"Exploring the Various Style Periods in Ernõ Dohnányi's Piano Music"

Deborah Kiszely-Papp, pianist and lecturer

Towson University, Towson, Maryland, 14 November, 2003


          My dear colleagues and students, ladies and gentlemen!


The goal of my presentation today is to give you an overview of the piano music of Ernõ Dohnányi (1877-1960), one of the greatest pianists of his time and an accomplished, versatile composer whose works in nearly every major genre earned widespread acclaim, especially during the first half of the 20th century.  He was also a respected conductor, who introduced many important works of his younger Hungarian compatriots, for example Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and Leó Weiner, to the public in his 25 years of service as music director of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra.  As an insightful administrator, he initiated many progressive and effective reforms during his tenure as director of the Liszt Academy and of the Hungarian Radio.  His work as a dedicated pedagogue continued in the United States after he fled Hungary during World War II (late 1944), and he spent the last years of his long and productive life teaching piano, composition, and chamber music at the Florida State University in Tallahassee.


Only a handful of Dohnányi’s piano compositions can be considered well-known, for example the Op. 11 Four Rhapsodies or the Op. 25 Variations on a Nursery Song for Large Orchestra and Piano Concertante.  There are a number of reasons why the rest of his music has fallen into relative or even complete obscurity.  The major one is that Dohnányi became the victim of a maliciously false slander campaign following World War II, whereby his music was for all practical purposes blacklisted in his native Hungary until the fall of the iron curtain in 1990.  The details of that sinister underground network are not the topic of this presentation, but suffice it to say that the damage caused by the decades of silence is only now beginning to be amended.  Another reason that Dohnányi’s piano music is not better known today can be found in the over-emphasis on novelty and rejection of anything considered even remotely conservative that pervaded the second half of the 20th century.  The use of classical forms and tonal harmonies have been, until recently, largely considered uninteresting in the age of the avant garde.  If we can free ourselves of the prejudices that suggest that whatever is not totally new is not worthy of appreciation, we can discover in Dohnányi’s piano music a uniquely fresh approach to harmonic structure and a novel uses of old forms.  Although as a body of work Dohnányi’s piano ouevre is occasionally uneven in quality and does not always provide a representative portrayal of his development as a composer, it includes undiscovered masterpieces and offers the most direct possible experience with Dohnányi’s pianism, his approach to technique, and his pedagogical philopsophies.  Finally, a significant percentage of Dohnányi’s music – and particularly the later works published in the United States – are out of print and thus unavailable to the public.  These include the piano compositions Op. 44 Three Singular Pieces and the virtually unknown Twelve Short Studies for the Advanced Pianist, an attractive and very valuable pedagogical series from which you will hear selections today.  An ongoing problem is the fact that Dohnányi’s works were published by numerous different companies, some of which no longer exist today or have been bought out by other companies.  There is also a large percentage of his works that remains unpublished to this day, including at least thirty pieces for piano, of which most are juvenile compositions. 


One important aspect to consider while studying Dohnányi’s oeuvre is that he composed on many different levels, but primarily he assigned opus numbers only to those works he considered most significant.  The incidental music, which often included intimate works composed on the spur of the moment for friends or various occasions, the transcriptions, and the cadenzas to Beethoven’s and Mozart’s piano concerti were often composed quickly and bear an improvisatory quality.  His pedagogical works comprise a separate category, and there are also the instructive editions of works by other composers.  Perhaps only in the genre of large orchestral works, most all of which bear opus numbers, do we observe the absense of these different categories.  The piano transcriptions and works without opus number do, however, include some of Dohnányi’s own personal favorites, including the Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Carol (“Mennybõl az angyal” [An Angel from Heaven], 1920), and his concert arrangements of Schubert’s Valses Nobles (1920), and the Waltzer from Delibes’ ballet “Naila”.  Dohnányi’s improvisatory abilities were legendary even in his day– indeed this is perhaps a lost art within the classical idiom -, and the phenomenal freedom and virtuosity which innately exists in many of these compositions can serve as an inspiration to pianists of every level of accomplishment.   


Although Dohnányi’s works have often been labelled “Brahmsian” and “Schumannian”, a fact which he himself acknowledged when, for example, he wittily called himself “Imperial and Royal Court Schumann Robber” on a specially dedicated title page of his Novelette (1882) to Elza Kunwald (later a fellow piano student at the Liszt Academy who became his first wife), the greatest consistent influences evident in Dohnányi’s music are those of Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt: Bach for the ever-present contrapuntal intricacies and mastery found in Dohnányi’s compositions, Beethoven for the supreme sense of balanced structure and the use of classical idioms to transform old forms, and Liszt for the use of thematic transformation, dramatic juxtaposition of distant key areas, and thematic compression as a climactic device.  Consider also that Dohnányi studied with two Liszt pupils: István Thomán and Eugen d’Albert, and Dohnányi was among the first pianists to regularly program Liszt’s B minor Sonata in concert at a time when the piece was not yet accepted as a part of the standard repertory (in the words of one critic, it was written “in one never-ending movement). 


