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ClassicsOnline Home » DOHNANYI, E.: Variations on a Nursery Song / Symphonic Minutes / Suite (Nebolsin, Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta)
Ernő Dohnányi had a long career as an important composer, pianist and teacher. Deeply indebted to the Germanic Romantic tradition, the works on this disc showcase his love of scintillating orchestral tone-colour—notably of brass, wind and percussion—and his fascination with Classical forms such as the variation. His Variations on a Nursery Song traverses several musical styles in a tour de force of good-humoured virtuosity, while the Symphonic Minutes and the Suite in F sharp minor cultivate a lush, romantic mood with characteristic dashes of suavity.
By Pierre-Jean Tribot
Ernő Dohnányi (1877–1960)
Symphonic Minutes, Op. 36 Variations on a Nursery Song, Op. 25 • Suite in F sharp minor, Op. 19
The work of the Hungarian composer Ernő Dohnányi has in recent years been unduly neglected, although at one time his Variations on a Nursery Song for piano and orchestra, at least, formed a regular element in concert programmes. In part this neglect was due to political circumstances and in part to changing musical fashions in which the overt nationalism of a younger generation of Hungarian composers was favoured, rather than the German late Romanticism that characterized Dohnányi’s work. While Bartók and Kodály had recourse to Hungarian folk-music as a source of inspiration, often expressed, in the case of the former, with a certain astringency, Dohnányi belonged much more to the German tradition in which he had largely been trained.
Ernő Dohnányi was born in 1877 in Poszony (the modern Slovakian capital, Bratislava). His father, an amateur musician, taught in Poszony at the Catholic Gymnasium, where Bartók’s widowed mother was to be employed and where Dohnányi and Bartók were both pupils. Four years the latter’s senior, Dohnányi had organ lessons and instruction in music theory from Karl Forstner, organist at the Catholic cathedral, and began to enjoy early and precocious success. In 1894, rather than study in Vienna, as might have been expected, he chose instead to become a student at the Budapest Music Academy. There he was a piano pupil of István Thomán, a former pupil of Liszt and principal piano teacher at the Academy, where his composition teacher was the German composer Hans Koessler, a cousin of Max Reger and admirer of Brahms. Bartók was to study under the same teachers, but Dohnányi, while sharing Bartók’s later prowess as a pianist, was more strongly influenced by the German school of composition.
In 1897 Dohnányi prepared for his début as a pianist in Berlin by brief study with Eugen d’Albert. He went on to give concerts in Germany and Austria, with an invitation to London from Hans Richter and a triumphant performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Thereafter he embarked on concert tours throughout Europe, in Russia and in the United States, establishing himself as a virtuoso to equal Liszt. In 1895 he had published his Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 1, a work that Brahms declared he could not have done better himself; in 1896 he won the Royal Millennium Prize for his Symphony in F major and Zrínyi, and in 1899 his Piano Concerto, Op. 5, won the Bösendorfer Prize in Vienna. In 1905 he was invited by Joachim to join the staff of the Berlin Musikhochschule, where he taught until 1915, when, with the Great War now under way, he returned to Hungary, teaching at the Budapest Music Academy, giving encouragement to a younger generation of Hungarian composers, and doing much to reform systems of musical instruction in the country. In 1918 he became Principal Conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and President of the Philharmonic Society, holding the latter position until 1944. He was briefly director of the Hungarian National Music High School in the newly established republic after 1918, but was dismissed in favour of Hubay by the right-wing Horthy government that soon took power.
Dohnányi’s career as a conductor and pianist continued in Hungary and abroad, particularly in the United States, where, from 1925 to 1927 he served as Principal Conductor of the New York State Symphony Orchestra. In 1928 he returned to Hungary to teach at the Royal Franz Liszt Music School, of which he was to become director from 1934 until his resignation, for political reasons, in 1944. In 1931 he was appointed Music Director of Hungarian Radio. After his resignation in 1944 Dohnányi moved to Austria, a step that brought later criticism from his opponents and affected his post-war concert career. While he had been strongly against the antisemitic policies introduced into Hungary through German intervention, he had no sympathy with the left-wing forces that were to come to power in Hungary after the war. In 1948 he moved to England and then to Argentina, and finally to the United States, undertaking various teaching duties in the last two countries. He died in New York in 1960 during a recording session, at a time when his reputation was starting to recover from the political attacks that had been made on him in the aftermath of the war.
