Transforming Postwar East Germany through Song: Paul Dessau’s Lieder composed for Lin Jaldati, Lecture-Recital by Michael Hix, Baritone
Published online: 1 April 2019
- DOI: 10.18177/sym.2019.59.sr.11435
The rise of East German musical culture after the devastation of WWII is an intriguing facet of contemporary European history. Of particular interest are the Jewish artists, including composer Paul Dessau (1896-1979) and Yiddish folk singer Lin Jaldati (1912-1988), who played significant roles in the musical life of the young nation in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Dessau, one of the GDR’s musical figureheads, returned from exile in 1949 in order to contribute to the cultural development of the new communist country. His eclectic compositional voice incorporates disparate styles and influences including agit-propaganda music, folk music, and modernist techniques. The Yiddish folk singer Lin Jaldati (1912-1988) functioned as an official icon of Jewish culture in the GDR. She served as a musical and cultural ambassador, performing programs of Yiddish folksongs and agit-prop songs of Eisler, Fürnberg and Dessau around the world.
This lecture recital presents Dessau’s lieder composed for the singer Lin Jaldati. These works, which include such songs as “An meine Landsleute,” “Höre Israel,” and “Tereszin mit Reisegruppe” often combine Dessau’s modernist musical language and extended piano techniques with a simplified, folk-inspired vocal melody suitable for Jaldati’s voice. The texts for these songs, including many settings of Bertolt Brecht, are poignant commentaries on the Holocaust and military conflicts of the 20th century. Examining the collaboration of Dessau and Jaldati provides a unique perspective on post-Holocaust music, identity politics, and Jewish culture in East Germany.
“Transforming Postwar East Germany through Song: Paul Dessau’s Lieder composed for Lin Jaldati,” is a scholarly lecture/performance by Dr. Michael Hix, Associate Professor of Voice at the University of New Mexico. The presentation is available in the form of a twenty-nine minute Youtube video, featuring power point slides, videos of performances, and a recorded narration.
Dr. Hix’s well-researched presentation provides a nuanced view of three complicated artists–Paul Dessau, composer, Lin Jaldati, singer, and Jaldati’s husband, the pianist Eberhard Rebling–who lived in a time of great social and political turmoil. The lecture provides a biographical sketch of the artists, placing them and their artistic output within the context of post-war East German history and relating their work to other composers, poets, and performers living in the GDR. Hix discusses the poetry and Dessau’s compositional style for the Jaldati Lieder, taking pains to contrast the simple, chant-like style of these Lieder with other highly demanding vocal works written by the composer at the same time. Interspersed with the slides are a video of Jaldati and Rebling in concert and three videos of the author and his collaborative partner, Dr. Kristin Ditlow, performing three of the Dessau Jaldati songs: “An meine Landsleute,” composed in 1965, “Höre, Israel,” composed in 1969, and “Tereszin mit Reisegruppe,” composed in 1978.
Hix’s slides are well organized and stylish in their display. His narration is paced well, and provides a wealth of details not shown in the onscreen slides. The sound quality of his recorded narration is good. The sound quality on the three performances by Hix and Ditlow is fine in general, although the reverberant nature of the performance space used for the recordings tends to make the piano dominate louder passages. Each of the performances by Hix and Ditlow has English subtitles displayed on screen, aiding the viewer in understanding the text.
Compliments are due to Dr. Hix and Dr. Ditlow for their performances of the songs. Dr. Hix’s high baritone and clear German diction help these lesser-known songs come to life.
A lengthy bibliography of sources and contact information on the performers concludes the video.
Michael Hix, Baritone. Keller Hall, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque NM. July 20, 2018.
Thank you for your interest in our presentation Transforming Postwar East Germany through Song: Paul Dessau’s Lieder composed for Lin Jaldati.
I would like to thank the American Musicological Society, Hampsong Foundation, the DAAD, and UNM College of Fine Arts for their financial support of this research.
The rise of East German musical culture after devastation of WWII is an intriguing facet of 20th century European history. Of particular interest are the Jewish artists including composer Paul Dessau (1896-1979) and Yiddish folk singer Lin Jaldati (1912-1988), who played significant roles in the musical life of the young nation in the aftermath of the Holocaust. This presentation focuses on Dessau’s lieder composed for the singer Lin Jaldati, using these songs as a lens through which to examine the intersection of music and politics in the German Democratic Republic.
