Ernő Dohnányi’s Concertino for Harp and Chamber Orchestra
Notes by TŌN cellist Isaac Kim
Composing for Commission
It wasn’t easy for Hungarian composer Ernő Dohnányi to write his Concertino for Harp and Chamber Orchestra, even though it took him only around three weeks. At the age of 75, he had to spend sleepless nights writing commissioned pieces that he wasn’t very fond of. In his book Message to Posterity, Dohnányi said, “A composer of some routine can write ‘something’ in any time but it would be very different from that he would write it when really inspired. […] When I needed money I had to compose ‘for commission,’ after all, which duplicated my difficulties.” To support his family financially, he had to balance his work at the Florida State University with composing, while suffering from sinus infections. He also had to deal with performers for whom his pieces were commissioned. Originally, the Concertino for Harp and Chamber Orchestra was commissioned for the harpist Edna Phillips, but she never performed it because she didn’t care for Dohnányi’s “neo-romantic” style.
This Concertino does not follow the traditional rules of a concerto for a solo instrument, where the soloist shows off the beautiful sound of the instrument and their mesmerizing technique. Rather, it might be interpreted as intimate, romantic chamber music, where the composer brings out inner thoughts and emotions about life and death. It has an unusual structure. Dohnányi doesn’t use his usual sonata-allegro form for the first movement, but decided to use harp as accompaniment followed by woodwind solos. Perhaps this was due to his belief that harp was best utilized for harmonic figurations and bringing out important structural moments, which was probably influenced by Debussy or Ravel. Instead of the usual triumphant and flashy ending, the short last movement is marked Adagio non troppo, which gives it a melancholy and heartfelt atmosphere. In the last measures, the timpanist gently hits the note B, which could be interpreted as the slow, dying pulsation of a heartbeat. The Concertino as a whole gives this gentle and nostalgic feeling. Perhaps the composer was thinking back on his youthful days in Hungary, searching for a peaceful end to his troubled life.