Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Ernö Dohnányi (1877 – 1960)

Serenade in C for string trio, Op. 10 (1902)

Dohnányi never did succeed in achieving a personal identity in his music. He never allowed himself to be influenced by the new ideas and techniques and idioms springing up all around him. Even on those less frequent occasions when he derived his materials from Hungarian folk music – following the lead of his celebrated compatriots, Bartók and Kodály – his music never assumed a distinguished personality. He simply never outgrew his love for German postromanticism; and by the same token he never quite developed from an interesting and charming composer into a great one.

The Complete Book of 20th Century Music, David Ewen, Prentice-Hall, Inc. N.J. 1959

… But he does show humour, if not wit, in some of his lighter works, and what may perhaps pass as a substitute for the latter quality is his craftsmanship. His craft, however, borders upon slickness and academicism, his music is voluble rather than eloquent and there is little individuality.

Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians

The above rather sour-sounding estimations would probably not lead the reader to believe that Dohnányi was probably the foremost figure in the musical life of Hungary in the opening decades of this fast- closing Century. Bela Bartók and Zoltán Kodaly were small potatoes in comparison. (That would make Dohnányi the big potato, which in itself is no small honor). Dohnányi achieved fame, while yet a teenager, with the composition of his Piano Quintet Op.1 which was greatly admired by Brahms himself; in no small measure because it sounds like his own music. (The old curmudgeon seems to have had an affinity for the works of younger composers, Dvorák and Zemlinsky to name but two more, whose works, at the time, were flatteringly imitative or as Oscar Levant would have it; "Plagiarism is the sincerest form of imitation.)

Brahms friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, invited Dohnányi to join the staff of the Berlin Hochschule as professor of piano; a position he held from 1905-1911. He then went on to become professor of piano at the Landesakademie in Budapest, before becoming its director in 1934. Dohnányi also served as conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the director of Hungarian Radio. Early in his career, Dohnányi successfully toured Europe and America and both conductor and pianist. In the Grove’s article, his pianism was described: "Not only is his technical accomplishment extraordinarily complete, but the breadth of his phrasing, his command of tone–graduation and the exquisite beauty of his tone are such as to satisfy the most exacting listener."

Harold C. Schonberg in The Great Pianists summarizes his career and piano playing: "His playing had power and propulsion and extraordinary finesse. Naturally he was a romantic pianist (his recording to the Mozart G major Concerto contains everything that is considered bad style today), just as his own compositions are in the romantic style. Later on, Dohnányi was to concentrate on composition and teaching with relatively little public playing. But when the force of circumstances made it necessary for him to reappear on the concert stage, after World War II, a very old man, it was still apparent that though age might have blunted his fingers, it had not taken away his broad, noble style."

After the Second World War, Dohnányi fled Hungary’s Communist regime, first emigrating to Argentina, before finally arriving in the U.S.A. He settled in Tallahassee or Miami (depending on who you believe) to become composer-in-residence and teach at Florida State University. The five movement Serenade in C for String Trio was composed during a tour of London and Vienna, in 1902. It harks back to the multi-movement works of the 18th Century. Though utilizing only three stringed instruments, the sound is remarkably full and rich. The first movement is an entry March, which contains curious drone-accompanied folk music-like passages. The second movement is a lovely long-lined Romanza, featuring a pizzicato accompaniment, as well as a passionate central section. The third movement, Scherzo features a bit of spooky counterpoint, contrasted with a lyrical section of, as they say, "Brahmsian cast", with which it becomes combined. The chorale-like theme of the slow fourth movement Tema con variazioni, is followed by a set of five variations reminiscent of Schubert. The finale is a vigorous Rondo that concludes with an exit march based on the themes from the first movement.

The Serenade was premiered in Vienna, by the Fitzner Quartet in 1905.

1999-2000 Season, Program IV, Sunday December 12, 1999

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