31 July 2018

Thinking Out Of The Musical Box

I have just finished reviewing a hugely enjoyable disc of Dohnányi’s chamber music vivaciously played by the Nash Ensemble and splendidly recorded (as ever) by Hyperion.  In due course my review will appear on the pages of MusicWeb International.

But I mention it here because of something I read in the booklet notes commissioned for the release by Veronika Kusz, a specialist in Dohnányi’s music who teaches at the Ferenc Liszt Academy in Budapest.  As with the very best CD booklet notes and essays, this one not only illuminates the music and makes you want to listen to it, but it also introduces ideas and makes statements which encourage the reader to think more deeply and consider issues from a new perspective.

The most contentious thing that Dr Kusz writes is actually a quotation from a source she describes as “Dohnányi expert James A Grymes”.  He came up with the outrageous description of Dohnányi as “a forgotten hero of the Holocaust”.  We are all guilty of making exaggerated statements in support of those we perceive to be lost causes, but this one takes the biscuit and is, for me, so ridiculous as almost to warrant blind dismissal.  (The quote is taken from Gryme’s blog post "Dohnanyi and the Hungarian Holocaust”, and we all know how unreliable blog posts are!)

Hero of the Holocaust?
Kusz uses the Grymes quote to support her own claim that “the name of Ernö Dohnányi…almost disappeared completely a couple of decades after his death”, and that the prime reason for this was “a result of the political situation in his home country”.  This may be correct from a Hungarian perspective, but most certainly not from a British one.  The West tended to have a lot of sympathy with the Hungarians; while the Russians, it was felt, had brought their own terrible regime on themselves, the poor Hungarians had been ruthlessly overrun by an ideology to which they did not, by and large, subscribe.  We were certainly more open to Hungarian music, and so far as I recall, Hungary and Hungarian artists were more accessible to us.  We certainly knew of Dohnányi, his recordings circulated widely, and, if nothing else, his Variations on a Nursery Theme vied with Rachmaninov 2 as the most popular piano concerto of the 20th century.  In fact, when I was growing up in London in the 1960s and 70s, the name of Ernö Dohnányi was more often to be found in record collections than that of Dmitri Shostakovich.

What really had me thinking deeply, however, was the secondary reason Kusz identified as the cause for Dohnányi’s obscurity in the late 20th century.  “Dohnányi’s musical style”, she writes, “was considered obsolete and anachronistic by audiences of his day”. 

It is very true that in the latter half of the 20th century, an age musically infused with the Second Viennese School and its aftermath, with the avant-gardists and the electro-acoustic experimenters, and with (to use my favourite phrase coined from elsewhere) “the cult of the unlistenable”, the self-appointed musical intelligentsia declared that anything which showed allegiance to the established conventions of harmony, melody, instrumentation or structure, or, worse still, was enjoyed by the masses rather than an elite minority, was bad.  Music critics came under pressure to celebrate this love of the obscure and inaccessible and to dismiss the conventional and accessible, university music departments pushed their students to test the limits of musical experimentation without regard to commercial or public acceptance, and music publishers spewed out reams of wholly unplayable and even more wholly unlistenable music.  What hope was there, in that environment, for a composer whose music was tuneful, expressive, harmonically driven and recognisably part of the great river of tradition stretching back over the centuries?

The 20th century was also an age in music education where everyone believed as an inalienable truth that music fell into clearly defined musical periods.  If music was written between 1600 and 1750 we called it “Baroque” and judged it according to its proximity to a set of rules and regulations we ourselves imposed on it.  As a result composers such as Purcell, Scarlatti, Vivaldi and Handel were regarded as lesser to the great Johann Sebastian Bach because their music did not conform to his style (he was held up as the exemplar of “Baroque”).  Similarly, the so-called “Classical” era was defined around the music of Haydn and Mozart, leaving no room for other composers to be regarded; yet this was one of the most productive periods of musical creation in the history of Western Music.  Similarly, anything written during the 20th century had to conform to the ideals established first by Stravinsky and later by a whole range of composers each of whom had in common a desire to go beyond the bounds of expressive utterance which had dominated music in the 19th century.  Thus when a Sergei Rachmaninov, a Richard Strauss or an Ernö Dohnányi came along, their music was instantly dismissed as “irrelevant”, a sterile throwback to a long dead age.  Our 20th century fad for placing music in categories denied us access to some of the great creation of our time, simply because it did not meet the artificial criteria loudly proclaimed by those who convinced us they were our musical and intellectual betters.

Fortunately, in most right-thinking musicians and music educators of the 21st century, such pointless labellings and stylistic boxes are an anachronism; not for nothing is one of the most annoying, irritating and platitudinous idioms of or time “thinking out of the box”.  In the 20th century, we spent all our time thinking inside the box – the thing being we constructed our own boxes to suit our own ends - and that was to music’s great detriment.

We now live in an age when we accept anything musically on its own terms.  We can say that John Stanley was as great a composer as J S Bach, even though he never wrote such good Fugues or indulged in such contrapuntal labyrinths.  We can proclaim J M Kraus the equal to W A Mozart, even though his name was not Mozart.  John Field gets elevated on his own terms, not just as an appendix to Chopin. And we can celebrate the genius of Ernö Dohnányi, even though his music is accessible, tuneful and utterly enchanting. 

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