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Dohnányi (1877-1960) - Variations on a Nursery Tune

Dukas had his L’Apprenti Sorcier, Jarnefelt his Praeludium, and Pachelbel his Canon, but topping the league of “One-Work Composers” must surely be Erno Dohnányi. Born in what is now Pozsony, in his twenties he became a pianist of international repute before settling down as Piano Professor at the Berlin Hochschule. Progressing through Directorships at the Budapest Conservatory (1919) and Hungarian Radio (1931), he became Director of said Hochschule in 1934. The war failed to dislodge him, but in 1949 he moved to the USA to become Professor of Piano at Florida State College. He composed three operas and sundry piano, chamber and orchestral music, but remains virtually unknown apart from this supremely brilliant masterpiece of 1913. 

If you're destined to be a “One-Work Composer”, then this is the way to do it: take a simple nursery ditty -  “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”, used by Mozart in his Variations of 1778, will do very nicely - and completely go to town on it. Otherwise known hereabouts as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”, the tune perhaps nods politely in the general direction of  “Baa, baa, black sheep”, not just because of its very similar outline, but also because certain of Dohnányi's elaborations allude to the “have you any wool?” phrase. As it happens, allusions flock like sheep, prompting suggestions that Dohnányi's music is satirical, poking fun at the fashions and figures of his youth. If so then, in music of this quality, to be thus lampooned must be counted a signal honour. 

The piano's role is virtuosic - no surprises there, the real surprise being the equal virtuosity of the orchestral writing and, capping all, the extraordinary degree of empathy, rather than enmity, between soloist and orchestra. Crammed into twenty-odd minutes are an introduction, theme, thirteen variations and coda. These encompass an astonishing diversity of contrasts and complements, courtesy of Dohnányi's aural imagination and his particularly inventive treatment of the theme: spurning mere “decoration” he shuffles the deck, remoulding the line, contorting the theme as far as he can without destroying its identity altogether. 

Introduction and Theme: Let's start as we mean to continue: a long, doom-sodden orchestral introduction prepares us for the worst (if you're psychic, or already familiar, you'll spot the theme's outline pacing in the horns). A double crunch, a pregnant pause. The soloist enters, playing the tune plain and simple: I believe that here Dohnányi expected the pianist to use only the index fingers, in the manner of a child picking out the tune . . . 

Variation 1: . . . though such a technique quickly becomes impracticable as, apparently at last finding its way, the theme blurs into racing, rippling figurations (don't you just love jokes with telescopic punch-lines?). 

Variation 2: Already beginning to shuffle the deck, horns inject a bit of “military discipline”, answered by the piano. Before long, the trumpets join the fray (it is, after all, their forte). 

Variation 3: Now everyone sways and swoons, mimicking the graceful finale of Brahms' Second Piano Concerto. As this fades . . . 

Variation 4: . . . things turn slightly tipsy, bassoons rolling in the depths. Echoing V2, the rejoinder this time comes from the sharper end of the woodwind spectrum. 

Variation 5: Thus far, colours have been fairly muted. Now a veritable music box is opened, filling the air with effervescent tinklings, piano and orchestra in perfect harmony. Dee-licious

Variation 6: Suddenly, chittering woodwind scamper, tumbling over one another - and the soloist - occasionally guided by a slow, threading line. 

Variation 7: Equally suddenly, the unmistakable rhythm of a Viennese waltz breaks in, the theme again reshuffled to introduce the requisite bounce. 

Variation 8: Over a pulsing bass-line, bassoons and clarinets pick out a perky march, taken up by piano and oboes. 

Variation 9: Complementing the cosily colourful V5, this is more like Pandora's Box, releasing all kinds of wierd and wonderful daemons. Although the clattering xylophone tempts us to think “Danse Macabre”, this variation's fleetness of foot urges circumspection. 

Variation 10: Pandora's Box is firmly closed to admit a noble passacaglia. This, the longest variation and the heart of the work, counterbalances the Introduction. Progressing through the solemnity of a reference to Brahms' Fourth Symphony and prayerful string textures redolent of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, it culminates in a bruising crescendo . . . 

Variation 11: . . . at the top of which bursts forth a resplendent - and utterly direct - statement of the skeleton of the theme, starting a short chorale during which the piano indulges in some distinctly (indistinctly?) Debussian whole-tonality. 

Variation 12: There's a clear feeling of “the home straight” about this odd little fugato - “odd” because while the orchestra fugues, the piano keeps up a constant rippling, as if it's chasing around trying to help absolutely everybody out, but never quite catching up with anybody. In and amongst, is there a reference to Reznicek's Donna Diana Overture? (Ha! Another “one-work composer”!). 

Reprise: With a bang, we're back at the beginning, a lightly varied recapitulation that brings home the sheer audacity and ingenuity of the variations. 

Coda: Well, “codetta” might be nearer the mark: blink once and you'll miss this twenty-five yard dash for the tape, almost as if Dohnányi were slamming shut the book at the end of his captivating tale!

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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