The life, career, music, and legacy of composer, conductor, teacher and pianist ernst von dohnanyi span the 20th century in a remarkably comprehensive way. (By way of introduction, one might recognize his grandson Christoph von Dohnanyi as having recently completed a quietly brilliant and fruitful 18-year tenure as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra.) Dohnanyi, born in Pozsony, Hungary in 1877, also had an extremely brilliant, active, and public career: along with his performing and composing activities, he was director of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.
The reasons why he is not so well known as a 20th century composer may perhaps be boiled down to two. First: although he taught, encouraged, and promoted both Bartok and Kodaly, he was extremely conservative in his own musical tastes. Insofar as a century may be said to define a style, Dohnanyi’s style was straight-up-the-middle 19th century. The second reason is rather more convoluted, and could only have arisen from the ideological tornado of the Second World War and its aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe. It was assumed by some that, since he had survived the war, he must have been a Fascist collaborator — a rumor which was supported, and perhaps even started, by Soviets with designs on Hungary who (rightly) recognized him as anti-communist. Despite his having aided many Jewish colleagues during the war, and despite having had his own son executed by the Nazis for association with the 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, charges of nefarious associations (most of which were demonstrably false, some of which were tortuously impossible to address) dogged him for many years. Dohnanyi fled Hungary in 1946, after the first charges were brought against him, and in 1949 became a professor at Florida State in Tallahassee, where he remained until his death in 1960.
The sextet for piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet, and horn was composed in 1934 and premiered the following year with the composer at the piano. It unambiguously reflects the strength, humor, and stylistic conservatism of its author