Monday, July 18, 2022

Summermusic: Spend an Evening with Beethoven and Dohnányi (Part 2)

Dohnányi, c.1900

The second half of the opening Summermusic concert is Dohnányi's Serenade Op. 10, with Beethoven's Op. 8 Serenade on the first half, performed by violinist Peter Sirotin, violist Michael Strauss, and cellist Sophie Shao. The concert is Wednesday night at 7:30 at St. Michael Lutheran Church on the first block of State Street, where the second and third concerts, Saturday and the following Tuesday, will also take place.

Before we get started, a word about the composer's name. You'll see him mentioned either as Ernst von Dohnányi (in the German form) or Ernő Dohnányi (in the Hungarian form). Ethnically, he is Hungarian, not German, which has led modern-day attitudes to use the Hungarian form of his name instead of the Germanic one the composer used throughout his lifetime. Even his tombstone in 1960 is inscribed Ernst von Dohnányi; and his grandson, the conductor, always went by Christoph von Dohnányi.

If you want to read more about this, scroll down to the last two segments of this post in one of those “you might find this interesting” appendices that you don't really need to enjoy the music. The first, about the history behind Dohnányi's ethnic heritage I called “Place-Names: The Place.” The second is about pronouncing the composer's name in Hungarian, or, I guess, “Place-Names: The Name.”

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Dohnányi's Serenade is in six movements and inspired by the old 18th Century idea of a serenade as “light-hearted” music for an evening's entertainment and could be for various combinations and numbers of instruments. The term was often interchangeable with Divertimento and the now usually forgotten Cassation, or some other translation of “night-time” like Mozart's Notturno or his most famous serenade, the ever-popular Eine kleine Nachtmusik. This one is “kleine” (a little night-music) because it's only four movements and for four strings; usually they'd have six, maybe eight movements. One of his finest Serenades, better known as the Gran Partita, is in seven movements for 13 instruments.

Beethoven's Op. 8 Serenade is six movements for three strings. And Dohnányi's Op. 10 Serenade is five movements for three strings. You can read about Beethoven's Serenade, composed in 1797, and its place in his compositional development in Part 1 of this post.

This post is about Dohnányi's Serenade which he wrote between 1902 and 1903 and published the following year.

Both composers were in their mid-20s when they wrote them.

Considering the usual forward-looking ideas when entering a new century, the idea of writing something so strongly perfumed by its 18th Century roots at the outset of the 20th Century could look “reactionary,” especially at a time when music was being dominated by progressive Germans like Mahler and Strauss: Mahler was meanwhile working on his 5th Symphony which wouldn't be premiered until the Fall of 1904; Richard Strauss's opera Salome would create a furor at its premiere in December of 1905.

Besides, Brahms had died in 1897, only five years before Dohnányi began this string trio of his. When Brahms had his famous conversation with a young conductor named Mahler, he was quite concerned about the state of music's future, given what he knew of Mahler's and Strauss' earliest works.

While many writers see Beethoven's Serenade as a model for Dohnányi, they're forgetting a century's worth of other serenades written in between: in addition to Brahms' two “proto-symphonies” of his youth, there are famous ones by Dvořák (one for strings, one for winds) and Tchaikovsky (for strings), even Hugo Wolf's Italian Serenade (originally for String Quartet) in 1887, and dozens of others by a whole constellation of composers largely influenced by Brahms like Robert Fuchs (who wrote 5 for string orchestra), Heinrich von Herzogenberg, along with Carl Reinecke and others who occasionally appear as the occasional footnote today. Their music was, in their day, quite popular, just not enduring, for whatever reasons.

And another Brahms Influenced Young Composer was Ernst von Dohnányi. Brahms, we often forget, was very helpful to many young composers, especially Dvořák (he could also be very rude and discouraging: there's always the famous story of how his criticism helped send young Hans Rott into a nervous breakdown and eventual suicide in an asylum).

With Dohnányi, Brahms was much impressed by the 18-year-old's Piano Quintet No. 1 which, with Brahms' help, was published as his Op. 1 in 1895. Impressed with the boy's talents as a pianist, he also introduced him to friends who would prove helpful in launching his career beyond his native Pressburg and Budapest, where he had gone to school.

The Serenade was composed while the now mid-20s composer was on a concert tour that took him to London. It was completed in 1903 and premiered in Vienna in January of 1904.

Here's a video complete with score and a performance by violinist Janine Jansen “and Friends.”

