Ernő Dohnányi

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Ernő Dohnányi (Hungarian: [ˈɛrnøː ˈdohnaːɲi]; July 27, 1877 – February 9, 1960) was a Hungarian composer, pianist and conductor. 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 a 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 the father of German politician Hans von Dohnányi, of conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, the former Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Dohnányi and Elsa Kunwald also had a daughter, Greta, who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer's mother.

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 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 months 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, Richard La Mar, 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. According to the 2015 entry on Dohnányi in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "From 1939 much of [Dohnányi's] time was devoted to the fight against growing Nazi influences. By 1941 he had resigned his directorial post at the Academy, rather than submit to the anti-Jewish legislation. In his orchestra he succeeded in keeping on all Jewish members until two months after the German occupation of Hungary [on March 12, 1944, in Operation Margarethe ], when he disbanded the ensemble. In November 1944 he went to Austria, a decision which drew criticism for many years. In fact, Dohnányi was criticized either from the left or from the right for most of his deeds, from his student days on. The explanation may be found in his unassailability on musical or ethical grounds..... The ‘accusations’ levelled against him always took the form of rumours. This, and the magnitude of the so-called charges (never substantiated), made it impossible for Dohnányi to defend himself." [13]

In March 2014, at a conference entitled "The Holocaust in Hungary, 70 Years On: New Perspectives" [14] at the Center for Judaic, Holocaust, & Genocide Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, the musicologist James A. Grymes presented research based on archival evidence he has gathered in Budapest, in a paper entitled "Ernst von Dohnányi: A Forgotten Hero of the Holocaust Resistance." It credits Dohnányi with (in the author's summary): 1) "blocking the creation of a Hungarian Chamber of Music that would have excluded Jews from the music profession, just as the infamous Reichsmusikkammer did in Nazi Germany"; 2) resigning "from his position as Director General of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music instead of carrying out orders to fire Jewish instructors"; 3) "As the conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic, Dohnányi disbanded the ensemble rather than dismiss its Jewish members"; 4) 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, violist, 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.”.[15]

Grymes notes the fact that after the war, Dohnányi "was investigated and cleared several times by the U.S. Military Government" - as a precondition to his postwar move to Florida. Grymes also notes that he was "repeatedly defended by prominent Jewish musicians who had worked closely with him in Hungary, including violist Egon Kenton [Kornstein], pianist Edward Kilenyi, musicologist Bence Szabolcsi, and composer Leó Weiner. The latter wrote at least two testimonials pointing out that the majority of Dohnányi’s students had been Jewish and that Dohnányi had consistently programmed Weiner’s own compositions, even during the Nazi regime.".[16]

In 1946,[17] he became an honorary member of the Epsilon Iota Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity at the Florida State University. From 1949 on, Dohnányi taught for ten years at the Florida State University School of Music in Tallahassee. He and his wife Ilona became American citizens in 1955.

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

In the US, he 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.

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;[18] 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

The Hungarian government posthumously awarded him its highest civilian honor, the Kossuth Prize, in 1990.[19] An International Ernst von Dohnányi Festival was held at Florida State University in 2002. LSU professor Milton Hallman was a student of his and recorded a CD called Works For Piano containing some of Dohnányi's most notable music in 1987.


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

  • 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

  • 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)
  • Twelve Short Studies for the Advanced Pianist (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. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Grymes 2005, p. 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. Balint Vazsonyi, Entry on Erno Dohnányi, Grove Music Online (New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians), accessed April 7, 2015
  15. James A. Grymes, "Dohnanyi and the Hungarian Holocaust," URL=
  16. James A. Grymes, "Dohnanyi and the Hungarian Holocaust," URL=
  17. date in error, citation needed
  18. citation needed
  19. Grymes 2005, p. xiv.
  20. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).

Further reading

  • Kusz, Veronika. "A Wayfaring Stranger in the New World: Ernst von Dohnányi's American Rhapsody," American Music 32 (Summer 2014), 201-22.
  • Ilona von Dohnányi and James A, Grymes, eds., Ernst von Dohnányi: A Song of Life (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), ISBN 0-253-34103-5
  • William Lines Hubbard et al., eds., The American History and Encyclopedia of Music, vol. 1 (London: Irving Squire, 1908), 183-4, available online
  • This article incorporates text from a publication that prior to 1923, is in the public domain: The Etude, Philadelphia: Theodore Presser Company Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Carnes, Mark C., ed. (2005-05-12). American National Biography: Supplement 2. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-522202-9. Retrieved 2014-01-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Grymes, James A., ed. (2005). Perspectives on Ernst Von Dohnányi. Lanham US-MD: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0810851252. Retrieved 2014-01-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

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