Symphony No. 2 in E Major, Op. 40 (1944/56)

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert The Neoclassical Mirror, performed on Nov 21, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The legendary Hungarian composer-pianist-conductor Ernst von Dohnányi wrote two symphonies, both of which are monumental works of about one hour’s duration. (Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra have previously performed the First Symphony, which Mr. Botstein has also recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.) In a way, the two works stand as bookends marking, respectively, the dawn and the twilight of a brilliant career. The D-minor work was written in 1900-01 when Dohnányi was in his early twenties, at a time when the symphonies of Brahms and Bruckner were still “new music.” (As a teenager, the composer had received crucial early encouragement from Brahms.) The young Dohnányi handled the symphonic tradition of his elders with an originality that made a deep impression on his younger friend Béla Bartók.

Two world wars and two emigrations later, Dohnányi—now close to eighty—finished the revised version of his second symphony in Tallahassee, Florida. He began the work in Hungary in 1943, and had continued amidst such traumatic events as the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944 and Dohnányi’s flight from the country in November of the same year. The first and last movements were essentially completed in Hungary, with the middle movements added in Austria. Norman Del Mar and the Chelsea Symphony Orchestra premiered the work in London on November 23, 1948.

But Dohnányi was not entirely satisfied with the composition, and several years later set about revising it. The new version was premiered by Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra on March 15, 1957. The date—the anniversary of the Hungarian revolution of 1848—is significant, as is the fact that Dorati was a nephew of Dohnányi’s first wife, Elza Kunwald and thus related to the composer. After the premiere, Dohnányi made one more significant change, rewriting the fifth variation of the last movement, following a discussion with Dorati.

Dohnányi’s style, formed at the end of the nineteenth century, had not changed fundamentally during the sixty-plus years of his composing career. Yet the half-century that had elapsed between the two symphonies may be felt in the harsher harmonies and more extreme emotions of the E-major work. (It does begin and end in E major, but the second movement is in D flat, the third in F, and the finale starts in C minor.) The opening motif is based on the tonally destabilizing tritone interval, and the wide range of keys traversed by the music makes the highest demands on the tonal system, venturing far into a post-Mahlerian musical world.

Similarly to the First Symphony, there are strong thematic connections among the movements of the Second. One of the themes in the first movement functions as a true leitmotif, serving as a central idea in both the slow movement and the finale, and the opening tritone idea returns at the very end of the symphony to provide a sense of unity for the entire gigantic construction.

Yet the brief third movement, titled “Burla,” seems to come from a different world. Its intentionally trivial melodies and blatantly coarse sound bring to mind the scherzos of Shostakovich, whose Tenth Symphony is approximately contemporaneous with the revised version of Dohnányi’s work. The epic sweep of the other movements contrasts sharply with the sarcasm of this “Burla.”

The transition to the finale, which is essentially a set of variations and fugue on J.S. Bach’s sacred song “Komm, süsser Tod” (Come, sweet death), is particularly jarring. This finale, the longest of the symphony’s movements, is the crown of the work—a dramatic buildup culminating in a glorious climax.

In his program notes for the Minneapolis premiere of the revised version, Donald Ferguson quoted a personal letter from Dohnányi, in which the composer explained the work’s philosophical background by a reference to one of the great classics of Hungarian literature, The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madach (1823-1864). This dramatic poem, which comments on human destiny from the day of Creation through a utopian future, contains the famous line, “The goal is death—life is a struggle.” These words were evidently much on the mind of the composer, who had based one of his most substantial works, the oratorio Cantus vitae, on The Tragedy of Man. The essence of life is not to be sought in some higher “goal” but in the process of life itself—a teaching in which Dohnányi, at the end of a life filled with much glory but also plenty of hardship, must have found deep solace and comfort.