Skip to page content

About this Piece



Length: 13 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle), harp, celesta, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Dohnányi - born Ernö, later Germanicized to Ernst von - was a compatriot, contemporary, and lifelong friend of that giant of 20th-century music, Béla Bartók. But whereas Bartók played the piano (and exceedingly well) to subsidize his composing, Dohnányi's gifts as a pianist were already so extraordinary at an early age that he could hardly help gaining renown as a supervirtuoso throughout Europe. Composing, while always important, perforce came second.

Earlier on, however, his Op. 1 Piano Quintet had attracted the admiration of Brahms and for some years Dohnányi was equally esteemed as pianist and composer. By the First World War, he had become as well a conductor and the man who almost single-handedly rescued the musical life of his native Hungary - as musician, impresario, educator - from imminent, chaotic breakdown. Bartók said that "Dohnányi was Hungary's musical life" during the war.

After 1918, he continued his tours as a pianist and expanded his conducting career and teaching activities. Dohnányi's piano pupils at the Budapest (later Franz Liszt) Academy, of which he was for a time director, would include Georg Solti, Géza Anda, and Annie Fischer. During the late 1930s and for several years thereafter (well into his country's alliance with Germany during World War II) his anti-Nazi, pro-Jewish sentiments - he was a Catholic himself - aroused the ire of the authorities, and in 1943 he was forced to suspend his activities. A rather sad period followed the war, when, ironically, he was accused of having harbored "fascist sympathies." Cleared of these charges, Dohnányi, while able to resume his career as pianist, never regained his former standing. He ended his days not too glamorously, but comfortably, as composer-in-residence at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

As a composer, Dohnányi's youthful allegiance was to Brahms and Schumann. By his mid-20s, however, he had created his own amalgam of the Germanic and the Magyar, with the latter element dominant in his colorful Ruralia Hungarica (From Rural Hungary), created in 1923 as a set of seven piano solos, five of which Dohnányi orchestrated in the following year.

In 1933, Ruralia Hungarica was "expanded" in a sense, when the composer's choreographer wife, Elsa Galafrès, suggested to him a dance work with Ruralia Hungarica as its first part, with a new, similarly Hungarian-folk-themed suite to follow. Thus, the present Symphonic Minutes. As the second half of the resultant "dance legend," Sacred Torch, it was presented at the Budapest Opera House under the composer's baton in December of 1934.

The two scores have since, however, lived separate lives, with the Symphonic Minutes being the less frequently encountered, perhaps because of its bland title. The Symphonic Minutes, subtitled "Character Movements," have their own charms, in terms of humor, harmonic invention, and melodiousness. The five movements - none more than four minutes long - consist of a bright-toned, witty Capriccio; a lush Rapsodia featuring the woodwinds (for which Dohnányi always wrote with particular sympathy); a jagged little scherzo; a miniature set of variations on a Hungarian folk tune; and, finally, a whirling moto perpetuo rondo.

Clearly, here and in his other compositions, Dohnányi's take on Hungarian folk idiom is by no means of the commercial, Lászlo-and-his-magic-violin variety. It is, however, more sweet-tempered, certainly more soft-edged and harmonically conservative, than his colleague Béla Bartók's similarly inspired creations.

-- Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to music periodicals in the U.S. and Europe.