In the period after World War I, Dohnányi began composing nationalist works. This included his Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song, which he premiered in Budapest on 27 December 1920. Unlike the Four Rhapsodies, this work is based on a traditional Hungarian melody: the Christmas carol ‘Mennybol az angyal’ (The Angel from Heaven), a song about the angel who appeared before the shepherds to announce Jesus’s birth. Inspired by the southern Italian shepherds who play their music in the streets of Rome during Advent, Pastorales are often associated not only with country life but with Christmas itself. In keeping with the standard conventions for composing Pastorales, Dohnányi’s contribution to the genre features drones in the bass that imitate shepherds’ bagpipes and a lilting siciliana in the upper register that is reminiscent of shepherds’ shawms. The Hungarian Christmas Song finally enters during the repetition of the siciliana, as counterpoint to that melody. In addition to providing a suitable genre for setting a Christmas carol, the Pastorale once again aligns Dohnányi with earlier traditions. Other masterworks that use similar musical devices to evoke the nativity include the Pastorale from Corelli’s Christmas Concerto as well as the instrumental movements that introduce the angel’s proclamation in both Handel’s Messiah and J S Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.
from notes by James A Grymes © 2012