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Dohnányi wrote his Serenade in 1904, the year Dvořák died. Dohnányi was 26, and already an international star pianist and a major figure at home in Hungary, where his influence was powerful. As early as 1895, he had drawn attention as a composer, when Brahms praised the 18-year-old’s Op. 1 Piano Quintet and arranged its Vienna premiere. Because he acquired international stature even as a teenager, Dohnányi’s decision to study at the Budapest Academy of Music instead of going to Vienna or Berlin lent prestige to that young institution, and led younger musicians such as Bartók and Kodály to study there as well, even though Dohnányi cast a long shadow over the institution. When Bartók, only three years younger than Dohnányi, gave a recital at the Academy in October 1901, a Budapest critic wrote “Bartók thunders around on the piano like a little Jupiter. No piano student at the Academy today has a greater chance of following in Dohnányi’s footsteps.” Two years later Bartók was a student in Dohnányi’s master class.
In later years Dohnányi would dominate the Hungarian musical scene to an extent scarcely imaginable. In the 1920s he was so active as a teacher, pianist, and conductor that Bartók said Dohnányi was providing the nation’s entire musical life. Dohnányi’s resume pretty much bears Bartók out: by the 1930s he was director of the Budapest Academy, music director of Hungarian Radio, and chief conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic.
His life and career began to unravel when the Nazis came to power, though there is still controversy and confusion about his role in affairs. There are those who say that he resisted Nazi anti-Semitic policy and resigned from the Budapest Academy in 1941 and from the Philharmonic in 1944 when that policy was implemented in spite of him. Others accused him of using his influence with the Nazis to push his own agendas, pointing out that he moved to Austria, then part of Nazi Germany, in 1944. One of his sons was a German officer who was executed for taking part in the “Stauffenberg plot” to assassinate Hitler.
Though Dohnányi was cleared of charges of collaboration by the American occupation authorities, he would always be a controversial figure, and his international profile was greatly lowered in the postwar years. In 1949 he settled in Tallahassee to teach at Florida State University, where one of his graduate students was his grandson, the conductor Christoph von Dohnányi.
The Serenade is a progressive work. Dohnányi had a way of developing his themes contrapuntally that brings Brahms to mind, and his music always showed touches of his affinity for Mozart and Schubert, but the shifting chromatic tonality of the Serenade is firmly of the 20th century. This was cutting-edge stuff, considering that it was written the same year as Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
Still, a composer who wrote a “serenade” was always in some sense harking back to the 18th century. Dohnányi’s Serenade begins with a brisk march, as did many 18th-century serenades, where a march signified the real or symbolic entrance of the high-ranking person who had put on the evening’s entertainment and paid for the music. Dohnányi’s opening bars have some of that pomp, but it dissolves in a hurry. Though Dohnányi was not much interested in folk music as such, the march’s second theme has a very Hungarian flavor.
After the melancholy romance, the fugue-like scherzo generates a lot of nervous energy, and occasionally a sense of chaos. The slithery chromatic main subject tends to divide into groups of two notes, cutting across the predominantly triple rhythm and giving the impression that the meter is constantly changing; it is actually written in a never-changing 6/8, just like Sousa’s Semper Fidelis march. A simpler diatonic theme peeks its head into the early part of the movement, dominates the middle section, and gets insinuated into the chromatic fugal texture in the third part of the movement.
The fourth movement is a theme and five variations, the first three of which are extensions of the theme’s mood and may strike the listener more as further strains of the theme than variations.
The rondo, with its bold double-stop exclamations and running scales, is much in the spirit of the opening march, so much so that it is scarcely an intrusion when the march actually returns to supply the coda and round off the work.
— Howard Posner