Notes by TŌN clarinetist Elias Rodriguez
A pianist and composer of exceptional talent, Dohnányi produced two large-scale symphonic works: Symphony No. 1 in D minor and Symphony No. 2 in E Major, Op. 40. According to his third wife, ideas for the symphony may have taken shape as early as 1928, but were not written down until 1943.
In the spring of 1939, Hungary enacted its Second Anti-Jewish Law, leaving the composer to face the dilemma he and other Hungarians faced of whether to leave the country in protest or contest the law’s discriminatory mandates from home. As Dohnányi was conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, music director of the Hungarian Radio, and director of the Liszt Academy of Music, he decided to stay.
Inspiration for the symphony came to him naturally. He wrote the first movement while he was trying to flee Hungary during the Second World War, and the inner movements in his room in Vienna, as the Russians began their assault. According to Ilona Dohnányi, his third wife, he was “so absorbed in his composition that he seemed absolutely unmindful of the thunderstorm raging around him.”
Norman Del Mar and the Chelsea Symphony Orchestra premiered the work in London on November 23, 1948. Though Dohnányi did not hear the premiere, he felt that the symphony was in an “unperfected form.” After fleeing to the United States and accepting a position as composer-in-residence at Florida State University, he decided to make significant revisions to the work. The most notable change: to shorten the work from over an hour to around fifty minutes.
The revised work was premiered on March 15, 1957 by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati, incidentally nephew to the composer’s first wife. When asked to explain the work himself, Dohnányi explained that the inspiration came from Imre Madách’s dramatic poem Az ember tragédiája, namely its philosophical message, which can be summarized in two lines of text from the poem: “The goal is the end of the glorious fight; the goal is death, life is a struggle.”
Dohnányi described his intentions for the first movement by quoting Madách, “What is life worth without love and strife.” In the fourth movement, Dohnányi uses J.S. Bach’s sacred song to represent not death but the tired man’s longing for death. “The variations alternate between this feeling and the desire to live, which finally wins out at the end of the fugue,” stated Dohnányi. The coda brings back themes from the first movement, further representing “Life’s victory over death!” To demonstrate Dohnányi’s persistent struggle at perfecting the work, there was yet another revision after the first performance of the new work. The final version, completed on November 15, 1957, makes a minor change in the symphony, tweaking a 5th variation in the final movement.