and he did so without a specific commission or ensemble in mind. Neither Dessau nor Brod was proficient in Hebrew: Brod, perhaps best known as Kafka’s friend, biographer, and executor, wrote the libretto in German, and the Rabbi Georg Mordechai Langer assisted with the translation.

Read at the Passover Seder, the Haggadah (plural: Haggadot) tells the story of Exodus and explains the rituals of Passover. The basic content of all Haggadot remains the same, though texts may vary by region, congregation, and family. Brod’s libretto closely resembles a standard Haggadah, and the texts and traditions conveyed in Dessau’s Haggadah shel Pesach would be familiar to anyone who celebrated Passover: the hunt for chametz (leaven) before Passover, the story of the four sons, the four questions, the recounting of the ten plagues and flight from Egypt, the hymn “Dayenu,” and the cumulative children’s song “Chad gadya,” traditionally sung at the end of the Seder in the Ashkenazi tradition.

Just as embellishment of the Haggadah is traditionally encouraged, Brod’s libretto includes other texts from the Torah, Talmud, and Midrash and offers a contemporary interpretation of the standard Haggadah. Indeed, as Brod noted in the margins of a libretto draft he sent to Dessau, “Eerily topical! Dictators have always been as they are today.” As Hanan Bruen has observed, Brod’s interpolations emphasize the ideals of humanity, morality, and compassionate humanism. While Brod was not the first to highlight the universal significance of the Exodus story of liberation, he made a particular effort to avoid more vengeful moments of the standard Haggadah, leaving out, for example, the lines of Psalm 79 (“Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you”). Even more striking is Brod’s compassionate portrayal of the enemy—and this during a time when Nazi laws were progressively dehumanizing German Jews. Thus in the scene recounting the flight across the Red Sea, Brod included the Talmudic story in which God chastises the angels for celebrating the destruction of the Egyptians: “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you are singing?”

The music of the Haggadah shel Pesach reveals two main influences: on one hand, Dessau’s childhood exposure to Jewish folksong and liturgical music; on the other, his considerable experience composing and conducting music for theater and film. Admittedly, Dessau avoided direct quotation of Jewish music: as he later recalled, “I decided to have complete trust in my origins and create a work exclusively from my own music.” Thus passages sung by Rabbis Joshua, Eleasar, Eliezer, Akiva, and Tarfon are reminiscent of—but not identical to—a cantor’s chant.

If the influence of Jewish folksong and liturgical music is relatively subtle, the centrality of opera and film music to Dessau’s conception of the work is immediately apparent. Much as one would expect in an oratorio or opera, Dessau moved between recitative, aria, and chorus, and gave each character a distinct musical language: the Pharaoh’s virtuosic, Verdian tenor contrasts with Moses’s simple and tuneful baritone, as does the rhythmically threatening chorus of the Egyptians with the dramatic lyricism of the Jews. To unify the lengthy work musically and dramatically, Dessau deployed a range of leitmotivs, many of which first appear in the orchestral introduction. The interval of a rising fourth, which Bruen suggests is a symbol for freedom, recurs frequently—most notably at the beginning of the orchestral introduction and in the final lines “Next year in Jerusalem / Next year we will be free.” A chord built from two stacked fifths and played by the upper winds serves as an expression of childlike wonder and is especially prominent during the four questions, while a motive consisting of four ascending chromatic tones over a pulsating bass pedal appears in references to the suffering of the Jews in Egypt. While the music is mostly tonal and often reminiscent of Orff or Hindemith, Dessau varied the harmonic language for expressive purposes. Densely dissonant chords accompany the anguished cries of the Jews and God’s rebuke of the angels, while static, modal sonorities describe the miracles in the Midnight Song Hymn.

Even before its completion, Dessau’s Haggadah shel Pesach sparked the attention of a number of Jewish musical groups in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States, most notably the Rhine-Main and Berlin chapters of the Jewish Cultural League. But a variety of political, bureaucratic, and economic circumstances thwarted attempts at a premiere during the 1930s: conductor Hans Wilhelm Steinberg and other Jewish musicians emigrated to Palestine, the Jibneh publishing house was reluctant to print the score before a premiere was scheduled, and the Haggadah required more money and rehearsal time than the struggling chapters of the League could afford. In 1941, the Gestapo disbanded the Jewish Cultural League; its members (including president Kurt Singer) were sent to concentration camps. Dessau, who emigrated to the United States in 1939 and began to collaborate with Bertolt Brecht in the early 1940s, shifted his focus to leftist songs and incidental music for didactic plays. After settling in East Germany, where “cosmopolitan” Jews were treated with utmost suspicion by the socialist regime, Dessau downplayed his Jewish roots and any interest he had in Jewish-themed works. The final lines of Dessau’s Haggadah shel Pesach, “Next year in Jerusalem,” would prove only partially true: the work was indeed premiered in Jerusalem, but not until 1962—over a quarter century after its completion.


Ms. Silverberg is the Associate Director of the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.