The first piece I would like to play for you today provides an excellent example of the Lisztian lineage of transcendental pianism, namely the Op. 28 Six Concert Etudes.  Written in 1916, shortly after Dohnányi resettled in Hungary after a ten-year tenure as professor of piano at the Hochshule für Musik in Berlin, these pieces were created at the beginning of a distinctly Hungarian period of his compositional output. 


The Op. 32a Ruralia hungarica, seven pieces for piano, also exist in arrangements for orchestra (Five pieces, Op. 32b), violin and piano (Three pieces, Op. 32c), and cello or violin and piano (Andante rubato, Op. 32d).  Roughly translated “Pictures of rural Hungary”, they are based on Hungarian folk songs. 


The “Twelve Short Studies” are from Dohnányi’s late, American period, when he particularly favored short forms in his piano works.  They can be considered the composer’s response to the Chopin Etudes.  They embody Dohnányi’s efficiency in practicing and reveal his profound understanding of the physiology of piano playing.  They encapsulate his priorities at the instrument, namely flexibility , a singing tone, and equal fluency in all keys.  Edward Kilényi, the late pianist who was first a student of Dohnányi in Hungary and later a friend and colleague of his at the Florida State University, wrote an article on these studies in 1963 for Clavier magazine entitled “Transition to Parnassus”.  Although Dohnányi himself states in his Preface to the score that these pieces are primarily for pedagogical purposes and should be preceded by the etudes of Cramer and Clementi and followed by those of Chopin and Liszt, many of them are suitable for concert performance in their own right.  They are useful for developing the kind of flexibility and colorfulness of tone that is needed in Dohnányi’s piano music.  For example, the number four study in thirds is an excellent preparation for the Op. 32b Valse Boiteuse, which you shall hear a little later. 


Throughout his life Dohnányi favored meters in five and also the use of quintuplets within other meters.  For example, the last of the Twelve Short Studies is composed almost entirely of quintuplet figures, and the third of that set features them interwoven with other complex mixed rhythmic figures throughout – this serves to create a lush flow of sound rather than a mathematical intricacy to be realized.  Although the waltz in general was a favorite form of Dohnányi’s, in the Op. 39b Valse boiteuse for solo piano we hear a work that seems to portray an ironic distortion of the waltz of bygone days, perhaps recalling a world that has past and can never return.  The original Op. 39 Suite en valse, a large-scale orchestral work in four movements, was written in 1942-43, during World War II.  The opus is best known in its arrangement for two pianos, the Op. 39a, which Dohnányi recorded with Kilényi in the early 1950’s.  The Valse boiteuse is the third movement of the earlier four-movement works. 


Published piano compositions of Ernõ Dohnányi:


Opus-numbered works for solo piano:

Op. 2. “Vier Klavierstücke” [Four Piano Pieces] (1: Scherzo in C# minor; 2: Intermezzo in A minor; 3: Intermezzo in F minor; 4: Capriccio in B minor), comp. 1895-97, publ. Doblinger 1905.

Op. 4. Variationen und Fuge über ein Thema von E.(mma) G.(ruber); comp. 1897; publ. Doblinger 2843.

Op. 6. Passacaglia for solo piano; comp. 1899; publ. Dob. 1904.

Op. 11. Vier Rhapsodien (G minor, F# minor, C Major, E-flat minor); comp. 1903-04; publ. Dob. 1904.

Op. 13. Winterreigen. Zehn Bagatellen [Winter Round Dance. Ten Bagatelles] (1. Widmung [Dedication]; 2. Marsch der lustigen Brüder [March of the Merry Brothers]; 3. An Ada [To Ada]; 4. Freund Viktor’s Mazurka; 5. Sphärenmusik [Music of the Spheres]; 6. Valse aimable; 7. Um Mitternacht [At Midnight]; 8. Tolle Gesellschaft [Wild Company]; 9. Morgengrauen [Daybreak]; 10. Postludium); comp. 1905; publ. Doblinger 1906.

Op. 17. Humoresken in Form einer Suite (1. Marsch; 2. Toccata; 3. Pavane mit Variationen; 4. Pastorale; 5. Introduction und Fuge); comp. 1907; publ. Simrock 1908.

Op. 23. Drei Stücke [Three Pieces] (1. Aria; 2. Valse impromptu; 3. Capriccio); comp. 1912; publ. Simrock 1913.

