Ernst von Dohnányi (composer) and “six degrees of separation” from the Operation Flash protagonist

It was the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy who, in a short story called “Chains”, first laid out the “six degrees of separation” concept. I’ve had numerous occasions to think of this while doing background research for the Operation Flash book series.

This month, the Hyperion classical music label issued a new recording of music by Dohnányi Ernö (1877-1960), better known perhaps by the German version of his name, Ernst von Dohnányi. [Hungarian naming conventions put the family name first.] Brahms and/or Schumann aficionados won’t want to miss this lovely recording.

Ernst von Dohnanyi (EvD) was born in Pozsony/Pressburg/Bratislava to a mathematics professor and amateur cellist, whose family had been ennobled in 1697. He got his first music lessons from his father, then from age 8 studied organ with the a local church organist. At age 17, he enrolled in the Budapest conservatory, where he studied piano with pupil of Franz Liszt and composition with Hans von Koessler, a first cousin of neo-Baroque composer Max Reger and a devotee of Brahms. EvD’s first published composition was praised and plugged by Brahms; as a pianist, he rose to fame following an American tour.

This early Dohnanyi composition earned the praise of Brahms

Unlike many concert pianists at the time, EvD avidly performed chamber music aside from the usual solo works and concerti: he establised a musical association with the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim, likewise a Brahmsian. (The German-speaking musical world was at the time torn by factional dispute between followers of Wagner and traditionalist followers of Brahms.)

EvD’s fame as a composer and performer was such that, following a long stint as a professor of composition at the Berlin conservatory (where Joachim had invited him), he was appointed the director of the Budapest conservatory. Despite being considered “too German” by the more nationalist Hungarian musicians, he would often showcase works by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly.

EvD’s first wife was a concert pianist named Elsa Kunwald (who herself appears to have been of at least partial Jewish origin[*]), with whom he had a son and a daughter. Their daughter, Grete, married the German physical chemist Karl Bonhoeffer (discoverer of ortho- and para-hydrogen), brother of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The son, Hans von Dohnanyi, (himself married to Dietrich’s sister Christel) did remain a skilled amateur musician all his life, but sought a career in law and government. Eventually, he became a senior civilian specialist in the Abwehr, the German espionage agency, where he was deeply involved in the anti-Hitler conspiracy cell led by the Abwehr’s second-in-command, general Hans Oster (with at least the tacit approval of the Abwehr’s enigmatic chief, admiral Wilhelm Canaris). When Hans’s brother-in-law Dietrich Bonhoeffer was forbidden to preach or publish by the National Socialist authorities, Hans hired him as an Abwehr agent, on the grounds that his extensive contacts with senior Protestant clergy abroad made him a valuable operative.

In our timeline, Hans was arrested shortly after the failure of the Arsenal Bombing Plot (March 21, 1943) for his role in helping a number of Jewish families escape to Switzerland as “agents”. [Yad Vashem would eventually honor him as “Righteous Among The Nations” for those actions.] Bonhoeffer, Oster, and Canaris were eventually all hanged at Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, after secret diaries by Canaris had been discovered that revealed the depth of their involvement in anti-Hitler conspiracies. They were joined in death by Karl Sack, the military judge-advocate who had been in charge of the investiagtion against them, but (as a member of the underground himself) had used delaying tactics in an attempt to run out the clock on the Third Reich before the men’s trial. Hans met his end on the same day, but at Sachsenhausen.

His son, Christoph von Dohnanyi, would in time become the musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra; another son, Klaus, served as Oberbürgermeister (freely: Lord Mayor) of Hamburg 1981-1988.

The Operation Flash series is, of course, set in a timeline where the Arsenal Plot succeeded. (Of course, then the plotters discover that killing Hitler and his chief henchmen was the easy part.) Hans, the handler and mentor of (fictional) protagonist Felix Winter, becomes a senior official in the Emergency Government led by Chancellor Carl Goerdeler. [Goerdeler, a popular former Lord Mayor of Leipzig who had resigned in protest against Nazi chicaneries, was the head of government-designate in case either the real-life Operation Flash plots or the 1944 Operation Valkyrie had succeeded.]

In our timeline, after the war EvD had to defend himself against accusations of NS sympathies, as he had continued to perform in Germany throughout. However, in view of the number of Hungarian-Jewish musicians who credited him with saving their lives, that dog would not hunt; EvD soon after left for the US to take up a professorship of music at Florida State University. His later compositions include a number of works inspired by American folk themes, such as American Rhapsody.

Ernst von Dohnányi, “American Rhapsody” Op. 47 (ca. 1953)

On a final “six degrees” note: EvD’s second wife was herself the ex-wife of composer and violinist Bronislav Huberman, who in 1936 would become the founding director of the Israel Philharmonic.


[*] The conductor Antal Dorati was Elsa Kunwald’s nephew (son of her sister Margit Kunwald)

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