Tuesday, December 15, 2015

12 Works of Christmas - 4. Ernő Dohnányi's Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song

I've mentioned before how easy it is to forget, what with today's pluralism and temporal distance from the days when Schoenberg's music was considered shocking, just how progressive the great progressive composers of the early 20th century were in comparison to their contemporaries.  The various movements of the Second Viennese School, Expressionism, Futurism and others created music so exotic and caustic to the sensibilities of the time that it's hard to see it logically growing out of what came before it, and its ultimate influence on what was to come later meant that many composers whose work was more naturally progressive were called conservative, whether or not that was the case.  Ernő Dohnányi is a great example of this, a man who musically "grew up" in the late Romantic era and whose music builds off those sensibilities and not those of the Avant-Garde tendencies of his day.  His name mainly rests upon his highly pianistic piano music, difficult yet tasteful and harmonically fine, as well as his brilliant orchestral suite Symphonic Minutes.  This series gives me the chance to talk about one of my favorite pieces of his, the Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Song, deftly blending the folk roots of Christmas's traditions and wintry soundscapes.

There's a historical significance in the "pastorale" title, as the Baroque pastorale was a lilting melody over a static bass line, often two instruments in thirds and in 6/8 time, a style that Dohnányi copies with a bit of pianistic imagination.  Especially creative is how a countersubject emerges in the tenor voice in a 2/4 meter against the 6/8, as such:

This winds down elegantly enough until a "B" section begins, swirling 16ths up and down a perfect fifth arpeggio, imitating the howling winds that everybody wants to imagine don't exist in Winter but somehow seem romantic under Dohnányi's hands:

The "B" section also includes the most difficult effect to execute, a variation on the melody pinging in the thumb of the right hand in a 16th-note blizzard:

The whole piece has a great emotional surge that many Christmas pieces are either too scared to attempt or fly off the bombastic handle.  There's a lesson in there - Christmas should never be about flying off the handle, nor should we be afraid of reconnecting with family.  That's cheesy enough of a sentiment, right?  I think Dohnányi would be happy either way.


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