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It's in five movements: like Beethoven, Dohnányi opens with a “traditional march” but instead of the usual A-B-A form with a contrasting middle section, Dohnányi keeps it brief with a barely 2-minute A Section with a short march-like motive answered later by a folk-like tune with a drone accompaniment. Even in his maturity, Dohnányi showed less interest in incorporating Hungarian folk elements into his music than did Bartók or Kodály (and Bartók only started his at the end of his 1st Quartet in 1907). But this tune at the end of his march (which he brings back at the end of the Rondo) definitely has a Hungarian feel to it.

Not unexpected: after all, Brahms used Hungarian dance motives in many of his works, the famous piano duets, the “Hungarian Dances” aside: the finales of things like the 1st Piano Quartet, the Violin Concerto, the Op.111 String Quintet, among other works which would've set any Viennese heart to foot-tapping if they too, like Brahms, were fans of the dance bands that played in those smoky taverns he liked to hang out in. The only thing is, this is not “folk music.” This is essentially “urban pop music” comparable more to American jazz bands than the folk songs sung by the people. But that's another story.

Unlike Beethoven, Dohnányi kept his slow movement and scherzo separate: an outright Romanza followed by a rapid-fire scherzo on the verge of chaos. Another traditional facet common to both is a set of Theme and Five Variations. If serenades are expected to be “casual and lacking dramatic moments,” this is the most serious aspect of Dohnányi's work. Instead of ending with a recap of the March as Beethoven did (as Mozart would've expected his live performances to do), Dohnányi concludes with a Rondo that bears some resemblance to the first movement before, by way of balance, it ends up quoting the march's themes in their entirety.

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Now, I'd wanted to call this post “The Beethoven-Dohnányi Connection” because I always like to make those “6-Degrees-of-Seperation” connections between composers most of us think were creating in a vacuum. I've already mentioned how Dohnányi as an 18-year-old gained the Stamp of Approval from Johannes Brahms. And with that, the boy could've gone anywhere to study, particularly Vienna to begin his career there (much as Brahms ended up living there after wandering around various parts of Germany after growing up in Hamburg).

Dohnányi grew up in Pressburg (or Pozsony), and after having started studying music with his father, an amateur cellist, then when he was 8 he began studying with the local organist. At 17, he moved to Budapest to attend the Hungarian Academy of Music (now the Franz Liszt Academy) where he studied piano with a student of Liszt's and composition with a devotee of Brahms. Basically, Dohnányi took his final exams early, passed them with flying colors and, without finishing his course of studies, graduated not yet 20 years old.

From there, he studied with another Liszt student, one of the better known pianists of the day, Eugene d'Albert, making his debut in Berlin in 1897 and a year later playing Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto in London to great acclaim. He also took Beethoven's 4th on his first tour of the United States, starting in St. Louis.

The Brahms Connection continued: Joseph Joachim invited him to teach in Berlin where he lived from 1905 to 1915. So basically, on the basis of that connection when Brahms approved of his C Minor Piano Quintet, yes, it was definitely a career-making encounter.

Something similar had happened to Brahms when he was 20, you may recall. He had the nerve to knock on Robert Schumann's door with a sheaf of manuscripts under his arm. Schumann, not only a leading composer but one of the most influential critics in Germany, gave him his stamp of approval even though, in part, calling him the Heir to Beethoven turned out to be something of a curse (not too much pressure, there...). As Brahms had said, “you have no idea what it is like to hear the tread of a giant like Beethoven behind you.” Fortunately, Brahms did not return the favor by crowning Dohnányi the Heir to Brahms.

Dohnányi's Hometown Today

But there is another tenuous connection, however much it might be approved by fans of Kevin Bacon: while Beethoven's Op. 8 Serenade for String Trio was written 105 years before Dohnányi wrote his Op. 10 Serenade for String Trio, a few months before Beethoven composed his piece, he had gone to Pressburg to play a series of concerts at the
Keglevićs' Palace and, as I mentioned in the earlier post, wrote his Op. 7 Piano Sonata and dedicated it to the Count's daughter, the young Countess Babette (as well as the C Major Piano Concerto a bit later on). The Keglević family was one of the major Hungarian aristocratic families since the 16th Century and in Dohnányi's day, they were still financial leaders of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Mozart also performed in Pressburg in 1762 as a child of six, performing at the Pálffy Palace around the corner from the Keglevićs' palace, a stop on the tour arranged by Leopold Mozart to show off his talented children. Prince Esterhazy also had a palace in Pressburg on the same street, and when he was in town, the family's conductor, a fellow named Franz Josef Haydn, was often on loan for special concerts at the Grassalković Palace (it is currently the home of the President of Slovakia). One such concert was specifically mentioned in 1784.

