“This week’s dose of great music,” Peter Sirotin writes regarding this week's Weekly Dose of Great Music, “invites you to experience Romantic opulence of Dohnanyi’s Piano Quintet No. 2. Written in the twilight of Belle Époque on the eve of World War I, this work is filled with nostalgia and longing for the world that would never be the same. This emotional state seems particularly relevant to our experience today. Enjoy this beautiful performance by the Ariel Quartet and pianist Orion Weiss from 2014.”
(again, due to space limitations on the blog format, if you want to view the performance at “full screen,” click on the box-like image in the lower right corner when you hover the cursor over the video.)
Dohnányi's Piano Quintet No. 2 in E-flat Minor is in three movements: a mysterious opening ushers in the Allegro non troppo (“not too fast”); the second is an Intermezzo marked Allegretto (another way of saying “not too fast” but less fast than the previous movement), a nostalgic waltz-like movement which begins around 10:33; and the third movement, starting off with a fugue at 16:28, is marked Moderato and strikes one as the slow movement, the way it unfolds, until, as it builds, we get more reminiscences from the first movement. While there's not much of a lively contrast, no happy Vivace or brilliant Presto or even an Allegro molto, dramatic or otherwise. That doesn't mean the piece lacks variety. But it is a far more serious piece than one might expect, given what expectations you might have for a composer you're probably not that familiar with.
One blogger, in promoting the piece for a concert, wrote,
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...There is a sweet familiarity in some of the quintet’s themes, a reflective longing or melancholy in others, and times where they all come together in intense culmination. What’s interesting is these turbulent climaxes of thematic “memories” often result in something startlingly beautiful, as if reliving all of your life’s pain brings you rebirth and hope. The best example of this is in the last third of the first movement, where at the highest point of dramatic intensity there is an abrupt change from what had been a furious C minor to an ethereal C major.”
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Originally, this concert which opened the 2014-2015 Season was planned around the Centennial of the Start of World War I and the 2nd Piano Quintet of Ernő Dohnányi was programmed because, its musical value aside and the fact it's rarely heard, it was composed in 1914.
Musically, if you remember something about the most significant new works of music written in the early-20th Century – including Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, written between 1911 and 1913 – something new and often unsettling, especially to the Old Ways, was in the air. Musical styles were changing, new voices were being heard and many people, used to the melodies of Brahms or the rich textures of Wagner and Mahler, could not understand these voices.
But perhaps there's something more in this music than just a nostalgia for the musical past?
Remember this was composed in 1914 during the tense times leading up to the war which began that summer – it is not about the war, nor inspired by it; it is not a description of the war or the times the composer and his listeners were or would be, most likely, living through. Perhaps the emotional tension in the piece reflects the fears of what is yet to come (though how would anyone know what was to come?), but certainly its mood and overall style seems to question whether we will ever be the same again.
How many of us, every time we go to the store or remind ourselves we can't go to the hair-dressers or to a concert yet, every time we look at another family gathering on Zoom, every time we turn on the news, may not be thinking the same thing?
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The build-up to World War I did not begin with the assassination of an Austrian archduke in the Balkans in the summer of 1914, pulling on the strands of all those entangling alliances between the major countries of Europe. Political tensions in Europe had been on edge ever since the end of the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s and the emergence of the German Empire as a major political and military power. If that seems like going back into the past to find the causes of a war, remember that much of the reason we're fighting in the Middle East today has a lot to do with the Western attitude toward nation-states and the arbitrary establishment of artificial borders there at the end of World War I.
Part of these entanglements find themselves in the national identities of Austro-Hungary's population, one of those conglomerate empires in which tiny Austria ruled much of Central and Eastern Europe from its capital, Vienna: after the war, the Empire was broken up into newly formed constituent nations based more on ethnic backgrounds who had long been agitating for independence since before the Revolutions of 1848: mainly Bohemians (or Czechs), Moravians, and Slovaks were grouped under the nation of Czechoslovakia; Hungary (itself shorn of a lot of its former territory, losing Bela Bartók's hometown to modern Romania); and the regions of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia joined with independent Serbia to form Yugoslavia. Across this vast array of ethnic nationalities, the German-speaking Austrians were regarded as an occupying culture.
And that is evident even in the name of the composer of this piano quintet: born in Hungary of an old Hungarian family that had been ennobled by the Austrians in 1697. Officially, he was Ernst von Dohnanyi, the Germanic form of his name, which is how he styled himself through his career. Today, he is generally known by the Hungarian form of his name, Ernő Dohnányi.
As I posted before this performance with the Ariel Quartet and pianist Orion Weiss, if you listen to Dohnányi's early works, they sound little different from the music being written by Johannes Brahms and the raft of Brahms imitators who dominated the Viennese music scene at the end of the 19th Century, names largely forgotten.
Curiously, his first published piece – though actually the 68th work he composed – is a Piano Quintet that was not only approved by Brahms in 1895, Brahms arranged for its first performance in Vienna.
