Ernst von Dohnányi was born in what today is Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. He first studied music with his father, an amateur cellist, and then, when he was eight years old, with Carl Forstner, organist at the local cathedral. In 1894, in his seventeenth year, he moved to Budapest and enrolled in the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music, studying piano with Istvan Thoman and composition with Hans von Koessler, a student of Franz Liszt and a devotee of Brahms music. These two influences, Liszt in his way of playing piano and Brahms in his compositions, played an important role during Dohnányi's entire life. Dohnányi passed the academy exams with high marks as a composer and pianist, obtaining his diploma at less than twenty years of age.
After a few lessons with Eugen dAlbert, another student of Franz Liszt, Dohnányi made his debut in Berlin 1897 and was at once recognized as an artist of high merit. Similar success in Vienna followed, and he then toured Europe with great success for the next five years. He made his London debut at a Richter concert in Queens Hall. During the following season, he visited the United States and made his American debut with the St. Louis Symphony.
Following an invitation by the violinist (and close friend of Brahms) Joseph Joachim, Dohnányi taught at the Hochschule in Berlin from 1905 to 1915. Returning to Budapest, he organized over a hundred concerts there each year.
Dohnányi was named music director of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and promoted the music of Béla Bartók, and other contemporary Hungarian composers. His piano pupils included Andor Foldes, Mischa Levitzki, Ervin Nyiregyhazi, Geza Anda, Astra Berwald, Erno Daniel, Boris Goldowsky, Lajos Hernaldi, Lydia Hoffmann-Behrendt, Julian von Karolyi, Gyorgy Kosa, Helen Standley, Max Trapp, Imre Ungar, Tamas Vasary, Josef Weingarten, Annie Fischer, Edward Kilenyi, Balint Vazsonyi, Sir Georg Solti, Istvan Kantor, Joseph Running, György Cziffra, Miklos Schwalb, David Pope, Fridjof Backer-Grondahl, Frank Cooper and LUdovit Rajter.
In 1933 he organized the first International Franz Liszt Piano Competition.
In 1943, Dohnanyi was the virtual czar of music in Hungary. In addition to conducting the Budapest Philharmonic, as music director of the Budapest Radio he also conducted its orchestra and played many piano concertos with it, including all of Mozart's 27. At the Great Hall of the Academy, he performed all of Beethoven's piano sonatas.
Dohnanyi and his third wife moved to the United States where he taught beginning in 1949 for 10 years at Florida State University. As a composer he wrote music for most genres including both small and large formspiano solos, concertos, symphonies, choral works, chamber music, etc. He and third wife Ilona became American citizens in 1955. He died of pneumonia in 1960 while recording his own works in New York City.
- David April (more on the author)