Ernő Dohnányi

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The native form of this personal name is Dohnányi Ernő. This article uses the Western name order.
Ernő Dohnányi

Ernő Dohnányi (Hungarian: [ˈɛrnøː ˈdohnaːɲi]; July 27, 1877 – February 9, 1960) was a Hungarian conductor, composer and pianist. He used a German form of his name, Ernst von Dohnányi, on most of his published compositions. The "von" implies nobility, and, according to the biography by his third wife, his family was ennobled in 1697 and given a "seal," which she describes in some detail.[1]


Dohnányi was born in Pozsony, Kingdom of Hungary, Austria-Hungary (today Bratislava, capital of Slovakia). He first studied music with his father, a professor of mathematics and an amateur cellist, and then, when he was eight years old, with Carl Forstner, organist at the local cathedral. In 1894, in his seventeenth year, he moved to Budapest and enrolled in the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music,[2] studying piano with István Thomán and composition with Hans von Koessler, a cousin of Max Reger. István Thomán was a favorite student of Franz Liszt and Hans von Koessler was a devotee of Johannes Brahms music. These two influences played an important role during Dohnányi's entire life: Liszt in his way of playing piano and Brahms in his compositions.[3] Dohnányi's first published composition, his Piano Quintet in C minor, earned the approval of Johannes Brahms, who promoted the work in Vienna.

Dohnányi didn't stay long at the Academy of Music; in June 1897 he asked permission to take the final exams right away, without completing his studies. Permission was granted, and only few days later he passed with high marks, as a composer and pianist, obtaining his diploma at less than twenty years of age.[3]

After a few lessons with Eugen d'Albert, another student of Franz Liszt, Dohnányi made his debut in Berlin in 1897 and was at once recognized as an artist of high merit. Similar success in Vienna followed, and he then toured Europe with great success. He made his London debut at a Richter concert in Queen's Hall, where he gave a memorable performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. He was among the first to conduct Bartók's more accessible music and made it more popular.

During the following season, he visited the United States and established his reputation playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 for his American debut with the St. Louis Symphony. Unlike most famous pianists of the time, he did not limit himself to solo recitals and concertos but also played chamber music.

In 1901 he completed his Symphony No. 1, his first orchestral work. Although he was heavily influenced by established contemporaries, most notably Brahms, the work displayed considerable technical skill in its own right.

He married Elisabeth (Elsa) Kunwald (who was also a pianist), and in 1902 their son, Hans von Dohnányi, was born. Hans would later distinguish himself as a leader of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany and was a friend and collaborator of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (his brother-in-law). Hans, ultimately executed during the final stages of the World War II, was father of well-known orchestral conductor Christoph von Dohnányi. Dohnányi and Elsa Kunwald also had a daughter, Greta.

Following an invitation by the violinist (and close friend of Brahms) Joseph Joachim, Dohnányi taught at the Hochschule in Berlin from 1905 to 1915. While there he wrote The Veil of Pierrette, Op. 18, and the Suite in F-sharp minor, Op. 19. Returning to Budapest, he organized over a hundred concerts there each year.

Before World War I broke out, Dohnányi met and fell in love with a German actress (also described as a singer[4] and ballerina[5]), Elza Galafrés, who was married to the great Polish Jewish violinist Bronisław Huberman. They could not marry, since their respective spouses refused to divorce them, but despite this they had a son, Matthew, in January 1917. Both later gained the divorces they sought, and were married in June 1919. Dohnányi also adopted Johannes, her son by Huberman.[6][7]

In 1919, during the Hungarian Soviet Republic, he was appointed director of the Budapest Academy, but a few month later the new interim government replaced him with the prominent violinist Jenő Hubay after Dohnányi had refused to dismiss the pedagogue and composer Zoltán Kodály from the Academy for his leftist political position.[8] In 1920, with Admiral Horthy becoming Regent of Hungary, Dohnányi was named music director of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and promoted the music of Béla Bartók,[citation needed] Zoltán Kodály, Leo Weiner and other contemporary Hungarian composers. That same 1920 season, he performed the complete piano works of Beethoven and recorded several of his works on the Ampico player-piano-roll apparatus. He also gained renown as a great teacher. His pupils included Andor Földes, Mischa Levitzki, Ervin Nyiregyházi, Géza Anda, Annie Fischer, Edward Kilenyi, Bálint Vázsonyi, Sir Georg Solti, Istvan Kantor, Joseph Running, György/Georges Cziffra, David Pope, Frank Cooper and Ľudovít Rajter (conductor and Dohnányi's godson). In 1933 he organized the first International Franz Liszt Piano Competition.[9]

