- A Wayfaring Stranger in the New World: Ernst von Dohnányi’s American Rhapsody
The Hungarian composer—pianist Ernst von Dohnányi (1877–1960, born Dohnányi Ernő) left his home country during World War II, in 1944, and after five years of wandering throughout Europe and South America he finally settled in the United States. As a professor of the Florida State University, Tallahassee, the seventy-two-year-old composer lived a modest and quiet life in his last ten years—a life that was very different from his earlier one, which had been full of fame and power.1 The plunge in status, isolation from international cultural life, defenselessness against the political slanders made against him in the postwar period, and daily difficulties as an émigré all left marks on his creativity.2 A radically different creative environment mostly appears in his single-movement orchestral American Rhapsody (op. 47), which can be assumed to mark an adaptation to his new country and a tribute to it. This is how one earlier analyst, Laura Moore Pruett, interpreted the work even in the title of her study, “Dohnányi’s American Rhapsody, op. 47: An Émigré’s Tribute to the New World,” which served as a starting point for my investigations.3 It may seem surprising that the bibliography of the American Rhapsody is so slight, but it is true for much of the whole Dohnányi-œuvre. It is widely known that his works were quite neglected in Hungary during the first forty years after his death because of the expectations of the [End Page 201] Communist regime (1949–89). Interest in Dohnányi has grown from the late 1990s, which had its political reasons, but systematic research—started simultaneously in Hungary and in the United States—was also prompted by a musicological shift.4 Namely, the problems of Dohnányi-reception could not be narrowed to solely the political: the evaluation of his musical works had some aesthetic dilemmas as well. He proved to be a “conservative” (postromantic) composer, with no inner need to fit either to contemporary compositional trends or to Hungarian national musical idioms of the twentieth century during his long creative path (from the 1890s to his last work in 1959). The motivations of his “belatedness” need further investigations, but it must have had a deep conviction; otherwise he would not have ignored the continuous disapproval of his many critics throughout his life. In this article I would like to interpret the American Rhapsody in the light of the composer’s compositional oeuvre, his conservatism, and to investigate what this work may have to tell us about Dohnányi’s late American period.
The American Rhapsody was written for the 150th anniversary of Ohio University, located in Athens, Ohio. Why was a professor from the Florida State University commissioned to write a festive work to celebrate a different university? Actually, Dohnányi was more closely connected with that institute in some aspects than with Florida State. In his American years he had several concert tours throughout the country, and the venues were usually university towns such as Athens.5 He established excellent ties with these smaller towns, where he appeared several times. These may well have been the most decisive bonds of his American years. In Athens there arose almost a cult around Dohnányi and his appearances there. As one music critic put it in 1957:
This reviewer has written so many passages about our perennial and celebrated visitor, Dr. Ernst von Dohnanyi, that to do so again is to revert to a habit. Nevertheless, the annual visit of this world renowned musician to our campus never fails to be of interest, never fails to bring encouragement and renewed enthusiasm to our musical community.6
Indeed, the spring semester of 1957 was already Dohnányi’s tenth season at OU. From 1948, he spent some weeks there every year as a concert pianist/conductor, and he was a uniquely popular visiting professor. He became intimate friends with the OU president John Baker already on his first official visit. Their wives and children became close friends, too, and the Dohn...