Dohnányi wrote his orchestral Symphonic Minutes, Op. 36, in 1933 and it was published two years later, with a dedication to the Budapest Philharmonic Society. It is scored for an orchestra that includes a colourful percussion section of triangle, snare drum, suspended cymbal, bass drum, glockenspiel and celesta. The first movement, Capriccio, explores orchestral virtuosity in music of masterly brilliance. The following Rapsodia starts with a rhapsodic figure from the cor anglais over sustained notes for the strings and bass clarinet. The music moves on to a climax, as dawn seems to break, with the tranquillity of the scene finally restored. The trombones set the mood of the Scherzo, with the strings offering brief moments of contrast. The cor anglais introduces the seventeenth-century theme of the fourth movement, followed by seven short variations, the last bringing back again the cor anglais with interjections from the celesta. The last movement is in virtually perpetual motion, increasing in speed as it nears its sparkling conclusion.
The Variations on a Nursery Song for piano and orchestra, written in 1914, aims both to amuse and, in its allusions, to provoke. Scored for a large orchestra, it opens with an imposingly Wagnerian and portentous Introduction, in which the horns presage the coming theme and trumpets hint at Mahler. The mountains in labour¹ produce the simple C major theme, Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman, familiar in English-speaking countries as Twinkle, twinkle, little star, which offers a distinct contrast when it is presented by the pianist, unadorned and lightly accompanied by plucked strings and linked to the virtuoso first variation by a bassoon. The second variation is introduced by the horns and the third offers a suaver mood. The fourth variation gives a version of the theme at first to two bassoons and double bassoon, succeeded by the piccolo and two flutes, while the piano comments on the proceedings. The sonorities of the fifth variation suggest a musical clock, with the right hand of the pianist playing in a high register and a harp adding its own resonance. The following variation offers a piano part of great brilliance, ending in a glissando and leading to a waltz that breathes the spirit of Vienna and, at times, of Tchaikovsky. The eighth variation, in the style of a march, is introduced by bassoons, over the sound of drums, soon joined by other woodwind instruments. This leads to a ninth version of the material that brings a sorcerer’s apprentice version of the theme from the bassoon in a sinister C minor, a variation that finds room for a xylophone and a contribution from the piccolo in skilfully handled scoring. The traditional variation form of the Passacaglia is treated with some freedom and the original key of C major is restored for the eleventh variation, a Choral, which strays from Brahms to Debussy. The work ends with a fugal finale to which the piano adds its own brilliance. A fortissimo chord is followed by the little theme, shared between the piano and, in the orchestra, a piccolo and a bassoon, but this soon gives way to a scintillating conclusion to a work that combines wit in its musical allusions and orchestral colour with demands for the pianistic virtuosity of a Rachmaninov that the composer was able to meet in his own performances.
Dohnányi wrote his Suite in F sharp minor in 1908 and 1909. The first movement, Andante con variazioni, has the theme initially entrusted to the woodwind, then taken up by the strings. The first variation, marked Più animato, opens with a syncopated figure against which clarinet and then flute weave their own arabesques. The second variation, Animato (Molto più allegro), after the timpani call to attention, allows the four horns immediate prominence, followed by a third variation, marked Andante tranquillo and in F sharp major, with melodic interest centred first on the cellos. The minor key returns in the Allegro fourth variation, with its cor anglais melody over the semiquaver figuration of divided violins and accompanying wind instruments. The music swells to a climax, then diminishes before the Vivace fifth variation, with its opening version of the material given to the bassoons. The last variation, an Adagio, turns again to the major key in music of Straussian intensity. The second movement, an A minor Scherzo, begins with flutes and clarinets over a repeated timpani accompaniment before the strings intervene. This is contrasted with the suaver central A major trio section, over the continuing bariolage of violas and cellos. The mood is broken by the timpani and the return of the Scherzo. The third movement, an F major Romanza, marked Andante poco moto, has its melody from the oboe, accompanied by plucked strings, before the melodic interest is transferred to a solo cello, and then, with a shift of key, to the cor anglais, with its oriental timbre. The original key returns and there is a final passage that calls for solo violin, solo viola and solo cello. The Rondo brings all the brilliance and subtlety of orchestration and contrast that we now expect, with full use of a percussion section that includes triangle, cymbals, bass drum and castanets. As the movement draws to a close the theme of the opening Andante is heard again, before a triumphant A major conclusion.
¹ An allusion to Montes parturient, nascetur ridiculus mus / The mountains will be in labour and bring forth a ridiculous mouse (Ars Poetica, Horace)
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