The hard work of socialist music in the GDR

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This essay examines the labour of socialist music in the GDR, focussing on Choral Music No.5 (1976) of Paul Dessau. Famous for his collaborations with Brecht (he wrote music for Mother Courage and the opera The Condemnation of Lukullus), Dessau was the most important avant-garde composer of the GDR. He passionately believed that only complex, modern music could convey the struggle(s) of socialism. This brought him into conflict with the authorities, who accused him of formalism. This essay examines this conundrum by focusing on Dessau’s synthesis of aesthetic and political modernism, of Schoenberg and Brecht, and his use of quotation. Choral Music No.5, a setting of Heiner Müller’s distillation of a speech of leader Erich Honecker, reuses a musical cryptogram for the Socialist Unity Party (S-E-D) which Dessau first integrated into Lukullus. Dessau’s piece is musically demanding and an embodiment of his belief in socialist music as rewarding hard work.
Original languageEnglish
JournalTwentieth-Century Music
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 20 Sept 2018


  • Dessau
  • GDR
  • Brecht
  • Honecker
  • Heiner Müller


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