Ernst von Dohnányi

1877 1960

Ernst von Dohnányi

Composer

Biography

The composer, pianist and conductor Ernő Dohnányi was the first Hungarian musical phenomenon of the 20th century. A remarkably talented and versatile musician, he was an open admirer of the German Romantics and is often ranked among the greatest of Hungarian composers along with his predecessorFranz Liszt <> and his successor Béla Bartók.

Dohnányi was born in present day Bratislava to a family of musicians. His father was reputedly a virtuoso cellist who, with the help of Károly Forstner, a cathedral organist, taught him piano and music theory from a young age. He quickly showed a remarkable aptitude for almost all the aspects of musicianship, including score memorization, sight-reading, and improvisation. During those days it was customary for musicians of talent to leave Hungary to pursue their higher education in other European capitals, with Vienna being the most popular choice, so it was highly surprising to many when Dohnányi chose to stay in Hungary and study music at the Budapest Academy. It was his example and partly his own coercion which convinced his old school friend Bartók to do the same several years later.

After receiving his diploma, Dohnányi closeted himself away for almost two whole months during the summer, practicing incessantly and preparing for his début performance on the piano. At the invitation of conductor Hans Richter this performance occurred in London, where his rendition ofBeethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto won instant accolades, stunning the audience with his skills at the keyboard and most notably his exquisite tone.

At the same time, his career was just starting to take off as a composer. With the help ofBrahms, Dohnányi biggest influence and musical hero, he premiered his Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 1 (1895). Two years later his first symphony was completed and performed, and in 1899 he won the Bösendorfer Prize for his Piano Concerto, Op. 5.

In 1905, fellow Hungarian and close friend Joseph Joachim invited Dohnányi to join the faculty at the Berlin Hochschule. He taught there for ten years before returning to Budapest in 1915, determined to foster and advocate the next generation of Hungarian composers. He became a mentor to both Bartók and Kodály, and one of his principle accomplishments is recognizing the genius of Bartók, despite their differences in style and background, decades before he became well-known.

Dohnányi had a life-long fascination with German music and culture, so much so that he often went by the Germanized version of his name, Ernst von Dohnányi. He was an avid admirer of Johannes Brahms and the German Romantics, and for a while had trouble emerging from their shadow and developing his own musical voice. Unlike Bartók, for example, his music had little to do with traditional Hungarian folk music, although interestingly, he did eventually write several pieces based on American folk music, including hisAmerican Rhapsody. His own synthesis of the Romantic tradition became known for its rich harmony, often highly chromatic but without straying into atonality, his musical sense of humour, and masterful orchestration. His symphonies are all highly regarded, as are his three operas, his Suite in F# minor and his ballet. However he is most lastingly remembered for his chamber music, notable hisSecond String Quartet and his two piano quintets.

Following Dohnányi’s death in 1960, the Communist party made a concerted effort to cover up his influence and besmirch his reputation, spreading vicious rumors about his political inclinations. It took several decades for this damage to be reversed and his influence to be acknowledged. In recent years Dohnányi has received the recognition he deserves as one of the most important of Hungarian cultural icons: a consummate musician with an unparalleled mastery of the piano, conducting, improvising and composing.

Header image courtesy of the BBC Other images courtesy of Naxos and Jasz Corvina

Meanwhile, he continued teaching at the Budapest Academy as professor of piano, composing his own works, and maintained a rigorous concert schedule with over 100 concerts each year just in Budapest. From 1919 on he was also the chief conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, and in 1931 he became musical director of the Hungarian Radio. He used his influence in both of these posts to introduce many upcoming and foreign artists into Hungarian cultural life, while also occasionally featuring his own music. Between his posts at the Academy, the Philharmonic, the Radio, and as a performer Dohnányi came to be almost single-handedly responsible for the musical scene of Budapest for several decades.

Dohnányi’s time in Hungary was plagued with a series of repressive regimes, none of which took kindly to his free-spirited attitude or appreciation of German music. From 1919 on, he had a series of run-ins with the new fascist government. These culminated in the outbreak of World War II, when Dohnányi took the extraordinary steps of resigning as director of the Budapest Academy and dismissing the entire Budapest Philharmonic rather than comply with the regime’s demand that he fire all Jews and ethnic minorities from their posts.

Although he outlived the fascist government, following World War II Dohnányi made new enemies on the left of the political spectrum. In 1948 he was forced to flee from Hungary as a political refugee, and the Hungarian Communist Party banned his music from being performed for more than a decade. He settled first in Argentina before moving to the United States in 1949, accepting a post as composer-in-residence at Florida State University. Six years later he became a U.S. citizen.

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