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)

Beethoven’s “missing” piano sonatas: the three Kurfürstensonaten, WoO 47

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas have been declared “The New Testament” of solo keyboard music, with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier the “Old Testament”.
What even some longterm Beethoven aficionados are unaware of (as was I, to my great shame) is that the canonical count of 32 (beginning with Op. 2 Nr. 1 in F minor, and ending with Op. 111 in C minor) excludes several juvenile works that Beethoven didn’t feel merited an Opus number.

Much has — rightly — been made of Mozart being a child prodigy at composition. Beethoven is often cited casually as a “late bloomer” in comparison, as he was in his mid-twenties when Three Piano Trios, Op. 1 and the Op. 2 piano sonatas were published. Yet at age twelve and thirteen, he wrote three piano sonatas dedicated to his first patron, the Kurfürst [i.e., Prince-Elector] of Cologne, Prince-Bishop Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels. These are known among musicologists as the Kurfürstensonaten, and numbered WoO 47: WoO stands for Werk ohne Opuszahl [work without an opus number] in German, but can conveniently be read as “without Opus” by English speakers.

They are clearly juvenile works, but already harbingers of the greatness that is to come. Particularly WoO 47 Nr. 2 in F minor floored me when I first heard it: one can hear foreshadowing of some elements of the later Pathetique Op. 13 in the related key of C minor (which has one “flat” fewer). I am obviously not the first, and won’t be the last, to note that Beethoven often gravitated to C minor and F minor (or their relative majors Eb and Ab, respectively) for his most “Sturm und Drang” works.

WoO 47 No 2 in F minor, performed by Mikhail Pletnev

I won’t deny that Op. 2 No. 1 in the same key — written when Beethoven was twice as old, and dedicated to his composition teacher Joseph Haydn — is a much more mature work, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying this early work.

A lighter side of young Beethoven comes out in WoO 47 No. 3 in D major.


Sabbath delight: Tatiana Nikolayeva plays J. S. Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Clavier

I had no idea who this fabulous Russian pianist was until I heard her performance of J. S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue on the Hyperion label — and was blown away by its combination of sensitivity and contrapuntal clarity. I treasure that recording above all others in my collection—if I could only take away one to a deserted island, that would be the one.
Sadly, shortly after that recording, she was felled by a stroke during a concert in San Francisco, and passed away days later, never having regained consciousness.
She had a very broad repertoire, most of it recorded in the former (thank G-d) USSR and (until recently, at least) only available on CDs with doubtful source audio provenance. (Vinyl rips? Analog studio tapes?)
But her first and last love was Bach. After she won the Bach Competition in Leipzig (then in the DDR) in 1950 with her Well-Tempered Clavier performance, the composer Shostakovich was so impressed by her voice-leading ability that he wrote his own 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 especially for her.

Until recently, all I had heard of her earlier output were lo-fi Youtube rips off vinyl recordings — with lots of hiss and distortion I had great trouble listening past. Now somebody uploaded a high-resolution digitization of the CDs. Below is the video for your enjoyment; I managed to locate a legal download for the source and promptly bought it. [Book I; Book II] You will wish to do the same if you like the recording. (I thought nothing could surpass Glenn Gould’s or Angela Hewitt’s for me, but this is something specia. )
“Perhaps not all musicians believe in G-d, but they all believe in Bach.” (Mauricio Kagel)

J. S. Bach (Tatiana Nikolayeva, piano): WTC Books I & II (complete)

As a bonus, here follows the complete performance by another great Russian pianist, Sviatoslav Richter. Enjoy!

J. S. Bach (Sviatoslav Richter, piano): WTC Books I & II (complete)

Purim/Bach Day/Spring Day post: J. S. Bach, “Peasant Cantata” BWV 212

Happy Purim to all who observe the holiday!

But owing to a calendarial coincidence, 14 Adar II this year coincides with March 21 — both the vernal equinox and the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. (Some sources have March 23: that is actually the day he was baptised. I saw the original baptismal register at his birth house in Eisenach.)

Picture of J. S. Bach’s baptismal registration (from the website of the EKD=German Evangelical Lutheran Church). Translation: 4. To Mr. Johann Ambrosius Bach, householder, a son. Godfathers: Sebastian Nagel, householder, and Johann Georg Kochen, forestry official of the principality. Given name: Johann Sebastian

In keeping with the playful spirit of Purim, let’s have one of Bach’s more jocular compositions. The burlesque cantata “Mer hah’n en neue Oberkeet!” BWV 212 —Saxon dialect for “We have a new authority!”—is commonly referred to as the Bauerncantata or Peasant Cantata. It was commissioned and written for the 36th birthday of the Kammerherr (Chamberlain) von Dieskau. The full libretto and its English translation can be read here.

