Among the dominant figures in Hungarian music during the first half of the twentieth century, pianist, composer, and conductor Ernst von Dohnányi is still regarded as the most versatile musician to emerge from that country since Franz Liszt. Dohnányi was born in present-day Bratislava in 1877, where he received his earliest musical instruction (piano and the rudiments of theory) from a local church organist and friend of the family. Entering the Budapest Academy in 1894, Dohnányi studied piano with Thóman and composition with Koessler for three years before making his 1898 debut as a pianist in London (under the baton of Hans Richter). Dohnányi's astounding skills at the keyboard earned him quick recognition throughout the musical establishment, even as his early compositions began to win approval. Brahms himself organized the Vienna premiere of Dohnányi's 1895 Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 1 (despite its opus, the work is not the composer's first, following some 70 earlier efforts), and in 1899 his Piano Concerto, Op. 5, won the Bösendorfer Prize for piano composition.
At Joachim's invitation Dohnányi served on the faculty of the Berlin Hochschule from 1905 to 1915, after which he returned to Budapest to take a more active part in his homeland's musical development. Traditionally, the majority of Hungarian musical talent left the homeland for training and careers in the more financially and culturally rewarding European careers. Hoping to curb this trend, Dohnányi committed himself to the cause of then-lesser-known Hungarian composers such as Bartók and Kodály, and, in doing so, changed the landscape of Hungarian music forever. These years were busy indeed: in addition to his own activities as a composer and as a professor of piano at the Budapest Academy, Dohnányi maintained a hectic performance schedule including over 100 annual appearances in Budapest alone!
Ousted from the Academy in 1919 by the new fascist regime, Dohnányi took to the podium, first as chief conductor for the Budapest Philharmonic Society (1919-1944) and later with the New York State Symphony Orchestra as well (1925 on). His concert career slowed somewhat during the 1930s (owing to persistent illness), and he returned to the Academy as director in 1934, but when the Second World War erupted, Dohnányi chose to resign from the Academy rather than conform to its anti-Semitic demands. Dohnányi refused to dismiss members of his Budapest orchestra on racial or religious grounds, and eventually disbanded the Philharmonic to avoid such action. Frustrated by the state of affairs in his homeland during the early 1940s, he relocated to Austria in 1944 (a highly criticized move which would later make reappearance on the international music scene difficult) and, in 1949, accepted a position at Florida State College in Tallahassee. Dohnányi continued to perform and conduct on a limited basis until his death in 1960.
Although his reputation as one of the century's greatest pianists is secure, Dohnányi's fame as a composer has suffered from the whims and fancies of the twentieth century. Heavily influenced by Brahms during his youth (most noticeably in the first Piano Quintet), Dohnányi soon developed a style which owes more to the noble structures of German Classicism than to late Romantic or early twentieth century aesthetics (and unlike Bartók or Kodály, owes very little to eastern European folk music). While his output includes entries in virtually every genre (including three operas and two symphonies, the first very early and the second relatively late, from 1901 and 1943 respectively), it is his masterful chamber music, particularly the three string quartets and two piano quintets, which remains vital to the repertoire.