Leon Jessel (January 22, 1871 – January 4, 1942) was a German composer of operettas and light classical music pieces, who is best known internationally as the composer of the popular jaunty march The Parade of the Tin Soldiers, also known as The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. Jessel was born in the eastern German city of Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), on January 22, 1871, the son of Jewish merchant Samuel Jessel and his American wife Mary. Although his quite musical parents wished him to become a merchant or businessman, Jessel was instead drawn to become a musician, and left school at the age of 17 to pursue music and musical theater. After studying with various teachers between 1888 and 1891, Jessel became a conductor, music director, chorus master, bandmaster, and theater conductor working in many German cities. Beginning in 1892, these jobs included the position of Kapellmeister in cities which included Mulheim an der Ruhr, Freiberg, Kiel, Stettin, Chemnitz, and Neustrelitz.
Jessel converted to Christianity in 1894 — the same year he premiered his first operetta Die Brautwerbung (The Courtship) — in order to marry Clara Louise Grunewald, and they were wed in 1896. He settled in Lübeck, where he was Kapellmeister at the Wilhelm Theater from 1899 to 1905, whereupon he became director of the Lübeck Liedertafel (men’s singing group) association. While in Lübeck, Jessel composed numerous choral works, operettas, and character pieces. In 1909 his daughter Maria Eva was born. In 1911 Jessel and family moved to Berlin, where he came into his own and made a name for himself — his 1913 operetta Die beiden Husaren (The Two Hussars) garnered quite a bit of attention. He continued to compose many operettas and Singspiel operas, most of which premiered in Berlin. In 1915 Jessel also co-founded and co-launched the early GEMA, a German performance rights organization.
Jessel’s biggest success was the operetta Schwarzwaldmädel (Black Forest Girl), which premiered at the Komische Oper in Berlin in August 1917. The opera’s touching libretto, appealing melodies, and elegant instrumentation proved immensely popular, and it ran in Berlin for 900 performances, and within the next 10 years was performed approximately 6,000 times in Germany and abroad. Schwarzwaldmädel has been recorded numerous times over many decades, and has been filmed and televised numerous times as well. Jessel also had a major success with his 1921 operetta Die Postmeisterin (The Postmistress), and in total he wrote nearly two dozen operettas.
One of Jessel’s non-operatic pieces still extensively performed and recorded worldwide is the jaunty march (originally for piano) for orchestra or military band entitled The Parade of the Tin Soldiers (Die Parade der Zinnsoldaten). The Parade of the Tin Soldiers was popularized internationally in the early 1920s, under the title The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, by Nikita Balieff in his La Chauve-Souris vaudeville show. In 1923, Lee DeForest filmed The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, performed by Balieff’s company, in the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process. The film premiered that year in New York City, and is in the Maurice Zouary collection at the Library of Congress. By the mid-1920s, the piece was a hit single recorded by the orchestras of Carl Fenton, Vincent Lopez, and Paul Whiteman. It has been widely performed and recorded ever since.
Jessel’s operettas were popular, nationalistic, and very German — Schwarzwaldmädel was a favorite of Hitler and Himmler. Because of this, and because of his own conservative nationalistic ideology, and because his second wife Anna joined the Nazi party in 1932, Jessel expected acceptance in Germany even during and after the Nazi rise to power. Instead, he was rejected by Nazi leadership because of his Jewish descent, even though he had converted to Christianity in 1894, and performances of his works were banned in 1933. Jessel’s last major work was his 1933 operetta Junger Wein (Young Wine), and his biographer Albrecht Dümling believes that he was a victim of targeted boycott measures as early as 1927.
In 1937 Jessel was forced out of the Reichsmusikkammer (the State Music Institute), and recordings and distribution of his works were prohibited. In 1941 a house search turned up a 1939 letter to his librettist William Sterk in Vienna, in which Jessel had written: “I cannot work in a time when hatred of Jews threatens my people with destruction, where I do not know when that gruesome fate will likewise be knocking at my door.” On December 15, 1941, Jessel was arrested and delivered to the Gestapo in Berlin. He was tortured by the Gestapo in a basement of the Police Bureau at Alexanderplatz, and subsequently died on January 4, 1942 in the Berlin Jewish Hospital.
Jessel was a prolific composer who wrote hundreds of light orchestral pieces, piano pieces, songs, waltzes, mazurkas, marches, choruses, and other salon music. He achieved considerable acclaim with a number of his operettas. His charming operetta Schwarzwaldmädel (Black Forest Girl) remains one of the most popular operettas written in Germany to this day, and it has continued to be performed, recorded, filmed, and televised. Several of Jessel’s instrumental character pieces, such as “The Wedding of the Rose” (Der Rose Hochzeitszug), are also still in international circulation. However, because Jessel was a Jew by birth, though he converted to Christianity at the age of 23, with the rise of Nazism in the late 1920s, his composing virtually came to an end, and his musical works, which had been very popular, were suppressed and nearly forgotten.
The following work by Leon Jessel is contained in my collection:
Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.