The Bay Area played a major role in my coming to appreciate and enjoy the music of Ernő Dohnányi. Back in my student days he was known almost exclusively for his Opus 25 set of variations for piano and orchestra on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,” better known in the United States as the tune for “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Dohnányi attached a subtitle to the piece:
For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others.
His humor was, indeed, over the top in this composition, beginning with an introduction whose rhetoric and proportions were both absurdly Wagnerian and then working through eleven variations and a concluding fugue as if he were pulling rather confused rabbits out of an old hat.
I had almost forgotten that a composer could have such an unfettered capacity for wit until April of 2008, when I had the opportunity to listen to his Opus 10 serenade for string trio in C major twice, first at a Noontime Concerts™ recital and then in a String and Piano Chamber Music concert given by students of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The music had been included in the collection of all the recordings Jascha Heifetz made for RCA (in this case with violist William Primrose and cellist Emanuel Feuerman); but it took being in the presence of this music to appreciate how it may have planted the seeds of the more madcap Opus 25.
The movements of this piece are short. Only the fourth theme-and-variations movement takes more that five minutes. Each of the other movements visits a series of sharply contrasting moods. The first three are in a straightforward ternary form, and the whole piece concludes with a rondo whose coda falls back on the principal theme of the first movement.
This is all relatively straightforward. However, each movement is flavored with a heady combination of rhetorical seasonings in the form of brief gestures of execution. Many of these involve intense virtuoso demands, and one could appreciate the intense focus of last night’s performers (two students joined by Jodi Levitz on viola). However, the deadpan spirit of that focus did not conceal the prankish abandon of the gestures themselves; if anything, the serious appearance of the performers underscored Dohnányi’s talents as a master trickster.
Dohnányi was 25 when he composed Opus 10. He had begun to establish himself as a serious composer with considerable respect for past traditions, particularly as had been articulated by Johannes Brahms. Perhaps he decided that he had progressed to a point where he could begin to exercise his capacity for wit; and this “intimate conversation” among three strings, each determined to show off cleverness, provided him with an excellent platform for this new rhetorical stance.