Like many other composers of his generation, the German composer Paul Dessau was forced into exile by the NAZI’s rise to power due to his Jewish heritage. He fled first to Paris in 1933 then to New York City in 1939 and like many other composers to Hollywood in 1944. For those unfamiliar with Dessau’s music he composed works in every genre including lieder, chamber music, large scale orchestral works, and opera. His eclectic compositional voice incorporates disparate styles and influences including late romanticism, folk music, agit-propaganda music, and modernist techniques. It should also be noted that he was a frequent collaborator of Bertolt Brecht.
After World War II ended, Germany immediately became a significant stage on which the drama of the Cold War unfolded. Early on, the leading political party in the GDR, the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands/Socialist Unity Party of Germany), sought to recruit German intellectuals who were living abroad to return to the infant East Germany. Despite the economic and social difficulties associated with rebuilding after war, the SED succeeded in bringing home many artists. Literary figures such as Anna Seghers, Friedrich Wolf and Bertolt Brecht all returned to make the GDR their home. Musical icons such Ernst Hermann Meyer, Georg Knepler, and Hanns Eisler all settled in the GDR after their periods of exile. Dessau returned to make East Berlin his home in 1949. Dedicated to the politics of communist East Germany, Dessau emerged as a leading musical figure, both as a composer and educator. Like many of his colleagues, including Lin Jaldai, he optimistically embraced the political ideology of the burgeoning nation.
Lin Jaladati’s experiences pose a quite different and horrific story. Jaldati was raised in a Dutch speaking Jewish home in Amsterdam, Holland. As a young woman she studied dance, music and Hebrew. She was also exposed to Yiddish and Yiddish folk songs by Eastern European Jews at the local Jewish Cultural Club. In 1936 she met her future husband, the German musicologist and pianist Eberhard Rebling.
The German musicologist and pianist Eberhard Rebling had fled Germany because of his communist political beliefs. It was Rebling who encouraged Jaldati to focus her energy on the performance of the body of Yiddish song. In 1940 she gave her first large scale performance of Yiddish songs at a rally in Amsterdam which was in protest of the events in Germany.
During the German occupation of Holland in the 1940s Jaldati and Rebling worked alongside the communist Dutch resistance. In addition she performed underground house concerts of agit-propaganda songs and her repertoire of Yiddish songs. Jaldati was eventually arrested and imprisoned, first in Westerbork and later in Bergen Belsen and Auschwitz. Amazingly, Jaldati survived her imprisonment and was reunited with her husband in 1945. After the War she began concertizing throughout Europe, performing her repertory of agit-prop and Yiddish songs accompanied by her husband Rebling on piano.
Like Dessau, Jaldati’s husband Eberhard Rebling was courted by the emerging musical community in the GDR to return to help cultivate the new musical culture. Rebling and Jaldati, relocated to East Berlin in 1952. In numerous sources, Jaldati spoke of the difficulties of moving to East Germany after the war. However, she felt it was her obligation to educate the people, especially the young. In her own words, she believed it was her mission to “get the rubble out of their heads.”
After their move Jaldati functioned as an icon of Jewish culture in the GDR. She was the only official East German interpreter of Yiddish music, and served as a musical ambassador performing concerts around the world. Her programs featured her body of Yiddish music, paired with anti-facist and agit-prop. songs. Together with her husband she performed throughout Europe including West Germany, and the Soviet Union as well as in Canada, India, Thailand, North Korea, and China, among others. To introduce you to Jaldati’s unique voice and artistry, I have included a video of her performing an excerpt of Mordechai Gebirtig’s “Es Brennt.”
[5:59 – Lin Jaldati performs “Es Brennt”]
Dessau and Jaldati were first introduced by Rebling, who was acquainted with Dessau before the War. Even though they were socially acquainted, and lived in the same neighborhood, Dessau did not experience Jaldati’s singing until 1965. Dessau was first introduced to her unique artistry during a casual visit to the Rebling/Jaldati home. It was on this occasion that she performed his setting of Brecht’s text “Lied einer deutschen Mutter.”
Dessau, who was moved by her performance, suggested she provide him with texts which he could set for her. Jaldati provided Dessau initially with the texts “Fantasie von übermorgen” by Erich Kaestner and Brecht’s “Kleines Lied.” The Kaestner poem describes wives, mothers, and sisters banding together to end war. The light hearted Brecht text was chosen to provide some levity to the typically serious and highly political Jaldati recitals. Jaldati and Rebling premiered the songs at a recital in March 1965 in Karlsruhe, West Germany.
In late March 1965 Dessau set another Brecht text, “An meine Landsleute” for Jaldati. With a strophic setting and a direct, speech-like melody, Dessau evokes a conversational tone with which Jaldati directly addressed the audience.
