Posted by: rbbadger | March 30, 2012

Dohnányi, American Rhapsody

Ernst von Dohnányi, or as he is known in his native Hungary as Dohnányi Ernö, was a very great pianist, conductor and composer.  He was a rather conservative composer, as he wrote in a late Romantic voice.  He didn’t adopt the radical experiments then being done by the younger Béla Bartók or Zoltán Kodály, to say nothing of his near contemporary Arnold Schönberg.  Rather, he continued working in a late Romantic idiom even after that idiom had become out of date and unfashionable among composers.  He was born in 1877 and died in 1960.

His life story is fascinating one.  He was born in Pozsony, Hungary.  The city of his birth was historically the coronation city of Hungarian monarchs, though at the time he was born it was known as Pressburg, as it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  His hometown is now known as Bratislava, Slovakia.  So, he grew up in a multi-lingual environment, able speak German and Hungarian with equal ease.  His father was a scientist who was also an amateur cellist.  He showed musical talent rather early.  He completed his studies at the Conservatory in Budapest.  Some of his early compositions were praised by Johannes Brahms.  During his lifetime, he saw his native land once again become an country in its own right, though he had little use for Marxists.  In 1919, he was appointed director of what is now the Franz Liszt Academy of Music (Liszt Ferenc Zeneművészeti Egyetem).  Around that same time, a short-lived Communist regime lead by Béla Kun came to power.  He was removed from his role as director of the academy for purely political reasons.  After the demise of the Kun regime, he again took control of the academy. 

Unfortunately, Hitler would rise to power in Germany.  Dohnányi’s own son Hans, who was living in Berlin, took part in the plot to assasinate Hitler for which he was executed.   Another son would be lost fighting in the war.  In 1941, in protest against the anti-Jewish laws put in place by the Fascist government of Hungary, Dohnányi resigned as director of the academy.  While in Hungary, he used his influence and fortune to shelter a number of Jews, though once the Communist regime took over after the war, a vicious whisper campaign would be made against him.  This man, whose son died fighting against Hitler and who personally tried to protect Jewish colleagues and friends, would end up having to dog allegations being an anti-semite and a Nazi for the rest of his days.

Towards the end of the war, Dohnányi fled into neighbouring Austria.  He and his family only had what they could carry with them.  He later made his way to Argentina where taught for a time.  Finally, in the 1950s, he was able to make his home in Florida where he spent his last years composing and teaching at Florida State University.  Among his students were his grandson, the prominent conductor Christoph von Dohnányi and Ellen Taafe Zwilich, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in music.  Happily, he has since been rehabilitated in his native land.  In 1990, he was posthumously awarded the Kossuth Prize.  Streets have since been named for him.  Dohnányi wasn’t a fascist.  He despised both fascism and Communism, having experienced both in his lifetime. 

His last composition, American Rhapsody, is written in honour of his new home.  I think you will all be able to recognize the themes here.  Earlier, Dohnányi wrote a series of pieces drawing on Hungarian folk material which he called Ruralia Hungarica.  For his last opus, he draws entirely on American folk songs.



  1. Thanks for posting this!

  2. What about his time as a visiting professor at Ohio University?
    A 1962 Bobcat grad.

    • I should have mentioned that the piece I featured, his American Rhapsody, was commissioned and written for Ohio University on the occasion of its sesquicentennial. Thank you for your comment.

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