As it happens, the late, great lyrical baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a descendant of the selfsame Chamberlain von Dieskau on his mother’s side. Here is his performance of Bach’s Peasant Cantata BWV 212. Enjoy!

Plagiarizing a song that itself “plagiarizes” a classical composition

Last Eurovision song festival [an event I normally pay no attention to] was won by Israel, with a tune called “Toy” by a very Rubenesque DJ and singer named Neta Barzilay.

Some people at the time noted the striking similarity between a phrase in the composition (such as it is) and the main riff of The White Stripes’s 2003 chart-topper “Seven Nation Army”. [Apparently, the title is how TWS frontman Jack White misheard “Salvation Army” as a child.] I didn’t think much of it — as I thought that riff pretty clichéd to begin with — But Universal Music Group subsequently sued Neta Barzilay on “behalf” of Jack White.

Now Mrs. Arbel forwarded me an article from Haaretz English Edition [archive link] according to which a settlement has been reached. The financial terms are undisclosed, but Jack White will receive a co-writing credit.

However, the Haaretz article [*] also points out that a very similar phrase appears in Bruckner’s 5th symphony. Listen to the YouTube below at 21:30 (the video embed should start playing 1 second before that if clicked):

Yup, substantially the same phrase, in Bb minor instead of E. Does this make it “plagiarism of plagiarism”? In the eyes of a random observer, perhaps yes. In the eyes of the law, no — because Bruckner’s composition passed into the public domain long ago, and hence Jack White [**] quoting it does not amount to a rights violation. (I would not want to feed all the rock and pop composers who have recycled bits of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Borodin,… as main melodies or riffs without as much as a hat tip. I am not talking about brief “salute” or “tribute” quotes in passing.)

So this adds a very interesting wrinkle to the case. I would have assumed that a song element that is itself lifted from a public domain source would not be copyrightable as such — the whole (which would be a derivative or [presumably in this case] a transformative work) would be, or any original material in the song. Perhaps that is the argument the defendants should have made—I am not a lawyer, but it would seem that this case would be winnable in court. (It is quite possible, however, that the defendants feared being bankrupted by a protracted legal battle against a plaintiff with very deep pockets and a “seven-nation army of copyright lawyers” on retainer.)

I cannot help being reminded of an anecdote from my HS years. A punk rocker was caught shoplifting from a record store. When the beat cop caught and arrested him, his defense was: “That record is mine! I stole it fair and square!” [Dutch original: “Die plaat is van mij! Ik heb ze eerlijk gestolen!”]

Some will rightly point out that composers like J. S. Bach had a much breezier attitude about quoting material than today’s music industry. However, here is the catch: when Bach recycled a popular song as a fugue theme, the material recycled was maybe 1% of the composition, and the contrapuntal edifice he built upon it the other 99%. Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” makes broader use of borrowed material (a Russian Orthodox hymn as the theme for the Russian defenders, and the Marseillaise as the theme for Napoleon’s invasion troops) — but again, there was a ton more music to it.

Bands like Dream Theater quote/steal bits of thematic material like magpies, but again use them as jumpoff points for more elaborate compositions and virtuoso improvisations.

But when your whole composition (such as it is) consists of a simplistic song built up from repeating one or two riffs and/snatches of melody —and then you are then discovered to have “borrowed” them — then I think the true problem is the simplistic, formulaic, and inspiration-less character of the “products” of today’s music industry, not plagiarism.

[*] credit where credit is due — regardless of my disgust with Haaretz’s editorial stance and general oikophobia, this was a good catch.
[**] According to Jack White’s wiki bio, he was a classical music aficionado before turning to rock. It is thus quite probable that he was familiar with the Bruckner original. (1970s German progressive rock band Novalis recorded this tribute to Bruckner’s 5th.) And again, I wouldn’t want to feed all the classically-raised musician turned rockers who mined classical compositions for riffs and hooks. I often quip that J. S. Bach was the greatest jazz cat in history, Mozart the greatest pop composer, and Beethoven the greatest hard rocker 🙂

Has every song been written? “Eenheidsworst” (standardized sausage) in music


Veteran producer Rick Beato and a guest discuss the question, “has every song been written?”, in the video below. Short answer: no, but the harmonic palette, in particular, of popular music has  in recent decades been blanded down to such a degree that it becomes ever harder to do something unique within it.