Only in the climax of each stanza does the voice linger in a higher tessitura, begging humanity to choose peace over war. She premiered the work in May 1965 at the Chanson- und Liedfestival in Burg-Waldeck, West Germany. For the complete list of songs written by Dessau for Jaldati please reference the handout.
[8:32 – Michael Hix, baritone, and Kristin Ditlow, piano, perform “An meine Landsleute”]
The songs written for Jaldati in 1965 are musically very similar. They feature simple melodies and are free of the extreme dissonance of many of Dessau’s other works. The ranges are limited with an easily manageable tessitura. Dessau primarily set the texts syllabically and utilized the natural speech inflections in his rhythmic choices. The accompaniment of “An Meine Landsleute” is particularly noteworthy. It features primarily long sustained chords, over which Jaldati would declaim the simple melody in a mostly free, recited style. According to her daughter Jalda Rebling, “The recitation style was very good for her because she was not a classical singer. So if you hear her recordings she had her own style of singing. She sang as an actor sings not as a singer sings.” Dessau’s setting of “Das tote Kind” also incorporates several lengthy sections in this free metric style.
These songs Dessau composed for Jaldati display a sharp contrast to the other two songs Dessau composed in 1965. “Alles für die Liebste” and “Die Nachtigall” both settings of Georg Maurer (1907-1971) from the song cycle Siebenundzwanziglieder aus dem Dreistrophenkalendar are highly virtuosic works. They contain complex rhythms with frequent meter changes, wide ranges, and demanding tessituras. These two songs, along with the other songs in this cycle, utilize twelve tone technique. The contrast between the Dessau Mauerer settings of 1965 and the songs written for Jaldati clearly illustrate the differing compositional approaches Dessau utilized in composing for a trained singer versus a folk singer/ singing actor.
In order to understand the significance of Jaldati’s repertoire, and to fully grasp Jaldati’s role in the GDR, one must examine the myth building of the country. As the SED sought to create a distinctly East German identity, party leaders engaged in what author Alan Nothnagle has termed “historical myth building.” The GDR creation myth framed the nation as the victor over the fascism of Hitler and the Nazis. It celebrated the communist resistance to the Nazi regime thus distancing itself from the horrors of war and the Holocaust. As stated previously, Jaldati’s mission was to “clear the rubble from the minds” of the German population, especially the young. However, Jaldati’s performances also served the GDR propaganda machine in an attempt to prove to the World (and themselves) that the GDR was a nation free from racism and anti-semitism, as well as to celebrate the anti-fascist heroes of the GDR and Red Army.
The programs crafted by Jaldati and Rebling existed in various configurations. As previously mentioned she was most well known for her interpretations of Yiddish songs. However, her most frequently performed recitals paired anti-facist and agit-prop songs of Hanns Eisler, Louis Fürnberg, and Paul Dessau with her repertoire of Yiddish songs. The titles given these performances, which include Jewish Fighting Songs, The Songs of the Folk, and Songs Against Facism, reveal their purpose. The Yiddish songs of Mordechai Gebirtig, Moise Schulstein and Hirsh Glik, composed in Ghettos and Prisons during the NAZI reign of terror, serve as reminders of the horrors of the Holocaust, while the German agit-prop songs often celebrate the German anti-fascists as heroes.
From the vantage point of identity politics the most fascinating fruit of the Dessau/Jaldati collaboration was the setting of Erich Fried’s “Höre, Israel.” The previous songs, most of which contained anti-war themes, reflect the artists’ experiences with fascism, the horrors of WWII, and the imminent threats of the Cold War. In “Höre, Israel,” Dessau and Jaldati directly address Israel as aggressors in the Isreali-Arab conflict.
While government officials denied the existence of anti-Semitism in East Germany, the 1950s and 1960s display veiled anti-Semitism under anti-cosmopolitan and anti-Zionist policies throughout the Soviet Bloc. This included the Slansky trial in Prague and the arrest of Paul Merker, Julius Meyer, and other prominent Jewish leaders in the GDR. Notable in both of these trials, along with other anti-cosmopolitan purges, was the use of the term “Zionist” or “agent of Zionism.” This accusation was often tied to accusations of Western imperialist connections and spying for America.
The Soviet and East German political stance on Israel naturally had direct correlations to Israel’s ties to the United States. Although East Germany was initially supportive of Israel’s independence, as the Cold War escalated the GDR followed the Soviet Union with an anti-Israel foreign policy. Throughout its history, the GDR never had diplomatic relations with Israel.