Here's the opening movement of this 1st Piano Quintet with the Avalon Quartet (again, who'll be appearing with Market Square Concerts in November). Even the last movement (performed here by the Amernet Quartet who'll join us for our April concert) is like one of Brahms' beloved Hungarian Dance finales (though here sounding more Czech than Hungarian).
While it would be easy to dismiss this – an Op. 1, after all – as a youthful work since the composer was all of 17 at the time, it is still a derivative work even if it's by an assured young composer who certainly knows what he's doing even if he hasn't developed his own voice, yet – and how many 17-year-olds have, Mozart and Mendelssohn aside? Even Richard Strauss, writing a horn concerto at 17, sounds more like Schumann than the Strauss we'd come to know and love in the tone-poems written not too many years later.
But what of the second piano quintet?
Not surprisingly, YouTube is full of performances of the first quintet, a much more accessible work. I'm not sure how frequently the 2nd Quintet is performed – this will be the first time pianist Orion Weiss is playing it in public – and while I'm sure it doesn't mean that much when I say before Peter Sirotin asked me about doing this pre-concert talk, I'd never heard it.
By this time, Dohnányi turned 37, so we're 20 years further along. This Op. 26 Quintet is by no means an extroverted work of a brilliant student showing off what he can do and while it's a much more serious and dramatic work than his Op. 1, I also need to point out the piece he'd recently completed, a set of variations, Op. 25, is a chameleon-like delight for piano and orchestra based on, of all things, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” taken through successive disguises in various styles of the day, from its pompous Wagnerian introduction to jibes at Tchaikovsky and Debussy among others along the way, subtitled “For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others.”
You can hear a (highly recommended) performance with the composer at the piano at the age of 79. The photograph was taken three years later.
And yet, his next work is one of the darkest contrasts imaginable. Like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, it is a reminder that art can be escapist in challenging times - life goes on - just as it can be remind us that, when times beat us down, we still have a soul.
For those of you who read music and want to follow the score, check out the link to the “Petrucci Library” (the musical equivalent of the Gutenberg Library for literature) and download the score free as a .pdf file.
Admittedly, my first impression was “where's the fourth movement?” There had to be a finale, right? It certainly didn't sound complete – one problem I had with some other performances I found on-line. The third movement is like some grand slow movement, not a finale. But when I read the score, I realized how the ending “works” – a vague and perhaps unsatisfactory “conclusion” – no joyous celebration (think Beethoven), no “demolition derby” wild dance in the Hungarian style (think Brahms) – written in a time that was anything but satisfactory and conclusive.
While the counterpoint suggests the tension of Beethoven's “Grosse Fuge” – and I think for a reason, given the composer's Germanic side – and the return to the material of the opening movement – a typically French gesture from the late-19th Century “cyclical” style of Saint-Saëns and Franck – is more than just a “reflection” on previous material as Brahms might do. It leaves you in the dark – and E-flat Minor is, no matter how you play it, a “dark” key, but with, at the very end, a beatific-sounding E-flat Major chord by way of benediction.
What the unsettled period before the War would mean to Dohnányi is one thing – he'd been teaching in Berlin before the war started (and having an affair with the German actress Elza Galafrés), and where this piece was composed – but he would return to Budapest in 1915 where life during the War would be quite something else.
(You can read more about life in Hungary around this time – when Bartók was composing his ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin – in this post, part of a pre-concert talk for the Harrisburg Symphony.)
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Dohnányi was one of the great pianists of his day and while he may have been described as “one of the first great concert pianists to regularly play chamber music” (I'm not sure how Clara Schumann would react to that), his organization of the musical life of the Hungarian capital was prodigious. According to his younger colleague (and decidedly anti-German) Bela Bartók, Dohnányi, who gave about 120 concerts per season in Budapest during the still unsettled years following the war, provided the entire musical life of Hungary both as conductor and pianist.
His son Hans von Dohnanyi would become an official in Germany before and during the 2nd World War when he was involved in the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. He was arrested and then sentenced by Hitler himself to be hanged, strung up by piano wire. Hans's son, Christoph, born in Berlin in 1929, would leave Hungary with his grandfather in 1944 and later become one of the leading conductors of his generation.
After leaving Hungary's wartime fascist state before the Soviet occupation, Dohnányi never quite rejuvenated his international career, and eventually settled in Tallahassee, FL, where he taught at Florida State University and died in 1960 while in New York City recording some Beethoven sonatas for the Everest label at the age of 82.
In 1914, writing his 2nd Piano Quintet, how could he know how the impending War would change his life?
- Dick Strawser
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If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' posts of videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:
Before Quarantine, Music for Isolation: Solo Works by Bach & Ysaÿe (Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 with Andrei Ioniţă; Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin with Kristóf Baráti)
Musical Contrasts in a Time of Imbalance: Mozart and Bartók (Mozart's String Quartet in B-flat, K.589 and Bartók's 2nd String Quartet with the Escher Quartet)
Uplifting Music from Troubled Times: Schumann's Piano Quintet
Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů
Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)
Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)
Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (Members of the Harrisburg Symphony Play the Brandenburg Concertos (Excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)
A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák