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Paul Dessau and the hard work of socialist music in the German Democratic Republic

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-66
Number of pages16
JournalTwentieth-Century Music
Issue number1
Published1 Feb 2019

King's Authors


This article examines the labour of socialist music in the German Democratic Republic, focusing on composer Paul Dessau's use of political cryptography and quotation in a number of compositions from the opera The Condemnation of Lukullus (1950) through to Choral Music No. 5 (1976). Most famous for his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, Dessau was the leading avant-garde composer of the GDR and its chief practitioner of serialism. He believed that only difficult, progressive New Music could convey the struggle(s) of socialism. This brought him into conflict with the authorities, who accused him of formalism. Choral Music No. 5 is a setting of a poem by Heiner Müller based on a speech by Erich Honecker (ŽiŽek refers to the text as an 'obscenity'). Dessau's composition is complex and dialectical, abrasive in its rhythms and counterpoint, and pluralistic in style. It is the embodiment of Dessau's belief in socialist music as rewarding hard work.

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