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Variations to Twinkle, Twinkle

By a happy coincidence, just a week after we published a story about the authorship of the world-famous poem Twinkle Twinkle Little Star last month, The Syracuse (New York) Symphony Orchestra presented Hungarian composer Ernö Dohnányi 's "Variations on a Nursery Song" for piano and orchestra.

"This grand musical joke, which begins with a long and somewhat Richard Strauss-flavored opening for a very full post-romantic orchestra, scales back noticeably when the soloist launches into a simple version of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," music critic Chuck Klaus wrote in the Syracuse Post-Standard.

"It's not every concert work written in 1914 that gets a big laugh, but this one does. Dohnanyi subjects the nursery tune to at times grand and often distinctive variations, drawing on Brahmsian influences as well as more progressive gestures in construction and orchestra."

We don't pretend to know much about classical music, and regrettably had never heard of that composer. Wikipedia, the free (and best) encyclopedia, came to our rescue.

"Although there is much in the music of Dohnányi to give pleasure, he is probably still best known abroad for his Variations on a Nursery Theme, for piano and orchestra," it said.

"Ernö Dohnányi was born in Poszony (now Bratislava) in 1877 and ... played a leading part in forming the musical culture of Hungary.

"... Due to his overt opposition to the association of Hungary with National Socialist Germany, he found it necessary to spend his final years in America, dying in New York in 1960. As a composer Dohnányi was versatile, continuing existing traditions of music, while as a pianist he enjoyed international fame."

We emailed Chuck Klaus, and he kindly offered us this additional information about the composer:

Erno Dohnanyi - or, as he styled himself earlier in his career "Ernst Von Dohnanyi" - was a fascinating musician. An accomplished pianist, a skill that he kept in good maintenance to the end of his long life, he was also a fine composer who happened to fall a bit behind the most avant trends of his time.

His early works, especially an Op. 1 Quintet for piano and strings, sounds so close to the style of Brahms that the aging Viennese composer was somewhat agog over the work of the 17 year old Slovak-born Hungarian, and arranged for its publication.

Dohnanyi later was to incorporate more progressive musical trends as well as his own version of Hungarian folk music into his composing style - never as aggressively as his countrymen Bartok or Kodaly, but with distinction.

Dohnanyi's integration into Hungary's musical life was such that he did not leave during the German occupation. He evidently used his influence to harbor and save endangered citizens, but his prolonged presence opened him up to a Communist-era whispering campaign, which claimed that he was in fact a collaborator with the German authorities. (Quite untrue...the worst thing one might say about him is that he worked against the system from within.)

He settled in America post-war, teaching in Florida and occasionally concertizing and recording, as well as becoming interested in American folk music, and even composing a few American-flavored concert works.

Some of Dohnanyi's late-career recordings, such as an early EMI stereo session featuring the composer at the piano for his "Variations on a Nursery Tune," have been released on CD. His grandson is the noted conductor Christoph Dohnanyi.


Story first posted February 2006

Copyright © 2006

Eric Shackle

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