Dohnányi was one of the great figures in the musical history of Hungary. He excelled in many different facets of his art, from composing and conducting, to musical administration and teaching (his pupils included the eminent conductor Sir Georg Solti). He was also one of the world’s finest concert pianists, the first member of the top international ranks to perform chamber music on a regular basis.
Throughout his career, he championed the cause of Hungarian music, at home and abroad. That set an example for younger friends and colleagues, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály among them. He also demonstrated great strength of character, through his determined opposition to Nazi Germany. The Dohnányi family’s high musical reputation continued through his grandson Christoph, a distinguished conductor whose posts have included Music Director of the magnificent Cleveland Orchestra.
Ernő Dohnányi’s music is traditional in form and content. It has more in common with Brahms, Schumann, and other Romantic, central European composers than it does with the works of Liszt and Bartók, who often quoted traditional Hungarian melodies in their music. It is invariably rich in emotion and color. It also contains a regular vein of light-heartedness. Nowhere did he display that quality more endearingly than in his best-known work, the witty Variations on a Nursery Song for piano and orchestra.
He composed this appealing, melodious suite in 1908 and 1909, while he was teaching at the prestigious Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. There are traces of Hungarian folk flavor to be heard in it, perhaps because he was feeling homesick. It is less weighty in tone than a symphony (including his own two, completed in 1901 and 1944), but it displays an equally high level of craftsmanship.
The first movement is a set of six variations on a rather melancholy theme that is introduced by the woodwinds. In character, the variations range from cheeky, to warm and tranquil, to bold and athletic. After the imposing climax of Variation Five, the movement’s opening mood is restored, with added warmth, by the restful Variation Six.
The second movement is a whimsical and quirky scherzo. It bears echoes of Hungarian peasant dances in its outer panels. The central trio section maintains the rhythmic pulse, but in terms of emotion it ventures into a world of pleasant dreams.
The third movement, Romanza, is the most exotic of the four in personality and instrumental color. Dohnányi dotted this warmly expressive music with expressive, Oriental or Hungarian-sounding solo passages for oboe, cello, english horn, and other strings. The suite concludes with a lively and humorous rondo. At one point, it seems as if Dohnányi has taken us to Spain! Towards the end, the theme of the first movement returns, but its momentary mediations are swept away in the rollicking final bars.
Program Notes by Don Anderson © 2012
Program Notes by Don Anderson © 2014