Ernst von Dohnányi, Piano Concerto no. 1
Ernst von Dohnányi, Piano Concerto no. 1 in E Minor, Op. 5
This blog has meant, for me, not just a rediscovery of music, but a discovery of music I did not know.
I have listened to many songs for this blog, many more than I have written about: but today I did not want another song: I wanted something deeper, something that demanded more of me as a listener. July 27th was the birthday of Ernst von Dohnányi (1877 - 1960), the Neoromantic 20th-century Hungarian composer. I had not marked that day; I knew little of Dohnányi's music, so today I began listening to it: and I found the Piano Concerto no. 1—
It is music to spend a lifetime with. In it, there are soaring moments of beauty, dignity, and courage. Dohnányi enjoyed a dazzling career as a concert pianist, and his virtuoso concerto demands everything of both piano and pianist. Dohnányi is regarded as Hungary's greatest composer after Liszt, and Dohnányi one of the greatest influences on 20th-century Hungarian music—perhaps one reason is because he personally saved so many musicians and composers from the Holocaust. James A. Grimes, in his paper "Ernst von Dohnányi: A Forgotten Hero of the Holocaust Resistance," credits Dohnányi with:
- blocking the creation of a Hungarian Chamber of Music that would have excluded Jews from the music profession.
- resigning from his position as Director General of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music instead of carrying out orders to fire Jewish instructors.
- disbanding the Budapest Philharmonic rather than dismiss its Jewish members
- assisting a number of individual Jewish musicians. These included impresario Andrew Schulhof, whom Dohnányi helped emigrate from Germany to the U.S. in 1939. The pianist Lajos Hernádi was discharged from the labor service when Dohnányi wrote a letter declaring Hernádi and his hands to be irreplaceable national treasures. When the famous violinist Carl Flesch and his wife were in grave danger of being deported to a concentration camp, Dohnányi helped to reinstate their Hungarian nationalities, enabling them to travel through Germany, back to Hungary, and ultimately to Switzerland. Dohnányi also personally saved the pianist György Ferenczy, Ferenczy’s wife, and several other Jewish musicians from the death trains. Zoltán Kodály later reported that Dohnányi had signed dozens of documents that had saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
In Ernst von Dohnányi: A Song of Life, Dohnányi’s widow placed that number in the hundreds. Jewish violinist and composer Tibor Serly went so far as to credit Dohnányi’s frequent interventions for the fact that “Not one Jewish musician of any reputation living in Hungary lost his life or perished during the entire period of World War II.” (The information about Dohnányi’s efforts to save Jews during World War II is adapted from the Wikipedia article about Dohnányi.)
Here is a link to the pianist Matthias Bamert playing the Piano Concerto no. 1, with Howard Shelly conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra:
How Hearing This Music Affected Me
I was first struck by the power of Dohnányi's music as I listened to the concerto—with its glittering piano chords in high notes and with the proclamations of the trumpets. Only after the concerto had finished did I begin research for this post. Discovering that Dohnányi was not just a remarkable pianist and composer, but a hero of the Holocaust resistance made me admire this composer and his concerto even more. The world is ever in need of men like Ernst von Dohnányi.
I created "To See the Day Spring," the image above in 2006. It is based on Mandelbrot fractals. The title is from Robert Herrick's poem "His Return to London":
From the dull confines of the drooping west,
To see the day spring from the pregnant east,
Ravish'd in spirit, I come.