Op. 24. Suite nach altem Stil [Suite in Olden Style] (1. Prelude; 2. Allemande; 3. Courante; 4. Sarabande; 5. Menuet; 6. Gigue); comp. 1913; publ. Simrock 1914.

Op. 28. Sechs Konzertetüden [Six Concert Etudes] (1. A minor; 2. D-flat Major; 3. E-flat minor; 4. B-flat minor; 5. E Major; 6. Capriccio in F minor); comp. 1916; publ. Rózsavölgyi 1916 (now: Editio Musica Budapest).

Op. 29. Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song; comp. 1917; publ. Rv. 1921 (now: EMB).

Op. 32a. Ruralia hungarica. Seven pieces for piano; comp. 1923-24; publ. Rv. 1925 (now: EMB).

Op. 39b. Valse boiteuse [Limping Waltz]; comp. 1947; publ. Lengnick 1948.

Op. 41. Six Piano Pieces (1. Impromptu; 2. Scherzino; 3. Canzonetta; 4. Cascades; 5. Ländler; 6. Cloches); comp. 1945; publ. Lengnick 1947. 

Op. 44. Three Singular Pieces (1. Burletta; 2. Nocturne; Perpetuum mobile); comp. 1951; publ. AMP-Associated Music Publishers 1954.   


Note: most of these works can be considered technically challenging, and some of them highly challenging: for example the Op. 6 Passacaglia, the Op. 39b Valse boiteuse, and the Op. 28 Six Concert Etudes


Works without opus number for solo piano:


1. Gavotte and Musette (1898), publ. Doblinger 1905.

2. Albumblatt (1899), publ. EMB 1977

3. Fugue for one Advanced Left Hand or two Unadvanced Hands (1913), publ. A.M.P. 1962

4. Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Carol (1920), publ. Rv. 1922 (now: EMB)


Transcriptions for solo piano of other works:


1. Delibes: Walzer aus dem Ballett ‘Naila’ (1897), publ. Rv. 1916 (now: EMB)

2. Dohnányi: Wedding March from the Op. 18 pantomime, ‘Pierrette’s Veil’, publ. Doblinger 1910.

3. Schubert: Valses nobles (1920), publ. Rv. 1925.

4. Brahms: Rondo alla Zingarese (1920), publ. Rv. 1927

5. Delibes: Walzer aus ‘Coppelia’ (1925), publ. Rv. 1927

6. Brahms: Walzer für Pianoforte (1928), publ. Hansen 1938

7. J. Strauss: Two Waltzes, “Treasure Waltz” (The Gypsy Baron) and “Thou and Thou” (The Bat)


Cadenzas to piano concerti:


1. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major (1897), publ. Doblinger 1905

2. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor (pre-1915), publ. Arcadia

3. Mozart: Piano Concerto K. 453 in G Major (ca. 1906), publ. Doblinger 1909

4. Mozart: Piano Concerto K. 365 in E-flat Major for two pianos (ca. 1920), publ. Rv. 1929


Pedagogical works:


1. Essential Finger Exercises for Obtaining a Sure Piano Technique, publ. Rv. 1929. (Note: currently more than 40th printing by EMB)

2. J. Cramer: Selected Studies edited and partially revised by Dohnányi, publ. Rv. 1931

3. Twelve Short Studies for the Advanced Pianist (1951), publ. AMP 1951

4. Daily Finger Exercises for the Advanced Pianist, in 3 volumes (1960), publ. Mills Music Co. 1962


Instructive editions:


1. Mozart: Fantasie in D minor, publ. Rv. 1919

2. J.S. Bach: Little Preludes. Revised, publ. Rv. 1920

3. Beethoven: Für Elise, publ. Rv. n.d.


For Piano, four hands:


Op. 3 Walzer (1897), publ. Doblinger 1906


For Two Pianos:


Op. 39a Suite en valse (1945), publ. Lengnick 1948


Piano Concerti:


Op. 5 Concerto in E minor (1897-98), publ. Doblinger 1904; also exists in a one-movement version (see: D. Kiszely-Papp: “Critical Edition of the Unpublished One-Movement Version of Ernõ Dohnányi’s Piano Concerto in E Minor, Op. 5”, D.M.A. diss., City University of New York, 1996). 

Op. 25 Variations on a Nursery Song for Large Orchestra and Piano Concertante (1913-14), publ. Simrock, 1922

Op. 42 Piano Concerto in B minor (1946-47), publ. Lengnick 1948


Current publishers:


Doblinger (Vienna): music@doblinger.at

Lengnick, now Complete Music: GBmuswil@aol.com

Editio Musica Budapest: www.emb.hu


Dohnányi Archives in Budapest: www.zti.hu

Features discography and bibliography