Ernö Dohnányi (later Germanicized to Ernst von) was born in Pozsony, Hungary – today’s Bratislava in Slovakia. He made his breakthrough as a composer in 1895 with his First Piano Quintet, which attracted the attention of Brahms, who arranged to have it published and helped as well to spread the reputation of Dohnányi as a virtuoso pianist. Later he would also be renowned as a teacher of piano in Berlin, Budapest, and the U.S., where he spent his last years. Among his stellar-to-be piano pupils at Budapest’s Liszt Academy between the wars were Géza Anda, György (later Georg) Solti, and Annie Fischer.
During and in the period immediately following the First World War, to quote his friend Béla Bartók, “Dohnányi almost single-handedly kept Hungarian musical life from descending into utter chaos – as musician [he had added conducting to his curriculum vitae by this time], impresario, and educator.”
Of Dohnányi's orchestral compositions, the Variations on a Nursery Song (“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” as we call the tune) for piano and orchestra was once a favorite on both sides of Atlantic, but aside from that rather faded charmer little of the composer’s output remains in the repertoire.
The present Serenade for string trio has become the most frequently performed of his chamber works, if not all his works – which has as much to do with its innate vivaciousness as with the paucity of substantial compositions for this combination of instruments, which some regard as a string quartet minus one of its violins, severely restricting the harmonic combinations thus available to the composer. But this was not a problem for Dohnányi, nor for his very dissimilar contemporary Arnold Schoenberg in his harrowing String Trio (1946).
The Serenade, completed in 1902, opens with a spirited March, by turns strictly rhythmical and gently lyrical. Notably attractive is the theme of the middle section, the cello emerging as the principal voice, over the viola’s drone bass. The second movement, “Romanza,” consists of an exquisitely broad opening song for the viola, followed by a scrappy duet for violin and cello against the viola’s arpeggios. The Scherzo is a nimble fugue with two lyrical interruptions. The fourth movement is the Serenade’s highpoint, a theme with five variations, the first for viola; the second and third for the violin; the fourth likewise has the theme in the violin, over viola triplets; while the fifth places it in the viola, with a backdrop of gentle cello pizzicatos.
The Rondo finale is a giddy flight of 16th-notes, their progress interrupted twice by sets of big chordal progressions; and, finally, there is a reappearance of the first movement’s march, played, as at the outset, by the violin over the viola’s drone bass.
Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 16th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.