Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960)
Symphonic Minutes, Op36
4. Tema con variazioni
Ernő Dohnányi (Ernst von Dohnányi in German, as he generally had it on his published compositions) is now an obscure figure, but in his day was considered the greatest pianist and composer to emerge from Hungary after Liszt. He studied at the Budapest Academy along with his childhood friend Béla Bartók. In the late 1890s he shot to fame after a single performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in London. At the same time he made headway as a composer: his Piano Quintet was acclaimed by Brahms, who arranged its première in Vienna.
In the years that followed he also established himself as a conductor, and championed the music of Bartók among others. Unlike many star pianists of the day, he was equally comfortable appearing as a concerto soloist and as a chamber musician. His piano playing is preserved in what was for the day the cutting edge of recorded media: in the 1920s he recorded a number of pieces on the Ampico Reproducing Piano, which captured performances on piano rolls. This technological marvel’s life would be cut short by the advent of electrical sound recording, as well as the collapse of the market for player-pianos after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
He became head of the Budapest Academy, but resigned in 1941 in protest at the anti-Semitic policies being introduced by the fascist government under the influence of the Nazis. This stance was not enough to prevent him becoming the victim of a whispering campaign by the Communist government that took over after the war, and he lived the latter part of his life in exile in America. Only in recent years has his role in the development of Hungarian music in the early twentieth century been reappraised and recognised.
Although he took some inspiration from Hungarian folk music, Dohnányi the composer is not a nationalist like Bartok or Kodály. His music is firmly in the mainstream tradition of 19th century Europe, and in his lush harmonies and orchestrations comes across as a more cheerful cousin of that of his Russian contemporary, Rachmaninov. The five delightful miniatures that comprise the Symphonic Minutes date from 1933, shortly before he joined the Budapest Academy.