Concert Notes

Dohnányi’s “Symphonic Minutes”

Notes by TŌN cellist Elvira Hoyos Malagon

Ernő Dohnányi played an important role in the 20th-century Hungarian music scene. As a pianist, composer, and conductor, Dohnányi’s influence on classical Western music is notable. His virtuoso piano skills gained him recognition throughout Europe. He was a contemporary and friend of Bèla Bártok.

During the First World War, Dohnányi explored his conducting skills and played a key role in keeping alive and rescuing Hungarian music in many ways. After the war, in 1918, he continued his career as a musician, teaching at today’s Franz Liszt Academy, as a concert pianist, and expanding his conducting skills. Notably, he was forced to interrupt his activities in Europe in 1943 due to his anti-Nazi and pro-Jewish positions. However, he later resumed his career as a composer-in-residence at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Symphonic Minutes, subtitled “Character Movements,” was composed in 1933 as the second part of a collaborative dance suggested by his choreographer wife, Elsa Galafrès. Dohnányi conducted both the concert premiere with the Budapest Philharmonic in 1933, and its stage version at the Budapest Opera House in 1934. This work exemplifies Dohnányi’s ability to craft a captivating musical narrative, showcasing his mastery of orchestration and a distinctive fusion of musical traditions. Additionally, his dedication to Hungarian music is evident through the incorporation of folkloric elements, establishing an emotional link with his cultural heritage.

The concise and varied movements of Symphonic Minutes seamlessly interconnect, holding the listener’s attention. Dohnányi employs alterations in tempo, dynamics, and recurring thematic motifs to unify the composition, creating harmony across diverse sections. The composition includes a brilliantly toned and clever Capriccio, a rich Rhapsody highlighting the woodwinds, a sharp and compact Scherzo, Theme and Variations based on a 16th-century melody, and, finally, a spinning Moto Perpetuo Rondo.

Dohnányi, a patriot with his compositions, passionately embraced Hungarian music, infusing it with elements that emotionally connect to his heritage. His legacy challenges norms, leaving a lasting impact on the rich tapestry of Hungarian musical history.