Out of the Box: The Dohnanyi Legacy

Dec 1, 2019

This week on "Out of the Box," it's an album worth listening to not just for the music and the musicians, but for the story of the family behind the music.

WHAT: Takács Quartet, Marc-André Hamelin (piano): Ernő Dohnányi Piano Quintets & String Quartet No. 2

MUST LISTEN: Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 1

WHY THIS ALBUM: Firstly, because of the rich, romantic music written by Dohnányi, brilliantly played by the Takács Quartet and pianist Marc-André Hamelin. Secondly, beacuse of the incredible history of the Dohnányi family. 

This week's Out of the Box isn't particularly new music, or even particularly "out there," sonically speaking. But it is off of a new release from the Takács Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin, and as such I figured it was bound, even before cracking the seal on the wrapping, to be an incredible listen. The artistry and connectivity of the Takács quartet is unmatched, as is the subtlety of Marc-André Hamelin's playing. And I wasn’t wrong! It is truly a wonderful album.

However, the undoubted brilliance of the musicians and musicianship of this album is only one of the reasons I wanted to feature it for Out of the Box. The other is that it gave me an opportunity to talk about the Dohnányi family.

I first heard about the incredible legacy of the Dohnányi family from my mother. She grew up in Hamburg, Germany, and after hearing me announce a piece conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi, texted me something to the effect of, "You know, I think his brother was the mayor of Hamburg in the 80's when I was there... and their father had something to do with the resistance during the war."

Sure enough, Klaus von Dohnányi was mayor of my mother's home city from 1981-1988, but more importantly, his and Christoph's father Hans von Dohnányi was a major figure in the German Resistance to the Third Reich. 

There is a great piece written by the Boston Globe's Jeremy Eichler about Hans von Dohnányi, and I encourage you to read that, but here are the highlights: Shocked by the rhetoric and then the actions of the Nazi party, Hans vowed to do something to stop it.

Hans von Dohnányi
Credit Wikimedia Commons

He managed to get himself appointed to the German military intelligence service, the Abwehr. There he was able to help a fair number of Jews escape Germany by giving them false diplomatic papers, and furthermore was in position to document the atrocities committed by the regime in the hopes that when the Party fell, there would be concrete evidence to hold perpetrators accountable.

As a leader in the German Resistance, he was also instrumental in plotting assassination attempts on Hitler's life, including one failed 1943 scheme involving bombs placed on the Führer's plane. The bombs didn't detonate, and Hans von Dohnányi was arrested and ultimately executed a few months before the end of the war.  

Ernst von Dohnányi - Hans' father and Christoph and Klaus’ grandfather, and the featured composer on the new album by the Takács Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin - also had a major impact on people's lives during the Second World War, an impact that he was rarely if ever credited for during his life.

As a world-renowned conductor, composer, and pianist since before both World Wars, he was a preeminent Hungarian cultural figure, holding several influential positions in the musical world. From 1934 to 1941 he was the director of the Budapest Academy of Music, a post from which he resigned rather than implement anti-Jewish protocols. He also refused to dismiss Jewish members of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, a group which he had led since 1920, managing to save every Jewish musician in the orchestra from deportation until he himself was forced to disband the group and leave Hungary in 1944. Nevertheless, according to Tibor Serly, one of the violinists in the orchestra, "Not one Jewish musician of any reputation living in Hungary lost his life or perished during the entire period of World War II." In fact, by one estimate, Ernst made it possible, through various means, for hundreds of people to be spared deportation to concentration camps over the course of the War.  

So, as I said, the Dohnányis are and were and incredible family. And, as I mentioned in the piece about the Carr-Petrova Duo's "Novel Voices" Refugee Project (see below), there is something tremendously moving about people using their craft to better other people's lives. It's one thing to say music is an important and deeply human thing, but it's an entirely different thing to live that belief and prove it through action. 

Interestingly, the music on this album was all written before 1915 - in other words, written before the legacy of the Dohnányi family was forged. And it's interesting and inspiring to listen to the three works featured on the album and try to suss out the foundations of the humanists that would become Ernst and Hans von Dohananyi. I hope you enjoy!

Composer, conductor, and pianist Ernst von Dohnányi in 1905
Credit Wikimedia Commons

By the way, Christoph von Dohnányi will be in Boston to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra April 30-May 2, 2020, and again at Tanglewood on August 16, 2020. See the full upcoming Boston Symphony Orchestra broadcast schedule here.