Ernst von Dohnanyi   

Ernst von Dohnanyi lived a magnificently eventful life, and quite remarkably, it has been attested that he took it all in stride. It often seems oxymoronic for a musician and composer to be labeled coolheaded and kind. Musicians, and especially composers, are well known for their shocking temperaments, because, apart from these, how could they create such passionate and beautiful music? Yet Dohnanyi’s wife, Ilona Zachar, claims he was the most even-tempered of men.


Rather than being the fountainhead wherefrom flashes of rage, emotion and creative genius issued, Dohnanyi was a vehicle who traveled through and endured the battering of a harsh reality. He possessed an incredible adaptability that allowed him to bear all circumstances with optimism, and his endurance generated a gifting of over one hundred poignant compositions.

It is easy to ascertain that his compositions were reflective of his often-turbulent experiences. Living from July, 1877 until February, 1960 with an upbringing in Hungary, Dohnanyi lived through both World War I and World War II. While each war played a significant part in his life, it was the end of World War II that jeopardized his career and passion.


In the fall of 1945, political accusations were brought against Dohnanyi that labeled him a Nazi sympathizer possessing anti-Russian tendencies. Due to these outrageous claims, many previously scheduled engagements were cancelled, and his supporters fled from him as though he had the plague. None of these allegations could be proven and contrary evidence eventually acted in his favor, but the slander was enough to push him out of his country where he had been a faithful contributor to the arts.


Despite all this, he continued to conduct, perform and compose. In 1949, he accepted a position as Professor of Piano and Composer-in-Residence at Florida State University. In 1953, at the age of 76, he made a re-debut at Carnegie Hall where he performed his Second Piano Concerto. Slowly, the negative sentiments towards him that arose from malicious slander began to dissolve. His courage and resilience which he had possessed all of his life proved to be assets that rewarded him, as well as us all, with a rich musical output.


A particular composition comes to mind when thinking of Dohnanyi’s optimistic character. In the year 1941, he completed his symphonic cantata, Cantus Vitae. The text comes from the 1861 dramatic poem, Az ember tragediaja written by Imre Madach (read more about Madach here).


Originally, this epic drama relayed the complete history of mankind from birth to end times in a deeply pessimistic way, akin to ideologies presented in Goethe’s Faust (read more about Goethe and Faust here). Its central focus is the struggle between the first man Adam, his wife, Lucifer and the Lord. While Madach intended for the moral to be fatalistic and dark, Dohnanyi, in accordance with his nature, rejected this outlook.


Instead, he adopted the ideas from their gloomy origin and gave them a life of light. While he agreed with Madach that one encounters tribulations throughout life, he chose to view them as necessities with potential for betterment rather than disasters. 


This work Cantus vitae, or “Song of Life,” is a symphonic cantata in five parts, depicting that endings are new beginnings and not ends in of themselves.  One of the chants of the third part, “Funeralia” begins:


The cradle and the coffin are all one;

What ends today, begins tomorrow,

Always hungry, always full.

Lo, the evening bell has sounded;

Let those whom morning calls to a new life

Begin the great work anew.


The crux of the work is Dohnanyi’s personal evaluation of the meaning of life that is sung by the off-stage “Chorus mysticus:”


Family pride and sense of ownership

Are the moving forces of the world.

Life without struggle and without love

Has no value.


And so, today we remember his life full of struggle and love, his contribution, and most importantly his outlook. May we all adopt such a perspective so that in the face of hard times, we encourage and uplift, and in light of good times, we enjoy them more fully. Happy Birthday, Ernst von Dohnanyi.


For more information, check out Ernst von Dohnanyi – A Song of Life by Ilona von Dohnanyi, available at your local library.

                                                                                                               M. Sparks