Paul Dessau was born on 19 December 1894. His grandfather was a synagogoue cantor. He first took up violin lessons at the age of 6, and from 1910 to 1912 he attended the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory. However, he chose conducting as his career goal. In 1912 he started at the Hamburg City Theatre as coach, witnessing the prime time of such conductors as Arthur Nikisch and Felix Weingartner. From 1919, he was engaged by Otto Klemperer at the Cologne Opera, and later move to the City Opera in Berlin under Bruno Walter. Meanwhile his composing career also produced an abundance of works. His Concertino for solo violin with flute, clarinet and horn won him a prize in Donaueschingen. The aspiring musician was soon attracted by the new medium, film, and started a prominent career as music director at various film theatres. During this period, he strove to bring new music and sound techniques into film. His first experiment in sound movies, Episode, entered the 1929 Baden-Baden festival, where he had met Bertolt Brecht for the first time two years before. While his major output was film music, there were also concert pieces as well as works for proletarian children's choirs.
In 1933 he emigrated to Paris, earning a living by composing music for other èmigrè film directors from Germany. In 1936, he met René Leibowitz and started to study the 12-tone symtem. As the Spanish Civil War broke out, he composed such political marching songs as "Thälmannkolonne" to the text by his wife Gudrun Kabisch (both under pseudonyms). This exile period also saw his attempts in compositions with Jewish themes as he struggled to find the root of his religious background. In 1938 he composed music for the Paris performance of the Brecht play Fear and Misery in the Third Reich (then titled 99%) which was directed by Slatan Dudow. The next year he moved to New York. The first years in the US was particularly difficult for him, surviving on various odd assignments like teaching music lessons or commisions from synagogues.
In 1943, Dessau met Brecht again on the occassion of an anti-Nazi concert where his 1936 song "Kampflied der schwarzen Strohhüte" was included on the program. The German refugees from California subsequently persuaded Dessau to work in the film industry. In October 1943, he moved to Hollywood. In addition to close contact with Arnold Schönberg, he mainly composed or arranged orchestration for movie studios. A new phase began in his career as he collaborated with Brecht in various projects. He was now more committed to political causes and historical dialecticism, which eventually led to his joining of the US Communist Party in 1946.
Dessau's musical aesthetics shifted in a new direction after his working relationships with Brecht began. Influenced by the latter, Dessau's music can be described as a parallel along the text. Its fuction is to interpret instead of to support. There are many contradictions in his music language that requires the listners to resolve by themselves, thus fostering a heightened political awareness.
In 1948, he returned to Germany. Besides his work for Brecht, he first made acquaintance with Hans Werner Henze in 1949. In 1951 his music for the Trial of Lucullus was charged with formalism when socialist realism was held as the official principle. While Brecht, throughout the course, has been changing parts of the scripts and subsequently, the title to avoid misinterpretation, Dessau remained reticent. On Brecht's insistence due to the antiwar message, the newly revised opera received its official premiere in October of the same year. Then, it was not performed until 1960. In 1952 he was elected member of the Academie der Künste and was now enthusiastically involved in music education for school-age children. The next major project in theatre The Caucasian Chalk Circle began in 1953 as Brecht finally settled on Dessau as the composer. This score absorbs a variety of folk traditions and its exotic nature fittingly underlines the alienation effect generated through the setting of the play. After the premiere of this latest play in October 1954, he moved to Zeuthen in the suburb of Berlin. There he would live until his death.
The untimely death of Brecht in August 1956 also affected Dessau's career as he sought to find other lyricists who were compatible with his aesthetic views. Dessau now once again turned to the 12-tone system as his major vehicle, attracting young admirers in the avant-garde movement such as Luigi Nono, while he continued to put his ideas of music education in a socialist state into practice as he taught at the Zeuthener Grundschule. The result of the latter effort would be published in Musiarbeit in der Schule. During the new phase, he also completed two operas which were based on Brecht's ideas. Puntila was premiered in 1966, and Einstein, 1974.
Paul Dessau died on 28 June 1979.
He was married four times: Gundrn Kabisch (1924), Elisabeth Hauptmann (1948), Antje Ruge(1952), and Ruth Berghaus (1954). His daughter is Eva(b. 1926), and two sons are Peter (b. 1929) and Maxim (b. 1954).