Ernst von DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960) The Veil of Pierrette, Pantomime in three acts, op.18 (1908/09) ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ariane Matiakh
rec. 2019, ORF Radio Kulturhaus, Vienna
CAPRICCIO C5388 [80:48]
In 1999, I invested in Chandos’ recording (CHAN 9733) of Dohnányi’s great Suite in F sharpminor for orchestra, op.19, the well-loved Variations on a Nursery Tune, op.25 for piano andorchestra and a selection of four numbers from The Veil of Pierrette. op.18. The concertante
work was played by Howard Shelley with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by
I recall little about The Veil save the vibrant pastiche ‘Viennese’ Wedding Waltz. Some
thirty years later, Capriccio Records have issued the premiere recording of the entire piece.
Much as I enjoyed virtually every bar in this new release, I am left wondering if this long
piece works without the stagecraft and dancing. Perhaps the derived ‘Suite’ was enough
material for all but the biggest enthusiasts of the composer?
A couple of notes about the composer may set the context. Ernst von Dohnányi was a
Hungarian born composer, conductor and pianist. He was born in Pressburg, now Bratislava
(Slovakia) on 27 July 1877. His early masterpiece, the Piano Quintet (1895). was performed
in Vienna at the behest of Brahms. For several years, Dohnányi toured the music centres of
Europe and the United States as a concert pianist, before accepting a professorship at the
Royal High School in Berlin. This was followed by the directorship of the Royal Music
Academy in Budapest and latterly as musical director of Hungarian Radio. For many years
Dohnányi was chief conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra. After some post-war
accusations of anti-Bolshevik activities and suggestions of Nazi collaboration during the War,
Dohnányi and his wife emigrated to the United States He died in New York on 9 February
Dohnányi’s music is largely traditional in aesthetic and was in the trajectory of his mentor
Johannes Brahms. He was little influenced by the folk music of Hungary like fellow
countryman Béla Bartok. In 2020, Dohnányi is best recalled for the above-mentioned
Variations, the Konzertstück for Cello and Orchestra in D major, op. 12 and the Serenade forString Trio in C major, op. 10. A few piano pieces, including the Four Rhapsodies, op.11
have maintained a toehold on the repertoire.
Turning now to the present CD, first, a definition of ‘pantomime’ may help. Used in the
context of this work, the word has little to do with the delightful tradition associated with
British Christmases: Aladdin, Cinderella and Peter Pan. Here the genre is quite simply a
‘mimed entertainment.’ In this case it is a ‘black comedy’ rather than something to laugh
The Veil of Pierrette was based on a scenario devised by the Viennese novelist and dramatist
Arthur Schnitzler. Ernst von Dohnányi completed the score during 1908-09 and the work was
first performed the on 22 January 1910 in Dresden. The ‘pantomime’ is presented in three
The three main protagonists here are Pierrette, Pierrot, and Harlequin, all ‘colourful’
characters from the commedia dell’arte. Despite no singing being required, the principals
were performed by opera singers with the minor characters acted by ballet dancers.
The plot is based on Pierrette leaving her lover, Pierrot, and seeking to marry Harlequin. She
regrets her rashness and at the last-minute returns to Pierrot to jointly commit suicide. She
offers poison to Pierrot, which he drinks, but alas Pierrette does not have the daring to kill
herself. She leaves her paramour dying and runs back to Harlequin. Now the relevance of the
title is revealed. Harlequin notices that her veil is missing. He forces her to go back to
Pierrot’s room where the body is found next to the fatal draught and the veil. Harlequin
insists that she drink a toast to her lover. Locked in the room she goes mad. When friends
open the door both Pierrot and Pierrette are found dead.
The Veil of Pierrette has not held its place in the repertoire down the years. On the other
hand, the Wedding Waltz became extremely popular and even managed to give Richard
Strauss’s waltz sequence from Der Rosenkavalier a run for its money.
It is hard to define the musical style of this ‘pantomime’. I guess that I would note
Dohnányi’s ability to synthesise a variety of late-Romantic styles. Despite some nods to other
composers such as Sibelius, Mahler and Richard Strauss (and even Johann Strauss), this
imaginative music is marked by integrity and musical competence. It is not a ‘string of
pearls’ sourced from a variety of post-Romantic composers but is a valid score.
The liner notes, written by Christian Heindl, give a good account of the genesis and
performance of The Veil as well as an introduction to the composer’s life and times. The
performance by Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ariane Matiakh is always
sympathetic and splendidly played.
Dohnányi’s music for The Veil is enjoyable, cleverly devised, full of melody and delightfully
orchestrated. There are a wide variety of moods often characterised by despair and charisma.
Whether the 80-minute length of this ‘pantomime’ will militate against it establishing a niche
in the concert hall or record charts remains to be seen. What Capriccio Records have done is
to provide the first complete recording of one of Dohnányi’s most vibrant and interesting
works. For this reason alone, it is an essential project.
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