Before the First World War, Margarete Dessoff lived with her father, Otto Dessoff, conductor of the Frankfurt Opera, in their home across the street from the aunt and uncle of the American banker Felix Warburg. As a boy, Mr. Warburg came to know Madame Dessoff from visits to his uncle's house, and it was this friendship which moved him to bring her to America after the War for a recuperative visit.
Fortunately for American lovers of fine music, Madame Dessoff remained in New York instead of returning to Europe. Her American reputation was well on the way to full establishment through her Madrigal Chorus of the Institute of Musical Art when she and Angela Diller (of the Diller-Quaille School of Music) formed the Adesdi chorus of women's voices in 1924, named from parts of each founder's name.
In October 1929, the A Cappella Singers of New York, a mixed chorus, began rehearsing in the evenings (the Adesdi women rehearsed during the day). The Dessoff Chorus, therefore, referred to two separate groups, constituting what is known today as The Dessoff Choirs, Inc.
There are two principles that The Dessoff Choirs have always upheld: the commitment to present music which would not otherwise be heard in the ordinary course of musical events, and a pledge to provide an opportunity for talented amateurs to sing some of the world's finest choral masterpieces. It is almost inconceivable to music lovers of today that there could be anything avant garde about the music of Machaut, Orlando di Lasso (Lassus), Josquin des Pres, Victoria, Heinrich Schütz, and Monteverdi. Yet for all practical purposes, the music of these giants was virtually unknown in the 30s, not only to the amateur musician but to the professional. Nevertheless, Madame Dessoff was conducting concerts of music by these early composers during that time. When she retired from the leadership of the Dessoff Choirs in 1936, such music was still relatively unknown outside of New York City and Dessoff's concerts.
Under Mme. Dessoff's successor, Paul Boepple, conductor of the Choirs for 32 years, Dessoff continued to pioneer performances and recordings of these pre-Bach masters. In addition, Paul Boepple edited The Dessoff Choirs Series for the Theodore Presser Company, a distinguished collection of 48 editions of early works previously unavailable in this country. Generations of choral singers throughout the United States include the series among their first exposures to this music.
As interest in early music became more widespread, Dessoff's emphasis on this period diminished and its repertory widened. Paul Boepple was also at one time a close associate of Arthur Honegger's, and with Dessoff he premiered both Judith and Nicolas de Flue, as well as Frank Martin's Golgotha, George Perle's Songs of Praise and Lamentation, and other contemporary works.
Following Paul Boepple's retirement, Michael Hammond, currently Dean of the Sheppard School of Music at Rice University, conducted the Choirs during his ten-year tenure in more memorable performances of works by 20th-century composers, including Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, while at the same time maintaining Dessoff's tradition of giving stirring performances of earlier music. Amy Kaiser's twelve years with the chorus (1983-1995) guided Dessoff's repertoire with the commissioning and premiering of new choral works of significant quality and the discovery of music, especially from non-Western traditions, that had not yet become part of the canon of choral singing. During this period Dessoff returned to the precedent of multiple choirs set by Madame Dessoff: The Dessoff Choirs, a moderately-sized core chorus of 70 singers, The Dessoff Chamber Choir, 22 singers, The Dessoff Symphonic Choir, 195 members assembled for major symphonic works, and an informal singing group known as The Dessoff Irregulars, which was constituted primarily for community-service programs in hospitals, schools, and nursing homes.
Music Director Kent Tritle, appointed in 1996, is helping to determine the group's musical direction and mission into the 21st century. In his first four seasons with the chorus, Kent Tritle has not only upheld Dessoff's traditional goal of programming diverse works from the Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's Magnificat to Sergei Rachmaninov's Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom to a world premiere of Whitman Cantata by Marshall Coid, but has also instituted a series of vocal workshops, musicianship training, and language coachings that will serve to put Dessoff's performances on a par with many professional choruses across the country.
The Dessoff Choirs has always attracted a very special type of choral amateur: individuals who are not only dedicated lovers of music, but who also have sufficiently deep musical involvement to explore and discover for themselves the beauties of mostly unknown musical masterpieces, and to apply themselves to the point of performing and communicating these works for the benefit of the public in concert halls and through recordings. Aside from the common spirit of musical involvement, enthusiasm and dedication to the choral art form, individual members of the chorus have a wide variety of backgrounds and encompass a wide diversity of national origins, age groups, and educational and professional training. Thus, the kinds of music that Dessoff has performed, published, and recorded, and the kinds of amateur which have been drawn into the membership, have provided the organization's unique quality.
It is The Dessoff Choirs' philosophy that the perspective, maturity, and health of any society is dependent to a great extent not only on the involvement of its members in the pleasures of the mind and their participation in those activities which enrich and ennoble their lives, but in the providing of ways to do so. The Dessoff Choirs' performance of hitherto unknown music, and its 75 years of service to the musical needs of New Yorkers as singers and New Yorkers as listeners, has made a significant contribution to the cultural enlightenment of New York and indeed, the whole country.