Part 1: Theme: Tempo di minuetto – Variations 1-13
Part 2: Fugue
The ‘EG’ who composed the theme was Emma Gruber, to whom the work is dedicated. She was born Emma Schlesinger, but her family changed their last name to Sándor to conceal their Jewish heritage. After marrying a wealthy Hungarian named Henrik Gruber, she became a prominent benefactor who hosted fashionable soirées in her Budapest salon, where she prided herself in discovering and promoting new talent. The young Dohnányi become her piano teacher and then a frequent performer in her salon. Dohnányi and Gruber even teamed up for the premiere of his Waltz for four hands, Op 3, another work that he dedicated to her. Gruber was also a patron of Bartók and Kodály, marrying the latter after the death of her first husband.
Gruber’s theme is a simple minuet, reminiscent of the aria on which Brahms based his Handel Variations. In the first two variations, Dohnányi replaces the ebb and flow of the original rhythms with more regular quaver and semiquaver subdivisions. The third variation introduces a minor tonality, while also continuing to explore bolder harmonies. This increased chromaticism is especially noticeable in variation 4, in which the original key of G major is barely identifiable. Dohnányi continues to play with both harmony and rhythm in the lilting scherzando of the fifth variation. In the sixth variation, the original minuet tempo is slowed to an emotive Adagio in G minor. Variation 7 remains in the minor, speeding the tempo slightly for a staccato canon. The eighth variation is faster still, returning to G major for chordal passages that contrast with both the preceding variation and the bravura ninth variation. The tempo quickens again for variations 10 and 11, by which time the original harmonies of Gruber’s theme are barely recognizable. The twelfth variation harks back to the playful simplicity of the original theme before the entrance of the menacing final variation.
Throughout his career, Dohnányi would maintain a special affinity for the theme-and-variations form. Later compositions that would feature this design include his Variations on a Hungarian Folksong for piano, Op 29, as well as movements from his Cello Sonata, Op 8, the Serenade for string trio, Op 10, the Suite for orchestra, Op 19; the String Quartet No 3, Op 33; and the Szimfonikus percek (Symphonic Minutes) for orchestra, Op 36. The Variations and Fugue on a Theme of EG concludes with a complex four-part fugue based on Gruber’s theme. This was Dohnányi’s first use of the established technique of following variations with a fugue, one that he would subsequently employ in the finales of both of his symphonies as well as in his famous Variations on a Nursery Song for piano and orchestra, Op 25.
from notes by James A Grymes © 2013