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Dohnányi, Ernő (1877-1960)

Ernő Dohnányi

born: 27 July 1877
died: 9 February 1960
country: Hungary

The name of Ernest Dohnányi (born Hungary, 1877, died USA, 1960) hardly rings a bell today except in Hungary. Even those who remember him are likely to be familiar with only one of his works, his Variations on a Nursery Song for piano and orchestra (1914). His stage works, orchestral compositions including symphonies, concerti etc., vocal compositions such as the Stabat mater (1953), as well as his numerous chamber music and piano compositions are now seldom played. One would search long to find his music in any concert programme. Yet at his peak he was one of the most versatile and influential musicians of his time. His youthful Piano Quintet (1895) was so highly esteemed by Brahms at its first performance that he personally made arrangements for it to be performed in the Vienna Tonkünstlerverein.

It was his cellist father and Károly Förstner, a cathedral organist, who gave Dohnányi his first lessons in piano and theory. Having completed his secondary education he went to Budapest from his native town Pozsony (now Bratislava) in order to study at the Budapest Academy. (His school friend Béla Bartók followed suit.) There he studied piano with Thomán and composition with Koessler. After receiving his diploma in 1897 he spent the summer of the same year with composer and pianist Eugen d’Albert (Glasgow-born but of German-French-Italian origins) to whom, in 1898, Dohnányi eventually dedicated his First Piano Concerto, a work which received the Bösendorfer Prize.

It was in 1898 that Hans Richter, one of the leading conductors of the time, asked Dohnányi to join him in London as the soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. This tour, during which he gave 32 concerts in two months, established him as a concert pianist of the first rank. His interpretative power in the Austro-German classics, above all Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, as well as his dedicated involvement in chamber music playing, made him one of the most sought-after performers of his time. His pianistic ability combined with improvisational panache was such that when later his memory deserted him from time to time it was a popular pleasure among connoisseurs to hear how he wriggled out of trouble by stylishly improvising passages that led back to the original notes. It was Richter, too, who in 1902 introduced Dohnányi’s Symphony No 1 in D minor, in Manchester.

The great violinist Joachim, friend of Brahms, was also friend to Dohnányi whom he invited to Berlin where the composer was offered a professorship at the Hochshule in 1905. Ten years there were paralleled and followed by various prestigious appointments not only at the Budapest Academy but also as chief conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra, a position which he held for the best part of 25 years from 1919. In 1931 he became the musical director of Hungarian Radio where he worked until 1944. With all these involvements he found time not only for composition but also for selecting concert repertoire with the aim of raising musical standards in Hungary. He gave as many as 120 performances there in one year. No wonder that Bartók saw in him a leading provider of Hungarian musical life. For four decades Dohnányi dominated the musical scene in his home country and beyond. It is to Dohnányi’s credit that although his musical temperament and outlook were very different from Bartók’s and Kodály’s he put his phenomenal performing ability to their service. In fact he recognised Bartók’s genius well before others and gave him practical support while his own countrymen were predominantly hostile. His long-standing relationship with America made him a welcome refugee when, after a few years stay in Austria (1944-1948), he decided to leave Europe for the New World. There he indefatigably continued his musical activities, not only in his capacity as pianist/composer-in- residence at Florida State University, but also as a touring performer. One of his last concerts was in 1956 at the Edinburgh Festival. Working to the very end of his life, he died during a recording session at the age of 83.

from notes by Otto Karolyi © 1993


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