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The Tom Cruise movie reminds Tallahasseeans of a great past

(This column was first published in the Tallahassee Democrat on January 11, 2009.)

The plot to kill Hitler — the subject of the 2008 Tom Cruise film, “Valkyrie” — has a Tallahassee connection.

Actually, there were more than a dozen plots to kill Hitler during World War II. And the film opens with the second most successful: an attempt to detonate a bomb aboard Hitler’s plane. Although not mentioned in the film, one of the co-conspirators of that plot was Hungarian lawyer Hans von Dohnanyi.

Von Dohnanyi (DOCK-non-ye) was the son of world-famous Hungarian pianist and composer Ernst von Dohnanyi – and that’s the Tallahassee connection.

Ernst von Dohnanyi spent the last 11 years of his life in Tallahassee and is buried in Roselawn Cemetery. He taught at Florida State University from 1949 until his death in 1960 and helped build the reputation of FSU’s internationally renowned music school.

FSU’s main concert hall is named after Dohnanyi, as he is simply known. In 2002, FSU held a symposium in his memory, which attracted musicians from all over the world.

And his fame continues to grow. More than a dozen biographies have been written about him, including a recent one in Germany about Ernst, Hans and Hans’ two sons, Christoph and Klaus. Christoph is conductor emeritus of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra; Klaus was the mayor of Hamburg, Germany. Both have visited Tallahassee several times.

And Dohnanyi’s music is still wildly popular: A foot-high stack of CDs of his compositions, performed by modern artists, sits on a counter in Dohnanyi’s former home at 568 Beverly Court. The house is owned by Sean McGlynn, a local water quality researcher who is Dohnanyi’s grandson by his third wife.

“He was a great composer and he’s being rediscovered,” McGlynn said. “His music is very lyrical, but also difficult to play. He was a musician and (modern musicians) are challenged by his work.”

McGlynn, who is married with four children, has lived in the home since 1980 and has owned the home since his grandmother died in 1986. It is still an informal Dohnanyi museum. Cupboards are filled with photos and scrapbooks. Cabinets are filled with Dohnanyi’s notes and compositions. His books, clocks, objets d’art and furniture are scattered throughout the house.

The composer’s piano is the focal point of the front room and a sanctuary for visitors.

“We hosted a reception during the (2002) symposium,” McGlynn said. “And all the pianists had to play it.”

McGlynn has donated many of his grandfather’s letters, notes, compositions plus 150 tapes that Dohnanyi recorded at home to FSU. He has donated hundreds of papers to museums in Hungary and England. He has provided photographs for six recent books. He hopes to eventually donate all of his grandfather’s memorabilia to museums.

“I feel very fortunate to have all this heritage,” McGlynn said. “(But) it’s the kind of thing that scientists drool over.”

McGlynn was a favorite of his grandfather, who wanted to name him Ernst (it became McGlynn’s middle name) and affectionately called the toddler “my little Irish terrorist.”

Although he was only five when his grandfather died, McGlynn has memories of playing in the backyard with his grandfather and listening to him play the piano. McGlynn plays piano, French horn and bagpipes, but cannot match his grandfather’s musicianship.

“I grew up with all these stories and all this talent. I hoped I had it too,” McGlynn said. “It was frustrating to hear that these gifts are not that common.”

Dohnanyi, born in 1877, was a child prodigy. As a teenager visiting Vienna, he met the famous composer Johannes Brahms, who played a composition that Dohnanyi wrote – and immediately pronounced: “You will be a great composer.”

Dohnanyi composed two symphonies and thousands of pieces of music. He was conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and gave concerts all over the world. He mentored famous musicians, including his eventual colleague at FSU, the late Edward Kilenyi. Dohnanyi had a prodigious talent and a photographic memory.

“He could look at the sheet music for five minutes and then conduct an entire symphony,” McGlynn said. “One of his concert tricks was to ask someone to shout out a Beethoven sonata, and he would play it from memory.”

As a member of the Hungarian parliament, Dohnanyi opposed the Russian communist takeover after World War II. The Russians tried to label him as a war criminal and Nazi collaborator, so he sought refuge in other countries. After periods in Austria and Argentina, he ended up in the US and eventually at FSU.

He was revered at FSU, where he conducted orchestras, gave concerts and continued to compose. One of his favorite students was Joanne Byrd, who rented one of the two basement apartments in the Dohnanyi house—and was already engaged to her future husband: Fred Rogers, who would later become TV’s beloved Mister Rogers.

“We weren’t even aware of all the political intrigue that had gone on in his life. We just knew that Dr. Dohnanyi was a wonderful, wonderful person,” said Hilda Starbuck, a retired music teacher from Leon County who graduated from the 2011 F.S.U. 1952. “Every now and then he gave a talk about his youth. Every time he told us the story (about meeting Brahms), I got goosebumps.”

A favorite son

Hans von Dohnanyi was arrested and executed for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler. Time proved him right and in 2002 Germany issued a postage stamp in his honor.

But his father is said to have cried while watching “Valkyrie.” Dohnanyi was married three times and had seven children. But Hans was his firstborn from his first wife.

“Hans was his favorite child; their marriage never recovered,” McGlynn said. “His death was devastating for my grandfather.”

Gerald Ensley was a reporter and columnist for the Tallahassee Democrat from 1980 until his retirement in 2015. He died in 2018 after suffering a stroke. The Tallahassee Democrat will publish columns on Tallahassee history from Ensley’s vast archives in the Opinion section every Sunday through 2024. as part of the TLH 200: Gerald Ensley Memorial Bicentennial Project.

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