While it seems Pressburg/Pozsony/Bratislava may have a lot of palaces – Wikipedia lists over thirty – not to mention the most prominent, Bratislava Palace which looms over the Danube River (see photo above), I mention this to point out there was an active cultural life in the city so you don't think Pressburg was some backwater when Dohnányi grew up there.

So, as I mentioned, Dohnányi was also friends with Bartók and Kodály, but there's this to consider about the connection with Bartók:

When Bartók, only three years younger than Dohnányi, gave a recital at the Academy in October 1901, a Budapest critic wrote 'Bartók thunders around on the piano like a little Jupiter. No piano student at the Academy today has a greater chance of following in Dohnányi’s footsteps.' Two years later Bartók was a student in Dohnányi’s master class.” That would place Bartók studying with Dohnányi around the time he was composing the serenade on this opening concert of Summermusic 2022.

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He was one of three great Hungarian composers in the first half of the 20th Century, along with Bela Bartók and Zoltan Kodály – and Bartók, along with Schoenberg and Stravinsky, was considered, at least posthumously, as one of the three most influential composers of the first half of the 20th Century. But Central Europe and Hungary in particular is a complicated mix of ethnic origins ever since the days of the Roman Empire and various invasions of waves of barbarians like the Huns from Central Asia (yes, as in Atilla the Hun). Settling further west with each wave, the Huns moved from beyond the Volga into what is now Eastern Ukraine (at the center of the Russian invasion in the news today) into the broad plains of what became known as Hungary.

The major important difference between the Huns and their neighbors is, while surrounded by German-speaking Austrians on the west, they are ringed by Czechs, Slovaks and Poles who are all racially Slavic on the north, Romanians (who trace themselves from a pocket of Latin-speaking Dacians of the Eastern Roman Empire) on the east, and various Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and, further toward the Black Sea, Bulgarians, all once again Slavic in origin, on the south. Bartók who is ethnically Hungarian was born in this area of Ancient Dacia now called Transylvania which was then part of the Kingdom of Hungary that was nominally part of the German-dominated Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time (and by German, I mean “cultural Germans,” not the political entity of Germany we know today). But Bartók's mother was mostly Germanic, speaking Hungarian fluently, but also, as genetic research would show, had Hungarian and Slavic ancestry. But Bartók always identified as Hungarian, in his youth radically so.

Ernst von Dohnányi was born in what was at the time called Pressburg on the Danube River downstream from Vienna. The Austrians called it Pressburg though it was located in Hungary; the Hungarians called it Pozsony. After the partitioning of the old Austrian Empire following World War I in 1918, this area, more ethnic Slovaks than Hungarians much less Germans, became part of Czechoslovakia and Pressburg/Pozsony was renamed Bratislava but became the independent Slovak Republic after 1993 with Bratislava as its capital. Hence the ethnic and linguistic confusion, whether it explains the confusion behind the composer's ethnic (and political) identity.

Dohnányi, Bartók & Kodály
As a result, politically, Hungarian “nationalists” considered someone, Hungarian or not, with a Germanic name “pro-German,” especially during World War I – and again with the rise of the Nazis in the decades that led up to World War II. You might think, beings friends as well as colleagues with Bartók and Kodály, Dohnányi would've adopted the Hungarian form of his name, but even his son (who was murdered by the Nazis, apparently hung using piano-wire instead of rope) and his grandson, the conductor, never did.

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About the pronunciation of Dohnányi's name in Hungarian: first of all, the á is not an accented a but an entirely different sounding vowel. In Hungarian, the accent is almost always on the first syllable: so it's not a three-syllable dokh-NAAN-yi but what's really a two-syllable DOKH-naan+(yi) where the yi is very short, almost more of a “softened n” like a Spanish ñ, so I'm told. The kh is like the ch in Bach rather than a hard k or a voiced h... (To make it more confusing, one source on Hungarian pronunciation says the á should be pronounced more like ai or a long i in file...)

As for the first name Ernő, Hungarian for Ernst, that ő which looks like an over-enthusiastic umlaut is a different form of the vowel o. One source says the o is pronounced like the o in force and the ó like the ō in go (which means Bartok in America rhymes with Bar-Talk, but Bartók should be Bar-tōk). The ö is like the oo in pool but the ő is like the oo in stool. Now, pardon me if I'm wrong, but how subtle is the difference between the oo in pool from the oo in stool?

Now imagine somebody learning English trying to figure why pool does not rhyme with book. But I digress...

So when somebody asks me how to pronounce Dohnányi, I'll say “do you want the Ethnic Hungarian pronunciation or the Typical American Mispronunciation?” After all, who in this country pronounces Mendelssohn so the last syllable rhymes, as it would in German, with “zone”? And let's not even get into all those Russian composers...

– Dick Strawser

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