Economic constraints — particularly the ever-shrinking revenue pool of the music industry — also make A&R people of record companies and songwriters-for-hire ever more risk-averse . The end result is what is known by a priceless Dutch word as “eenheidsworst” — standardized sausage.


Can you legally use a historical classical music recording in a video or book trailer?

I have previously blogged about “fair use”  in copyright law, and mentioned there in passing that both law and jurisprudence are much more permissive about short textual excerpts from long written works than about, especially, audio or images. If you want to use a Beatles song (or a Rush song) for a book trailer, you’d better pay the licensing fee (which can range from reasonable to astronomical) or be prepared to fight a lawsuit. (Noncommercial music theory/appreciation videos, which include an element of scholarship or criticism about the music itself, tick off a couple more boxes and are comparatively safe. Even so, veteran record producer Rick Beato has suffered DMCA takedowns for some of his marvelous “What makes this song great?” episodes on YouTube.)

But what about a classical piece of music — and specifically, a composer who has been dead for over 70 years? The music itself — i.e., “just the notes, ma’am” — is without a doubt in the public domain. But what about a historical performance? Say, you’ve decided a theme from a Beethoven or Bruckner symphony is just what you need for a book trailer.  It is quite easy to find an online source for a performance by, say, the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler from the 1940s — for example, this gem here. Better still: in Europe, recordings that old have passed in the public domain.

Under German law, the copyright term for recordings which were made prior to January 1, 1963 has expired, meaning they have entered the public domain. Recordings taken after that date were given extended protection in 2013 and thus cannot be digitized. Aware of this rule, I only undertook to upload recordings which were taken before the 1963 date in order to fully comply with the law. Despite that precaution, the process that followed presented a number of unexpected challenges[…]

The 1963 cutoff date would imply that, for instance, Herbert von Karajan’s 1962 Deutsche Grammophon recordings of Beethoven’s nine symphonies are now in the public domain, at least in Germany (and the rest of the EU, presumably).

However, as discussed here at great length, the situation in the US is rather different. Audio recordings were treated very differently from other media, and public domain for them effectively did not exist in the US (except, of course, if the artists themselves placed the work there and the composition was not otherwise copyrighted). Only very recently was a form of public domain established (following a 3-year transition period to end in 2021) for recordings prior to 1922.

1923-1946 recordings will have an effective copyright term of 100 years (95+5), and 1947-1956 recordings a 110 year term (95+15). Recordings made between 1957-1972 will go into the public domain in 2067, as previously.

For so-called “orphaned works” (i.e, works for which no copyright owner can be located or identified, e.g., the record label is long out of business and nobody else picked up the rights at auction), the new law

Includes provisions to allow non-profit streaming of recordings which are verified to be out-of- print. This is a start …

But we are still out of luck for our hypothetical example. So what are your options?

If you have a specific reason to use that historical recording, you may need to go through the process of buying the license rights.

But if any decent performance of that specific piece of orchestral (or choral) classical music will do, then your options are basically:

(a) Try to locate a modern recording released under a Creative Commons license. (That would usually be an amateur orchestra.)

(b) Try to locate a “library music” recording for purchase from a site like PremiumBeat or Pond5. Such sites work much like stock photo sites: you pay a onetime fee, and the recording is a “work for hire” from a copyright point of view: once you’ve paid the fee, you own the recording and may do with it as you please. (Usually, this is a non-exclusive license: exclusive licenses will set you back more money.)

(c) Produce your own synthesized version using digital music production software. This requires at least some musical skill though, and the result may sound, well, “synthetic”, but this may actually be quite OK for a book trailer.

(d) If you have some experience conducting, assemble a pickup orchestra from a local conservatory and produce your own amateur recording. (This is hard work but not as hard as it sounds, since typically you could limit rehearsals and recordings to a short excerpt of the whole work.)

(e) As a last resort, find and buy a piece of library music that is similar in mood.

Solo instrumental or chamber pieces are much less of a challenge, since you are more likely to find it under (a,b), while option (d) — hiring one or a few students from your local conservatory to play a couple of takes for you to record — is much more practical than for something that requires a whole symphony orchestra. And of course, if it’s a solo piano, violin,… piece and you can passably play the piece yourself, recording yourself and (if need be) cleaning up the recording a bit in GarageBand or Logic Pro may be the simplest and cheapest option of them all.