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Ernst von Dohnányi

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Composer Information: Ernst von Dohnányi

Ernő Dohnányi, who used the German form of his name, Ernst von Dohnányi on most of his compositions, (July 27, 1877 – February 9, 1960) was a Hungarian conductor, composer, and pianist.

Dohnányi was born in Pozsony, Hungary, today's Bratislava, Slovakia. He first studied music with his father, a professor of mathematics and amateur cellist, at gymnasium, but afterwards became a pupil at the Budapest Academy of Music, studying piano and composition with Carl Forstner, organist of the Bratislava Cathedral. In 1894 he became a pupil of István Thoman for piano and of Hans Koessler for composition. Béla Bartók was one of his classmates there. Dohnányi's first published composition, Piano Quintet in C minor, earned the approval of Johannes Brahms, who promoted the work in Vienna.

After a few lessons with Eugen d'Albert, Dohnányi made his debut in Berlin, 1897, and was at once recognized as an artist of high attainments. Similar success in Vienna followed, and thereafter he made the tour of Europe with the greatest success. He made his London debut at a Richter concert in the Queen's Hall, where he gave a memorable performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4.

Using his position as a conductor, Dohnányi pioneered Bartók's more accessible music to boost its popularity.

During the following season, he visited the United States. There, he established his reputation playing, again, the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 for his American debut with the St. Louis Symphony.

Unlike most other famous pianists of the time, Dohnányi did not limit himself to solo recitals and concerto solos, but also played chamber music.

In 1902, one of his two sons, Hans von Dohnányi, was born to Ernő and his wife Elisabeth, who was also a pianist. Hans later distinguished himself as a leader of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany, and was a friend and collaborator of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Hans in turn became the father of the well-known orchestral conductor, Christoph von Dohnányi.

Joseph Joachim invited Dohnányi to teach at the Hochschule in Berlin, which he did from 1905 to 1915. Going back to Budapest, Dohnányi organized over a hundred concerts there each year. In 1919 he was appointed director of the Budapest Academy, but was replaced the same year for purely political reasons. He became music director of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and promoted the music of Bartók and Zoltán Kodály and other Hungarians, but did not play his own music too often. Dohnányi's pupils include Ervin Nyíregyházi, Géza Anda, Annie Fischer, Edward Kilényi, Balint Vazsonyi, Sir Georg Solti, Montana Cantsin, Joseph Running, and Frank Cooper.

In the 1920 season, he played the complete Beethoven piano works. During the 1920's, he also recorded several of his works on the AMPICO reproducing piano.

In 1934 he was again appointed director of the Budapest Academy, a post he managed to hold until 1941, having performed all 27 Mozart Piano Concertos. That year he had to disband the orchestra.

After World War II, which had claimed the lives of both of his sons, one in combat and the other executed by the Nazis for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Dohnányi moved to the United States. He had remained in fascist Hungary during the war, essentially apolitical though using his influence and expending his own fortune to protect Jewish musicians. A whispering campaign against him was promoted by the new communist government of Hungary, to the point where he found it necessary to leave. He was not able to revive his career as a concert pianist, but continued to compose, and became interested in American folk music; his last orchestral work, in 1953, is entitled American Rhapsody. This piece was written for the sesquicentennial of Ohio University and includes folk material such as On Top of Old Smokey and I am a Poor, Wayfaring Stranger. Dohnányi also found a teaching position for ten years at the Florida State University School (now College) of Music in Tallahassee, whose music library holds a large archive of Dohnányi's papers, manuscripts, and related materials. An International Ernst von Dohnányi Festival was held there in 2002.

His last public performance, on January 30, 1960, was at Florida State University, conducting the university orchestra in a performance of the Beethoven 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, as well as other works, on stereo LP discs. He had previously recorded a Mozart Concerto, his own Variations on a Nursery Tune, the second movement of his Ruralia Hungarica (Gypsy Andante), and a few solo works (but no Beethoven sonatas) on 78 rpm and various works, including Beethoven's Tempest Sonata, on early mono LP discs. He died ten days later, February 9, 1960, of pneumonia in New York City. The BBC issued an LP recording taken from one of his last concerts with sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert, now considered one of the glories of the heritage of Romantic pianism.

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