About this Recording
8.223128 - DOHNANYI: Ruralia Hungarica / Four Rhapsodies

Ernő Dohnányi (1877–1960)
Ruralia Hungarica, Seven Pieces for Piano, Op. 32a • Four Rhapsodies, Op. 11


The name Dohnányi nowadays has added distinction in the achievement of the German-born conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, Principal Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and of his brother Klaus, a leading West Germanpolitician and mayor of Hamburg. Their grandfather, Ernst von Dohnányi, or Ernő Dohnányi as he is known in Hungary, was born in Pozsony, the modern Bratislava, in 1877, and had his early music lessons from his father, a competent amateur cellist and teacher of mathematics at the Gymnasium, and from the cathedral organist, Karoly Forstner. Bratislava, known as Pressburg in German, offered a stimulating musical climate, a historic city built at the meeting-point of Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, some sixty miles from Vienna, a distance that allowed the city its own cultural life, within the traditions of the empire.

Dohnányi was a pupil at the Gymnasium, where he was to be joined by the young Bartók, and broke with tradition by choosing to continue his musical training not in Vienna but at the Budapest Academy. He completed his studies in 1897. Two years later Bartók was to follow his example, rejecting the place offered in Vienna and working in Budapest under the same teachers, Hans Koessler for composition and Stephan Thoman for the piano. Dohnányi was to continue to exercise a strong influence over Bartók’s subsequent career, and, indeed, over the whole development of music in Hungary.

In preparation for his debut as a pianist Dohnányi took lessons for a few weeks from Liszt’s pupil, Eugene d’Albert, known to Liszt as “Albertus Magnus”, a nickname that referred to his musical prowess and his diminutive stature. Concerts in Hungary, Germany and Austria were followed by an invitation to London from Richter. There he won immediate success with a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. This was followed by tours of Europe and America that established him internationally as a virtuoso of the calibre of Liszt.

Association with Joachim brought an invitation to Berlin, where for ten years from 1905 Dohnányi taught at the Musikhochschule, before returning to Budapest in 1915. In Hungary he set to work to plan the musical future of the country, becoming director of the Budapest Academy for a few months in 1919, before being dismissed by the new right-wing regime in favour of Hubay. From the same year he retained for a quarter of a century the position of chief conductor of the Philharmonic Society, undertaking various concert tours abroad, and spending two years, from 1925 to 1927, as Principal Conductor of the New York State Orchestra. In 1928 here turned 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 1941. He assumed the position of Music Director of Hungarian Radio in 1931.

In 1944 Dohnányi left Hungary for Austria, laying himself open to criticism from his enemies. He had been a strong opponent of the anti-semitic policies imposed by Germany, but had never favoured the left-wing forces that were to assume power in Hungary after the war. He later moved to Argentina and then to the U.S.A., where he served as piano teacher and composer-in-residence at Florida State University. He died in New York in 1960, at a time when his reputation was beginning to recover from the political assaults that had been launched against him in the aftermath of the war.

As a composer Dohnányi was prolific, even as a schoolboy, going on to develop a personal idiom, derived from the tradition of Schumann and Brahms, fluent in content, but without the astringency of Bartók. He offered considerable encouragement of a very practical kind to Bartók, Kodály and other younger composers, without sharing their deeper involvement in ethnomusicological research and their more adventurous musical idiom. For many years his Variations on a Nursery Theme, for piano and orchestra, was to retain wide international popularity.

The set of seven piano pieces that makes up Ruralia Hungarica, written in 1923 and arranged for orchestra in the following year, makes use of familiar Hungarian folk-melodies, some of them known abroad through their appearance in the work of other Hungarian composers. The first gentle little song is followed by a livelier dance-song, including a section based on a folk-song later to be popularised by Mátyás Seiber, a pupil of Kodály in Budapest. The mood changes abruptly in the third of the pieces into something gently meditative, its protracted serenity interrupted by the accented rhythms of the fourth, a piece with its own moments of relaxation. The fifth brings its own graceful contrasts, the sixth a more sombre feeling, expressed in the most fluent piano writing. The well known ebullient seventh piece brings the collection to a brilliant conclusion.

The Four Rhapsodies were written in 1902 and 1903, during the earlier years of Dohnányi’s career. The writing is expansive and clearly within the late romantic conventions of the time, vehicles for the virtuosity of the performer, assured, at least in the case of the C major Rhapsody, of a place in the standard recital repertoire.

The First Rhapsody, in classical sonata-form, music reminds us of Brahms, a composer who had given Dohnányi early encouragement. There are thematic connections between the four Rhapsodies, summarised in the fourth of the series, with its use of the Dies Irae, a theme from the Latin Requiem that had fascinated Dohnányi’s contemporary Rachmaninov, with whose work it is interesting to draw a comparison.

Henry Norden and Keith Anderson

Close the window