In 1937 he met Ilona Zachár, who was married with two children. By this time, he had separated from his second wife Elza Galafrés. He and Ilona travelled throughout Europe as husband and wife, but were not legally married until they settled in the United States. After Dohnányi's death, Ilona, in her biography, launched a campaign to disprove his reputation as a Nazi sympathizer.[10] Peter Halász continued this in an article entitled "Persecuted Musicians in Hungary between 1919-1945",[11] portraying Dohnányi as a "victim" of Nazism, and by James Grymes, who in his book [12] claimed Dohnányi was "a forgotten hero of the Holocaust resistance".

In 1934 Dohnányi was once again appointed director of the Budapest Academy, a post he held until 1943, although in 1941 he threatened to resign in protest at having to dismiss his favorite Jewish pupil, György Farago. Laudable though this was, at the same time he did nothing to save his one time friend and colleague, distinguished Jewish composer and teacher Leo Weiner, from losing his job and later did nothing to keep him from starving in the Budapest ghetto. It was Ede Zathureczky, eventually Dohnányi's successor as Director, who managed to smuggle Weiner out of the ghetto and harbor him in the Academy.[13] Furthermore, in 1943 Dohnányi refused to allow even the 6% quota (numerus clausus) of Jews still permitted by the anti-Jewish laws to enter the Academy's master class. Not only that, in his zeal to keep it entirely Jew-free at the auditions for acceptance Dohnányi called loudly for "numerus nullus [number zero]!" in the presence of the violin faculty and the entire class of aspirants.[14] At that point Zathureczky appealed to Jeno Szinyei-Merse, Hungary's moderate Minister of Culture, who took his side. Then, as Dohnányi still refused to respect the "numerus clausus", Szinyei-Merse compelled him to resign and appointed Zathureczky,[15] director of the Academy (1943–1956).

Dohnányi did not disband the Budapest Philharmonic in 1941, but continued to lead it — while its purged Jewish members formed their own orchestra at the OMIKE [16] — until 1944, when the Philharmonic was dispersed due to the siege of the city by the Soviet forces. The program of a concert on December 10, 1943, featuring Károly Váczy in Béla Csizik's Piano Concerto with Dohnányi conducting the Philharmonic, illustrates the continued functioning of the orchestra well after 1941.[17] Of interest is also the advertisement of its next concert on January 7, 1944 with Karl Boehm conducting.

In 1943, Dohnanyi was the virtual czar of music in Hungary. In addition to conducting the Budapest Philharmonic, as music director of the Budapest Radio he also conducted its orchestra and played many piano concertos with it, including all of Mozart's 27. At the Great Hall of the Academy, he performed all of Beethoven's piano sonatas.[18] The assertion[19] that "Dohnányi went through a trying denazification investigation" after the war must be mistaken: such an inquiry and trial could be held only in one's own country and Dohnányi left Hungary at the end of 1944, never to return. According to his loyal pupil Károly Váczy, quoted in the interview in "Muzsika" [20] "If only I had known (in December 1944) that Dohnányi had packed his bags and left Budapest...!" The article also quotes Váczy saying: "Many people think that it was Dohnányi's right-wing third wife, Ilona Zachár, who talked Dohnányi into leaving the country beginning in November 1944" . Ede Zathureczky, Dohnányi's successor as director of the Academy (1943-1956), testifying at his own denazification hearing,[21] stated that Dohnányi, convinced that Hitler would win the war with secret miracle weapons, urged Zathureczky to take the valuable documents and instruments of the Academy and leave the country with him. Zathureczky refused, and stated [22] that Dohnányi and his wife had left Budapest in December 1944 with the last Waffen SS unit, just as the Soviet army was besieging the city. The Dohnányis spent some time in Austria, then went to Argentina, Mexico and finally the United States, where he married Zachár in 1949.

Dohnányi was unable to revive his career as a concert pianist, but continued to compose and became interested in American folk music. His last orchestral work (except for his 1957 revision of the Symphony No. 2), American Rhapsody (1953), was written for the sesquicentennial of Ohio University and included folk material, for example, Turkey in the Straw, On Top of Old Smokey and I am a poor wayfaring stranger.

