Obscure Music Monday: Dohnányi's Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song
Ernő Dohnányi (July 27, 1877 - Feb. 9, 1960) was a Hungarian composer, conductor, and violinist. You might see his name as Ernst von Dohnányi, which is the German form of his name.
Dohnányi's first music teacher was his father, an amateur cellist, and then at eight years old he studied with the organist at the local cathedral. When he was seventeen years old, he began attending the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music, where he studied piano with István Thomán (one of Liszt's favorite students) and composition with Hans von Koessler, a cousin of Max Reger and devotee of Johannes Brahms. It's not entirely surprising that in turn, Dohnányi's playing was influenced by Liszt, and many of his compositions like Brahms. His first published work, Piano Quintet in c minor was promoted by Brahms himself in Vienna. Just three years after Dohnányi arrived at the academy, he asked to take his exams early, and he did, earning high scores in both piano and composition, and graduating by the time he was only twenty.
After his time in school, Dohnányi would travel around the world and find success wherever he went, including Berlin, Vienna, England, and America. He was particularly fond of playing Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, and as a conductor he was among the first to conduct Bartok's more accessible music. He would go on to teach in Berlin for ten years, and later on be the director of the Budapest Academy, and Music Director of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra. Also around these times, he became a renowned teacher, and performed and recorded many of Beethoven's works, and in 1933 organized the first International Franz Liszt Piano Competition.
In regards to his compositions, Dohnányi wrote symphonies, operas, choral works, concertos, various chamber works, and wrote several compositions for piano, including Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song. He premiered this piece on Dec. 27, 1920, when he was writing many nationalistic works. Pastorale is based on a traditional Hungarian melody: the Christmas carol ‘Mennybol az angyal’ (The Angel from Heaven), a song about the angel who announced Jesus’s birth to the shepherds. The theme of this work is joyous and comforting, which isn't too surprising, given the subject. Around the 2:30 mark, the texture and writing gets thicker while still maintaining that holiday spirit. The left hand at one part almost sounds like the drone of a bagpipe, giving it a wonderful countryside feel. This composition does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of Christmas, and is filled with joy and wonderment.
Here are some recordings of this wonderful work for you to enjoy!