By Michael Morton Evans
Born in 1877, it didn’t take too long into Dohnányi’s career for him to realise that he was politically denigrated by the Communists and artistically shunned by the western avant-garde. The truth was that even as a young composer, he was utterly conservative. What he had learnt in the conservatorium was good enough for him; he was no innovator and Brahms was God as far as he was concerned.
The result musically was that his music is a distillation of late 19th century Romanticism. He never interested himself in any sort of experimental techniques, nor did he try to open up new vistas for his art; throughout a large body of his work Brahms hung heavily in the air. Across Europe, composers like Manuel de Falla, Ottorino Respighi and Béla Bartók were producing new and exciting rhythms and impressionistic works, but good old Dohnányi stuck religiously to the Brahmsian idiom.
Dohnányi took up the keyboard when he was eight, under the tutelage of his father, an amateur musician, and then with the local cathedral organist. At nine he made his first public appearance playing the piano. By the time he was twelve, he’d written a good deal of music, including two cello concertos and two string quartets. He was due to take a Liberal Arts degree at Budapest University, but enrolled instead at the Royal Hungarian Academy of Music, where he had the same teacher who was to teach Béla Bartók a few years later.
Dohnányi’s first published work was a piano quintet written when he was eighteen. At this point, his God appeared on the scene. Johannes Brahms, who was then 62, heard the work, thought it extraordinary and took the young Dohnányi under his wing, getting the work and the composer to Vienna and an assured future in the music world. The extent to which he really did Dohnányi a favour is a question that has been debated long since.
The entrée into Viennese musical circles had one other advantage, however and it wasn’t long before Dohnányi was being hailed as a master pianist. His performance of Beethoven’s Piano concert no 4 in G major in London created such a furore that he would end up giving thirty-two concerts in Great Britain before he was allowed to leave. And he was still only twenty-one!
When World War I broke out, Dohnányi deftly avoidedanything to do with the military and returned to Budapest from Berlin where he had been living sincehis return from England. He spent the war teaching at the university and giving recitals designed, as he put it, “to acquaint the public with good music”, but politics got him in the end. He had been promoted to the directorship of the university by the Soviet-backed Bela Kun government, but his tenure only lasted a year when Kun was overthrown by Admiral Horthy, who promptly sacked Dohnányi. He did, however, manage to retain the conductorship of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, which led to him being invited to conduct gigs around the world. One particularly amusing concert – and probably the most innovative thing that Dohnányi ever did – was in New York in 1923 when he was invited to demonstrate the Ampico Recording Piano. He did this by giving a recital of his first piano concerto in which he alternated the performance with the piano roll.
When he was fifty-one, he was invited back to the Budapest Academy to teach, and six years later became its head again. One of his students from this period, who despite admiring him as a musician and a teacher, was heard to say that probably the most important thing he’d learnt from Dohnányi was how to pack a dress suit!
But once again politics stuck its nose in. Dohnányi resigned his post when he refused to abide by the anti-Jewish laws that were brought in as World War II began. Needless to say, he couldn’t win. The left regarded him as a fascist for initially staying on after the Nazi takeover, and the right thought him a pinko for giving in to them. The truth was that he was apolitical, art before allegiance.
After the war he emigrated to Argentina before settling in America where he died of pneumonia following a heart attack at the age of eighty-three. He didn’t change the course of art, but he contributed music that is pleasant and entertaining.
Ernő Dohnányi Composer Focus, Tuesday, December 23 2021