Ernő Dohnányi, Szeged Mass

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Hungary Torn, performed on May 2, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

“Musical life in Budapest today may be summed up in one name—Dohnányi.” These words were written by Béla Bartók in a 1920 article for the New York Musical Courier. A decade later, when the present Mass was composed, Dohnányi was still a defining figure in Hungary. He was at the height of his career as a pianist, composer, conductor, and a star piano professor at the Budapest Academy of Music, of which he would assume the directorship a few years later. To the younger composers whose works we heard in the first half of this concert, he was almost like a god; his peerless musicianship was admired by everyone who ever had a chance to experience him live. Certain ardent followers of Bartók and Kodály, whose innovative musical idioms were rooted in Hungarian folksong, may have faulted Dohnányi for being different. Yet the three composers themselves, friends from a young age, had no hostility for one another. Dohnányi’s biographer, Bálint Vázsonyi, told the story of how Bartók had to ask Aladár Tóth, the leading music critic in the country, to stop attacking Dohnányi in print. Without question, Bartók, Kodály, and Dohnányi were the leading triumvirate of Hungarian music, and Dohnányi was a staunch champion of his colleagues’ music whose styles he understood on a deep level.

As a composer, Dohnányi was best known for his chamber compositions and solo piano works, although he wrote symphonic music and opera as well. Yet he had written no major sacred works until he entered a competition, announced by the Cultural Ministry, for a solemn Mass to celebrate the dedication of the new Votive Cathedral in the city of Szeged in southeastern Hungary. Unsurprisingly, Dohnányi won the competition, and his Mass was premiered in that imposing neo-Romanesque structure, a landmark in 20th-century Hungarian architecture, on October 25, 1930.

The Szeged Mass is one of the very few settings of the complete Roman Catholic Mass by a major 20th-century composer. Its longtime neglect, which is highly regrettable, had political and aesthetic reasons. In Communist Hungary, Dohnányi was considered the “bourgeois” composer par excellence, and his sacred music, a genre that was problematic for the regime anyway, was by no means the only kind to be suppressed. His stylistic conservatism was also held against him; yet today, when many performers and listeners have developed a new appreciation for historical alternatives to the avant-garde, this can hardly count as a liability any more.

Dohnányi brought supreme craftsmanship and a prodigious musical imagination to bear on the task. He was, of course, familiar with the liturgy from childhood. (His father taught at a Catholic high school in Pozsony.) Most polyphonic Masses are made up of the five movements of the Ordinary (Kyrie – Gloria – Credo – Sanctus/Benedictus – Agnus Dei). Dohnányi, however, included settings of four Proper movements (Introit – Gradual – Offertory – Communion) as well, which is rarely done. (The difference between Ordinary and Proper is that the words of the former always stay the same, while in the latter, the words change with the liturgical occasion.)

By composing a Mass for the dedication of a cathedral, Dohnányi followed in the footsteps of Franz Liszt, who had composed his Esztergom Mass for a similar occasion in another Hungarian town in 1856. Dohnányi’s work is scored for eight-part double chorus, a quartet of soloists (treated as a group rather than individually) and full orchestra with organ. It shows evidence of Dohnányi’s study of Renaissance polyphony, especially the works of Palestrina. The opening theme of the Kyrie, for instance, is in perfect Palestrina style, although Dohnányi, here and elsewhere, boldly juxtaposed the stile antico with the late Romantic chord progressions that were part of his musical mother tongue. The composer observed the age-old tradition of ending the Gloria movement with a fugue (“Cum Sancto Spiritu”), but went against the grain in the Credo, where, instead of another fugue that would have been expected (“Et vitam venturi saeculi”), he ended the movement, to great dramatic effect, with a whispered choral recitative.

The movements of the Ordinary make use of the entire orchestra while those of the Proper mainly feature the organ to accompany the voices. Since this is a Mass intended for the dedication of a new church, all the Proper texts mention the house of God, as a place inspiring awe (Introit “Terribilis est locus iste”), as a dwelling of God surrounded by angels (Gradual “Locus iste a Deo factus est”), as a setting for a fervent personal prayer (Offertory “Domine Deus”), or a location where God’s own voice may be heard (the closing movement, Communion “Domus mea”). With his rich compositional palette, Dohnányi found the perfect expression of each of these spiritual moods. The work ends with a solemn instrumental postlude, commensurate with the grandiosity of the occasion.

Mr. Laki is a Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College.