He and third wife Ilona became American citizens in 1955.

From 1949 on, Dohnányi taught for ten years at the Florida State University School of Music in Tallahassee. In 1946,[23] he became an honorary member of the Epsilon Iota Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity at the Florida State University.

Dohnányi's gravesite at Roselawn Cemetery, Tallahassee, Florida, USA

His last public performance, on January 30, 1960, was at Florida State University, conducting the university orchestra in a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with his doctoral student, Edward R. Thaden, as soloist. Following this performance, Dohnányi traveled to New York City to record some Beethoven piano sonatas and shorter piano pieces, on stereo LP discs for Everest Records. He had previously recorded a Mozart concerto in the early 1930s in Hungary (No. 17, in G major, K. 453, playing and conducting the Budapest Philharmonic, for Columbia, his own Variations on a Nursery Tune for HMV/Victor, the second movement of his Ruralia Hungarica (Gypsy Andante), and a few solo works (but no Beethoven sonatas) on 78 rpm;[24] and various other works, including Beethoven's Tempest Sonata and Haydn's F minor Variations, on early mono LP discs.

He died ten days later, on February 9, 1960, of pneumonia in New York City, and was buried in Tallahassee, Florida.

The BBC issued an LP recording taken from one of his last concerts, with sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert. His recordings are now considered one of the glories of the heritage of Romantic pianism.

His three volumes of Daily Finger Exercises for the Advanced Pianist were published by Mills Music in 1962.

The Warren D. Allen Music Library at Florida State University's College of Music holds a large archive of Dohnányi's papers, manuscripts and related materials.

Influence and legacy[edit]

The Hungarian government posthumously awarded him its highest civilian honor, the Kossuth Prize, in 1990.[25] An International Ernst von Dohnányi Festival was held at Florida State University in 2002.


Dohnányi's compositional style was personal, but very conservative. Although he used elements of Hungarian folk music, he is not considered a nationalist composer like Béla Bartók or Zoltán Kodály. Some characterize his style as traditional mainstream Euro-Germanic in the Brahmsian manner (structurally rather than the way the music actually sounds) rather than specifically Hungarian, while others hear very little of Brahms in his music, the best of which may be his Serenade in C major for string trio, Op. 10 (1902) and Variations on a Nursery Tune for piano and orchestra, Op. 25 (1914).


  • Der Schleier der Pierrette (The Veil of Pierrette), Mime in three parts (Libretto after Arthur Schnitzler), Op. 18 (1909)
  • Tante Simona (Aunt Simona), Comic Opera in one act (Libretto by Victor Heindl), Op. 20 (1912)
  • A vajda tornya (The Tower of the Voivod), Romantic Opera in three acts (Libretto by Viktor Lányi, after Hans Heinz Ewers and Marc Henry), Op. 30 (1922)
  • A tenor (The Tenor), Comic Opera in three acts (Libretto by Ernő Góth and Carl Sternheim, after Bürger Schippel by Carl Sternheim), Op. 34 (1927)


  • Szegedi mise (Szeged Mass), Op. 35 (1930)
  • Cantus vitae, Symphonic Cantata, Op. 38 (1941)
  • Stabat mater, Op. 46 (1953)


Solo instrument and orchestra[edit]

  • Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 5 (1898) (the opening theme was inspired by Brahms's Symphony No. 1)
  • Konzertstück (Concertpiece) in D major for cello and orchestra, Op. 12 (1904)
  • Variations on a Nursery Tune (Variationen über ein Kinderlied) for piano and orchestra, Op. 25 (1914)
  • Violin Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 27 (1915)
  • Piano Concerto No. 2 in B minor, Op. 42 (1947)
  • Violin Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 43 (1950)
  • Concertino for harp and chamber orchestra, Op. 45 (1952)

Chamber and instrumental[edit]

