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Ernő Dohnányi

Ernő Dohnányi in 1905

(1877 - 1960)

One can argue for composer conductor, pianist, and teacher Ernő Dohnányi (July 27, 1877 - February 9, 1960) as the great architect of Hungarian musical life in the twentieth century. As a pedagogue, he set high standards while a member of the piano and composition departments (and later as the director) of the Budapest Academy, where he and Béla Bartók had been friends and classmates.

Many considered Dohnányi the best Hungarian pianist after Franz Liszt, and he enjoyed a sensational career until the Thirties, when illnesses forced him to withdraw. However, he came back, fitfully, garnering raves whenever he appeared.

As a conductor, Dohnányi championed Hungarian Moderns like Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and Leó Weiner, at the expense of his own very different, High Romantic output. The younger generation entertained ambivalent feelings toward him. On the one hand, his music appeared to them hopelessly old-fashioned; on the other, he championed their work. Much of it was also too good to dismiss.

During the Nazi occupation and the slightly earlier Hungarian anti-Jewish laws, Dohnányi resigned his posts, rather than have to submit to the new regime. He tried, and failed, to protect Jewish musicians. He left Hungary for Austria, for which he received fierce criticism. After the war, charges of collaboration arose, but always as rumors rather than facts. Nevertheless, this kept Dohnányi from concertizing, and he left Europe, finally settling into a tenured position at Florida State University. He occasionally ventured out to give concerts, again to great acclaim. Offers began to come in, but he died before he could take advantage of them.

Dohnányi's music lies solidly in the line of Johannes Brahms. His chamber music is particularly wonderful – some of it at Brahms' level – and his concerti, while not exactly monuments of the repertory, nevertheless show invention and can bring audiences to their feet. His music – with perhaps the exceptions of his Serenade for string trio and Variations on a Nursery Tune – celebrated in its day, became relegated to the status of a curio. His absence from Hungary unfortunately made it easier to forget his work. Consequently, unlike Bartók and Kodály, he has no home-grown champions. His music survives on recording. Nevertheless, if we can occasionally hear Camille Saint-Saëns in concert, why not Dohnányi? ~ Steve Schwartz

Dohnányi's signature

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