In the midst of the Six-Day War in June 1967, Jaldati, along with other prominent Jewish Communists were asked to sign an anti-Israel statement which appeared in the newspaper Neues Deutschland. Jaldati refused to do so. According to a letter from Albert Norden to Walter Ulbricht written on June 8, 1967, Jaldati defended her position because of statements made by Ahmad Al-Shukeiri the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization regarding the annihilation of the Jews. Jaldati’s daughter, Jalda Rebling believes that her mother’s resistance to signing this anti-Israel statement caused her mother to be black-listed.
“After 1967 until 1975 she had very few concerts in East Germany. She was out of the cultural life. They took her out of the radio shows. They took her out of the TV shows. She did not perform so much in East Germany. She performed all over the world but not in East Germany. It was clearly an anti-Semitic and Israel related issue.”
In 1969, Jaldati brought Erich Fried’s (1921-1988) poem “Höre, Israel” to Dessau and asked him to set it for her. This is the only setting of Erich Fried among Dessau’s large body of lieder. The poem warns the Jews in Israel against oppressing the Palestinians and Arab neighbors. Fried uses his identity as a Jew who was persecuted by the Nazis in order to identify with the Israelis. Once this connection has been established, the poem sharply attacks Israel’s actions.
Dessau’s setting of “Höre, Israel” is similar in many ways to his 1965 settings for Jaldati. The range and tessitura sits low in the speaking range. Dessau achieves a speech-like rhythm and freedom of declamation by writing without a time signature. The majority of the song features Dessau’s chant-like melody moving over sustained clusters in the piano.
The most notable difference between this song and the other songs written for Jaldati in 1965 is Dessau’s use of string harmonic effects in the accompaniment. This creates an odd, ghostly effect in which a halo of string harmonics quietly accompany the voice. The effect of this accompanimental figure is haunting as it creates a sparse texture to open the somber song. Because this effect is very soft, it could be interpreted as Dessau’s way of instructing the audience to “Hoere/Listen”
[20:23 – Michael Hix, baritone, and Kristin Ditlow, piano, perform “Höre, Israel”]
At the outset, this song – a song protesting the actions of Israel both composed by and sung by Jews – seems to be a very curious work. But the previously discussed cultural context of GDR politics illuminate’s Jaldati and Dessau’s actions. Dessau, who had early in his career and during his exile identified closely with his Jewish heritage, composing numerous works in Hebrew, distanced himself from his roots after moving to the GDR. For Jaldati, who according to Jalda Rebling was black-listed in the GDR after her refusal to sign the previously mentioned anti-Israel statement, the creation and performance of this song could be viewed as a way to artistically make amends with GDR officials. With this song she balanced her ideals regarding pacifism and armed conflict, without damning Israel. Rather than denying Israel’s right to exist, she instead pleads with the Isrealis to seek peace, and to avoid inflicting the horrors she and her family experienced in the Holocaust on their Arab neighbors. However, she rarely performed it in either West Germany or East Germany. In the second version of their joint memoir, published by Eberhard Rebling in 1995, Jaldati discussed her fears that performances of the song in Germany would fan the flames of anti-semitism.
Among Dessau’s last songs are works composed for and dedicated to Jaldati. In 1978 Dessau composed Zwei Gedichte based on texts by Karl Mickel. The two songs that comprise this work –“Indianerfilm,” and “Tereszin mit Reisegruppe”– serve as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust including Dessau’s mother Louise Dessau (1863-1942) who was murdered in Theresienstadt. However, Jaldati never performed these works. Regardless, these two songs, which provide a haunting look at the Holocaust, serve to bind the composer and performer together in their shared history.
[25:38 – Michael Hix, baritone, and Kristin Ditlow, piano, perform Zwei Gedichte]
Rather than viewing Dessau’s music and Jaldati’s career in simplistic terms, for instance dismissing both artists as solely instruments of the propaganda machine, a closer look into the texts paints a more positive picture. Their message is timeless and universal. The songs “An Meine Landsleute”, “Fantasie von Uebermorgen”, and “Hoere Israel”, all plead for peace. Other songs including “Das tote Kind” and “Tereszin mit Reisegruppe”, as well as many of the Yiddish songs in Jaldati’s repertoire serve as reminders of the horrors of war.
However, it is Dessau’s “Ich bezeuge” that best summarizes Jaldati’s musical mission. The song composed for Jaldati and presented to her as a birthday gift in 1974 poignantly describes their combined voice. I was there, was there and suffered, and keep my testimony, it’s me who remembers…there is no forgetting, Through my ravaged mouth will continue to sing those mouths!”
John Nix is Professor of Voice and Voice Pedagogy at the University of Texas-San Antonio. His students have sung with the Santa Fe Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Chautauqua Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. He was the 2006 Van Lawrence Award winner, has won grants from NIH and the Grammy Foundation, has published 36 articles, and edited or contributed to 5 books.