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Two Composers: Ernst von Dohnanyi

[Photo: FSU]
Composer and pianist Ernst von Dohnanyi, best known for Variations on a Nursery Song, taught at Florida State in the 1950s. His life and work will be remembered at the International Ernst von Dohnanyi Festival this week at FSU and in a concert Monday in St. Petersburg.

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002

In Tallahassee and Gainesville, the work of two composers, each a pioneer in his own way, takes center stage.

AT FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY: Hungarian composer and pianist Ernst von Dohnanyi, who found a post-war home in Tallahassee, will be celebrated at a festival featuring a symphonic cantata that has not been heard since its premiere in 1941.

Hungarian composer and pianist Ernst von Dohnanyi taught at Florida State in the 1950s. FSU celebrates his work at a festival this week, featuring a symphonic cantata that has not been heard since its premiere in 1941.

In Tallahassee and Gainesville, the work of two composers, each a pioneer in his own way, takes center stage.

* * *

Composer and pianist Ernst von Dohnanyi is not exactly a household name, but a lot of his music has a secure place in the standard repertoire. His best-known work -- to the chagrin of many academic supporters -- is a jokey piece for piano and orchestra called Variations on a Nursery Song, which has fun with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

Philip Glass
In Tallahassee and Gainesville, the work of two composers, each a pioneer in his own way, takes center stage.
"I'm afraid we'll never escape the Variations," said James A. Grymes, director of the International Ernst von Dohnanyi Festival, hosted this week by the school of music at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Dohnanyi (pronounced DOHKH-nah-nyee) was probably the most important composer with Florida ties, having taught at FSU from 1949 until his death at 82 in 1960. After World War II, he had emigrated to the United States from his homeland of Hungary, where he was ranked next to Liszt as the country's most versatile musician.

The festival boasts an impressive lineup of scholars and musicians, including cellist Janos Starker, pianist Barry Snyder and the New Haydn String Quartet from Budapest (which will also perform its all-Dohnanyi program Monday night at St. Petersburg College). Musicologist Alan Walker will deliver the keynote address.

Saturday night, Matthias Bamert, a London conductor who has a series of Dohnanyi recordings with the BBC Philharmonic to his credit, will lead a performance of Dohnanyi's magnum opus, his symphonic cantata Cantus vitae. It has not been heard since the composer conducted its premiere in Budapest in 1941.

"It's huge. It's a bit overwhelming. We're going to have people just packed onto that stage," Grymes said of the cantata, a 90-minute work loosely based on a Hungarian epic poem, The Tragedy of Man. It will be performed by the FSU Symphony Orchestra, the 200-voice Tallahassee Community Choir and other choruses and a vocal quartet.

"Really, the whole festival started with this piece," said Grymes, 28, who is writing his doctoral dissertation on the cantata. "About five years ago when we found the manuscript, we knew it was special and wanted to perform it. We just kept adding things until we decided to make a festival of it."

The cantata score was found at Dohnanyi's house in Tallahassee, still occupied by one of his grandsons and his family. The Dohnanyis asked the dean of the music school to send someone over to go through boxes of the composer's papers, and Grymes was dispatched.

"The first night out, I just started with one random pile and found the manuscript to Dohnanyi's Second Symphony, which scholars had assumed was lost all these years," Grymes said. "There was a long string of nights where I'd go over there and every time I went, I'd find something new. I still go over to the house once a week -- I've been doing this for five years now -- and the last time I was there, I found a couple more manuscripts. One was a cadenza to a Mozart concerto. From the dating it looked like Dohnanyi used it around 1956 when he was performing that concerto frequently."

From such happenstance was a mini-industry of musical scholarship born. Grymes launched his career as a Dohnanyi expert, and FSU established a Dohnanyi archives in partnership with the International Dohnanyi Research Center in Budapest.

Though Dohnanyi is joined with Bartok and Kodaly in a triumvirate of Hungary's most important 20th century composers, he wrote music that is quite different from that of his contemporaries. For one thing, he did not share their interest in Hungarian folk music. Instead, he composed in the romantic tradition of Brahms.

Dohnanyi's Germanic style played into the tragic circumstances that led to his leaving Hungary, where he presided over the musical scene as a teacher at the Liszt Academy and chief conductor of the Philharmonic Society. In World War II, he remained in Hungary during the Nazi occupation, which led to his being branded as a collaborator by the Soviet Union, which took over the government after the war. Dohnanyi had been an outspoken critic of the communists.

"Trying to find a distinctively Hungarian voice in his music would be very difficult, and that was used against him after the war," Grymes said. "I've read these Hungarian articles where they just blasted him, saying his style was too reminiscent of Schumann and Brahms. The anti-German attitudes after the war were fierce."

Grymes delved into the murky postwar politics of Hungary to try to get to the bottom of Dohnanyi's role. At the festival, he will deliver a paper on the subject, False Accusations, Malicious Allegations and Outright Lies: Newly Uncovered Sources Documenting the Communist Campaign Against Dohnanyi.

He found that Dohnanyi had resisted the Nazis when he could and fought against anti-Jewish legislation. His son, Hans von Dohnanyi -- father of Christoph von Dohnanyi, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra -- was executed by the Nazis.

"It's a gray area, but I've been able to prove to my scholarly satisfaction that there is just so much compelling evidence in favor of him, and absolutely no evidence against him," Grymes said. "It was a smear campaign."

Still, the charges took their toll on Dohnanyi's reputation. By the time he was offered the post at FSU, his concert career was on the wane. He was broke. Even though he was in his 70s, he had to work hard in Tallahassee, keeping up a substantial teaching load as well as playing concerts around the country.

Dohnanyi seemed to enjoy life in Florida, according to Charles M. Carroll, a retired music and humanities professor at St. Petersburg College who was a student and colleague of the composer at FSU.

"He loved the Florida climate, even as wet and cold as Tallahassee can be sometimes," Carroll wrote in a memoir he will deliver at the festival. "He lived nearly 2 miles from the campus, and in fair weather he frequently walked to his studio in the morning."

Dohnanyi's musical reputation is on the rise. Between 1995 and 2000, more than 30 new recordings were made of his works, including his two symphonies, the Second Violin Concerto and American Rhapsody for orchestra.

"I think he may go down in history as one of these people who wrote two or three great pieces," Carroll said. "The Nursery Song Variations are always played. The Serenade in C is very popular among chamber players. The American Rhapsody is great."


The International Ernst von Dohnanyi Festival is Thursday through Saturday at Florida State University in Tallahassee. There will be presentations by Dohnanyi scholars and five concerts of the composer's music, including his magnum opus, the symphonic cantata Cantus vitae, on Saturday night. The registration fee of $20 ($15 with student ID) provides access to all events. Visit the festival Web site at

* * *

The New Haydn Quartet, an ensemble from Budapest, Hungary, that will perform at the festival, plays an all-Dohnanyi concert at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Music Center of St. Petersburg College, 66th Street and Fifth Avenue N, St. Petersburg. Admission is free.

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