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8.557153 - DOHNANYI: Serenade for String Trio / Sextet
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Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960)
Serenade in C major for String Trio
Sextet in C major for piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet and horn

 

Ernő Dohnányi, sometimes known under the German form of his name as Ernst von Dohnányi, was born in 1877 in the formerly Hungarian Pozsony, once Pressburg and now Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. He had his first music lessons in violin and piano from his father, a teacher of mathematics, like Bartók’s mother, and a competent amateur cellist and composer, followed by lessons in organ and musical theory with the cathedral organist Karl Forstner. He showed considerable precocity both as a pianist and as a composer and even as a schoolboy had compositions of his played in Vienna and elsewhere. While Vienna might have seemed a normal choice for further musical study, Dohnányi chose instead to move in 1895 to Budapest, where he studied piano and composition for two years with István Thomán and János Koessler respectively, a course later followed, on his advice, by his younger contemporary in Pozsony, Béla Bartók. He made his début as a pianist in Berlin in 1897, following his success there with engagements throughout Europe, while his compositions, that had earlier elicited high praise from Brahms, continued to win awards and critical acclaim. On the invitation of Joseph Joachim he joined the teaching staff of the Berlin Musikhochschule, but the outbreak of war led him, in 1915, to return to Budapest, where he gave much encouragement to younger Hungarian composers as professor of piano at the Academy of Music and from 1918 as principal conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra, the latter a position he held until 1944. He served briefly in 1919 as director of the Budapest Academy, until forced to resign by the newly installed right-wing government of Admiral Horthy, but continued a particularly full concert schedule in Hungary, resuming his teaching duties at the Academy in 1928, to be appointed director again in 1934. The growing influence of National Socialism led to his resignation in 1941. In 1944 he left Hungary for Austria, a decision that brought later criticism. For some he seemed associated with the Horthy régime at home, while for others he appeared as a dissident against prevailing Fascism. From 1945 his appearances in Hungary were banned, and a prohibition on his compositions continued there until the 1970s. In 1948 he left Europe for Argentina, where he headed the music department at the University of Tucumán and the following year he took the position of professor of piano and composition at the Florida State University, while resuming something of his former career as a pianist. He died in 1960 in New York, where he was making recordings.

Dohnányi’s Serenade in C major, Op.10, for string trio, was written in 1902 and published in Vienna two years later. The work opens with a march, dominated at first by the vigorous rhythmic figure with which it opens. It moves on, before long, to a gentler mood, with a suggestion of the Hungarian about it, although Dohnányi never attempted to draw overt inspiration, as Bartók and Kodály did, from the folk-music of Hungary and surrounding regions. The opening motif appears again only briefly in the last five bars. The viola presents the principal theme of the second movement Romanza, over plucked offbeat chords from the other two instruments, and goes on to provide an arpeggiated accompaniment to the more turbulent central section of the movement, before the violin brings back the principal theme once more. In the Scherzo the instruments enter one after the other with the lively chromatic principal theme. The busy activity of the third movement, briefly relaxed in a secondary theme, is followed by a fourth movement consisting of a theme and variations. The violin states the theme, playing on the G string, to be followed by the viola. The violin offers a further, melodic variation, and a descending melodic pattern prevails in the following version of the material. Triplet rhythms predominate in a Poco più animato, and the viola takes up a version of the theme against a tremolo violin accompaniment, mounting in excitement until the tranquillity of the close. The Serenade ends with an energetic Rondo, driven forward by the rapid main theme, which frames contrasting episodes, before elements of earlier movements are recalled in a final coda.

The Sextet in C major, Op.37, for piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet and horn, was written in 1935 and published in 1948. While as a pianist Dohnányi may have been regarded by many as the successor to Liszt, as a composer of chamber music he continued the tradition of Brahms, although in a musical idiom that became his own. The first movement of the Sextet, marked Allegro appassionato and in broadly classical tripartite form, is introduced by the horn, over cello arpeggios and sustained piano chords, the opening motif soon taken up by the clarinet, violin and viola, as the movement unwinds, with its characteristically brilliant piano writing. The second movement opens in tranquillity, the string trio theme punctuated by rising piano chords. It is the piano that introduces a sinister march, in which the wind instruments join, later followed in a dynamic climax by the strings. The original serenity is happily restored in a shaft of sunlight, allowing a fragment of the march only a brief return, before the movement ends. The clarinet opens the third movement Allegro con sentimento, a theme echoed more elaborately in a piano variation. The mood changes into something more vigorous, marked Risoluto, followed by a further version of the original material in which the cello at first offers a version of the theme. A Presto variation, scherzando in character, leads to a slower derivative of the theme, and a passage marked Andante tranquillo leads to reminiscences of the related opening theme of the whole work. Without a break the Finale bursts in, impelled forward, until a sentimental waltz interrupts its progress, soon replaced for the moment by the jaunty main theme. The waltz returns in fuller form before the coda, and briefly there too, in a movement largely dominated by the mood of its rapid opening theme.

Keith Anderson


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