  • String Quartet in D minor, 1893 (unpublished, manuscript at British Library) (Grymes, Ernst Von Dohnányi: A Bio-bibliography, p. 32)
  • String Sextet in B major, 1893 (revised 1896, revised and premiered 1898. Recorded on Hungaroton, 2006.) (Grymes, p. 32)
  • Minuet for String Quartet, 1894 (Grymes, p. 32. Manuscript at the National Széchényi Library.)
  • Piano Quartet in F minor, (1894)
  • Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 1 (1895)
  • String Quartet No. 1 in A major, Op. 7 (1899)
  • Sonata in B minor for cello and piano, Op. 8 (1899)
  • Serenade in C major for string trio, Op. 10 (1902)
  • String Quartet No. 2 in D major, Op. 15 (1906)
  • Sonata in C minor for violin and piano, Op. 21 (1912)
  • Piano Quintet No. 2 in E minor, Op. 26 (1914)
  • String Quartet No. 3 in A minor, Op. 33 (1926)
  • Sextet in C for piano, strings and winds, Op. 37 (1935)
  • Aria for flute and piano, Op 48, No. 1 (1958)
  • Passacaglia for solo flute, Op. 48, No. 2 (1959)


  • Four Pieces, Op. 2 (1897, pub. 1905)
  • Waltzes for four hands, Op. 3 (1897)
  • Variations and Fugue on a Theme of E[mma].G[ruber]., Op. 4 (1897)
  • Gavotte and Musette (WoO, 1898)
  • Albumblatt (WoO, 1899)
  • Passacaglia in E minor, Op. 6 (1899)
  • Four Rhapsodies, Op. 11 (1903)
  • Winterreigen, Op. 13 (1905)
  • Humoresque in the form of a Suite, Op. 17 (1907)
  • Three Pieces, Op. 23 (1912)
  • Fugue for left hand (WoO, 1913)
  • Suite in the Old Style, Op. 24 (1913)
  • Six Concert Etudes, Op. 28 (1916)
  • Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, Op. 29 (1917)
  • Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song (WoO, 1920)
  • Valses nobles, concert arrangement for piano (after Schubert, D. 969) (WoO, 1920)
  • Ruralia Hungarica, Op. 32a (1923)
  • Waltz for Piano from Delibes' "Coppelia" (WoO, 1925)
  • Waltz Suite, for two pianos, Op. 39a (1945),
  • Limping Waltz for solo piano, Op. 39b (1947)
  • Six Pieces, Op. 41 (1945)
  • Three Singular Pieces, Op. 44 (1951)


  1. ^ von Dohnányi, Ilona. Ernst von Dohnányi: A Song of Life. Edited by James A. Grymes. Indiana University Press, 2002. Page 2. See also showing as item #7 an abstract of a history of the Dohnanyi family.
  2. ^ Along the years it happened to be called also College of Music (1919-1925) and in 1925 Franz Liszt Academy of Music, its current name.
  3. ^ a b c Grymes 2005, p. 4.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Dr David Wright, Ernst von Dohnanyi
  6. ^ Carnes 2005, p. 146.
  7. ^ Grymes 2005, p. 6.
  8. ^ Grymes 2005, p. 7.
  9. ^ Grymes 2005, p. 10.
  10. ^ Ilona von Dohnányi,ed. by James A. Grymes, "Dohnányi : A Song of Life", (Indiana University Press, 2002
  11. ^ Oesterreichische Musik Zeitung, Wien, 2007
  12. ^ James A. Grymes, “Perspectives on Ernst von Dohnányi” Scarecrow Press, 2005
  13. ^ Weiner's testimony at Zathureczky's de-nazification trial
  14. ^ Gabriel Banat was next in line to be admitted (see his Memoirs, Ch. 12, 134–135
  15. ^ Bartók's sonata partner for 14 years,
  16. ^ The National Humgarian Israelite Cultural Organization
  17. ^ Reproduced as an illustration in the journal "Muzsika", April 2002, in an article by Márton Devich, entitled "Pódium és katedra": Conversation with Károly Váczy.
  18. ^ Witness of an incident at one of them: Banat, Memoirs ch. 11 p. 119
  19. ^ In the recent notes to the ASO Concert on 5/2/13 (entitled "Hungary Torn")
  20. ^ “Muzsika” of April 2002 by Márton Devich entitled “Pódium és katedra” : Conversation with Károly Váczy, pp. 2–3
  21. ^ Gabriel Banat, Memoirs, Ch. 20, 204–205
  22. ^ in his denazification hearing
  23. ^ date in error, citation needed
  24. ^ citation needed
  25. ^ Grymes 2005, p. xiv.
  26. ^ Grymes, James A. (1999). "Ernő Dohnányi's Revision of His Symphony in E major, Op. 40". Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae (Budapest, Hungary: Academiae Scientiarum Hungarica) 40 (1/3): 71–84. doi:10.2307/902553. JSTOR 902553. 


External links[edit]

Sheet music