Dohnányi and Bartók

2017. február 01.

There was a time when it appeared that the music of Ernő Dohnányi would be forever banished from the living music memory and the concert hall. Happily, this did not come to pass, thanks in part to the efforts of Ilona Prunyi who is giving a concert with Miklós Perényi and Ádám Banda on the 3th February.

Bartók, Kodály, Dohnányi: there was a time when the leading role of these three in Hungarian music was not in doubt. However, in the troubled years after the war the oldest member of the triumvirate, Ernő Dohnányi (1877−1960), suddenly ceased to be an ideal, and as a consequence of a campaign of political slander that to this day has still not been totally explored (although it is almost certainly unfounded), his name was in effect airbrushed out of music life in Hungary for decades. Even though his works have been played ever more frequently from the 1990s onwards, and musicology discovered him towards the turn of the millennium, still one can say that today, in 2017, on the 140th anniversary of his birth, we still know shamefully little about the work of this brilliant composer-pianist, who – as director of the Liszt Academy, president-conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and head of the music department of Hungarian Radio – was virtually absolute ruler of Hungarian music life during the interwar period. Leaving aside the obvious biographical information, his relationship with Bartók and Kodály is not clear either, although sources would suggest that of his two colleagues he was more drawn to Bartók. At the same time, it is impossible to disregard famous quotes from Bartók’s correspondence such as “[…] his [Dohnányi’s] much worse and unforgiveable sin is his lack of patriotism. This excludes the possibility that there can ever be a ‘better relationship’ between us” (1903) or “my relations with […] Hubay are utterly bad, with Dohnányi very chilly” (1934). Of course, the true picture is far more nuanced than this.

Dohnányi & Bartók (Photo: Institue for Musicology of the Hungarian Acadeny of Sciences, Bartók Archives / Jenő Antal Molnár)

The first quote is taken from a letter written from Gmunden, where Bartók had travelled in order to take piano lessons from Dohnányi. And although the two frequently disputed political issues, in the course of which Bartók said that they had not managed to convince each other (1903), in the final analysis they did not part company in anger – how could they, when by then they had known each other well for over a decade. They first met at the Catholic Grammar School in Bratislava, where the duties of organist Ernő Dohnányi were taken over by the recently enrolled Béla Bartók. The brilliant Dohnányi became an apparently unattainable role model for Bartók, and what’s more, the four years between them “magnified the divergent arcs in their individual development” – as Dohnányi’s student and biographer Bálint Vázsonyi put it (1971). Be that as it may, Bartók admitted that he selected the Budapest Liszt Academy in 1899 after his former classmate. By that time Dohnányi had already graduated two years prior, had achieved huge success in his visit to Britain, and was already preparing for a tour of America in the new season. However, they kept in touch when in Budapest. For instance, Dohnányi recommended the shy Bartók to the salon of Emma Sándor, later to become Mrs. Zoltán Kodály.

After their many shared experiences in their youth, their ways parted for more than a decade because Dohnányi lived abroad. However, soon after his return to Hungary there was a reunion when, together with Kodály, the three participated in the music directory of the Republic of Councils. After the war, Dohnányi was frequently absent once again, which is why Bartók could write in an article in English that “Budapest desperately missed him” (1921). In the meantime Dohnányi accepted a major role in the staging of Bartók’s orchestral works. As head of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra he conducted numerous world premieres or premieres in Hungary of Bartók’s works. There was a major divergence in the political and public behaviour of the two from the 1930s onwards. Dohnányi increasingly took on leading positions in music life, while Bartók’s political convictions caused him increasingly to withdraw. One of the first orders given by Dohnányi in the wake of his appointment as director of the Liszt Academy (1934) was to approve the request by Bartók for a transfer to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, where he oversaw the categorization of folk song material. The two careers, in many respects running in parallel and at other times closely intertwined, came to a similar conclusion: both artists left for the United States (Bartók in 1940, while Dohnányi only quit war-torn Hungary in 1944), and both died in New York (Bartók from a serious illness at the age of 64, in 1945, Dohnányi as a result of complications from pneumonia contracted during a recording session at the age of 82, in 1960).

Despite the many common points in their respective careers and their close personal relationship, the music of Bartók and Dohnányi could not have been more different. This is partly rooted in their very different personalities. The writings of Bartók himself and the memories of his contemporaries lead us to picture him as a highly aloof, austere figure, while Dohnányi on the other hand was spoken of as the personification of serenity and lightness. As far as their creative worlds are concerned, Bartók’s individual, dramatic and modern style was known to be shaped by a scientifically rigorous interest in folk music and more generally ancient music, while Dohnányi seemed as though he was unable to bring himself to break from 19th century German music traditions that created his musical identity, and he himself admitted that he wrote ‘conservative’ music throughout his life. In spite of all this they were not independent of each other in a compositional sense. “I diligently composed […] under the influence of the early works of Dohnányi, namely his opus 1,” wrote Bartók in his autobiography (1923), and by examining the analyses of László Vikárius (1999) we can begin to discern what role the influence of Dohnányi had in starting the career of the younger composer, as well as how Bartók rejected this influence.

Later research suggests that Dohnányi, who as if he couldn’t or didn’t want to keep distant stylistic elements of compositions performed as pianist and conductor from his own creative workshop, ‘interpreted’ Bartók’s music in his own works. For example, the variation movement of Symphonic Minutes, Op. 36, was later integrated into a series, in all likelihood in the wake of the orchestralization of the peasant song arrangement Angoli Borbála by Bartók, as in several late pieces, for example in Burletta (Op. 44/1) similar to the Bartók burlesque Slightly Tipsy, the Bartók memories also appear. It is as though the elderly Dohnányi would have remembered Bartók this way, as well as his homeland and own past as seen from the remoteness of his emigration.