Some composers garner substantial performance histories of their works that continue decades or centuries after they die. Others do not, and the reasons can be mysterious. Ernö Dohnányi (1877-1960) was a first-rate musician who composed polished and sophisticated pieces of grand scope. His ideas at times reflect innovations in music of the early twentieth century in which they germinated. Yet somehow his scores end up on shelves more often than music stands.
Theory I: Dohnányi’s Music Was Too Conservative
Dohnányi reached middle age in the period between the world wars. Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School were making waves in Vienna while Stravinsky and his ilk were shaking up Paris. Meanwhile, Dohnányi was composing grand sonata cycles with key signatures and generally writing music like they had forty years earlier. This theory posits that the twentieth century was all about the titillation of the new and had no room for retreads of old ideas, no matter how deftly executed.
Dohnányi’s style lies somewhere inside a triangle bounded by Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, the latter two being only a few years older. Yet both Strauss and Rachmaninoff have achieved tremendous posthumous success. A key difference is that they both composed international “hits” well before World War One, when the Romantic style was still in full swing. Maybe Dohnányi tried to board a ship that had already sailed.
Theory II: Dohnányi Was Cosmopolitan When Nationalism Was Cool
Dohnányi was Hungarian, and a few of his works reflect it, notably the folksong suite, Ruralia Hungarica. But being rustic did not seem to sit well with him. He toured internationally as a concert pianist, and his music seems more interested in reflecting that cosmopolitan lifestyle. Meanwhile, Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodaly were unabashed about getting down in the mud with rustics, and that ultimately made more waves than the long elegant lines of Dohnányi.
Bártok (especially) and Kodaly also seem to have occupied all the space available in the international psyche for ”Hungarian”. At a time when nationalism was a ticket to fame and performances, for whatever reason Dohnányi chose not to partake. It is not as if he had no reason to be fiercely nationalist. He resisted the Nazis as best he could, to the point that he disbanded his orchestra rather than sack its Jewish members. And the Nazis executed his son, Hans. Perhaps Dohnányi viewed his music more as an escape from politics than an expression of it.
Treasure on the Shelf
Dohnányi’s last large-scale piece of chamber music was his 1935 Sextet for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello, and piano. It is a major work from a master composer whose oeuvre could use more attention. The first and third movements flow directly from their nineteenth century roots. However, one hears tinges of the harmonic language of the twentieth, much as one does with Rachmaninoff.
This piece (as with most if not of all of Dohnányi’s music) is first about being beautiful and elegant. Dohnányi apparently had no truck with the boorish, bizarre, or banal. (Another reason he was not fashionable!?) However, a march interrupts the second movement, and it is the closest thing to bizarre or threatening in the piece. It is as if all the winds of war that were swirling around him could not be contained, no matter how fervently he barred the door.
The finale is rollicking fun, but more like Noel Coward’s marvelous party than a beer bust. Dohnányi has successfully blocked out the looming global catastrophe. In this movement he demonstrates that he knows the music of his day. Especially jazz—at least how it sounded in the salons of Budapest in the thirties. Unlike similar efforts by Stravinsky or Poulenc, the piece does not pose. The gaiety seems genuine and the laughter real. Could this ingenuousness be the ultimate sin that earned him rebuff by critics?
The horn part falls perfectly in the sweet spot of the instrument, as befits Dohnányi’s emphasis on beauty and line. There is no attempt to explore extremes of register, either high or low. At the same time the part begs to be played, like a part by Brahms or Strauss or Rachmaninoff. It reflects in every way Dohnányi’s nineteenth century training and his mastery of orchestration.
The instrumentation of this Sextet matches that of Penderecki. One imagines that Penderecki may have conceived his work as a foil to Dohnányi’s. They are polar opposites. Penderecki’s piece is all posing and haunted by a horror. One has difficulty to imagine them sitting comfortably together on a program, but they would be excellent anchors for successive evenings.
The sheet music is available from the usual channels, and there are a number of fine recordings available.