November 19th 1923 was one of the most important days in recent Hungarian musical history. A concert had been organised to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the unification of Buda, Pest and Óbuda, and the three most important Hungarian musicians of the day, Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi were commissioned to write a new work each. Bartók contributed his Dance Suite (now regarded as a masterpiece, but a miserable failure on the day.) Kodály's creation, the 55th Psalm (later renamed Psalmus Hungaricus) was a triumphant success. Dohnányi's Festival Overture, however, made no deep impression one way or the other, and is now only known from references in musical history books.
The first description of the Festival Overture was supplied by Rudolf Kastner, which he wrote for a series of Dohnányi concert organised in Berlin.
” The composition is for three orchestras, two full and one wind band. The first two are used – partly in alternation, partly together – for the work's exposition and development section (the work is a large scale sonata form), while the woodwind instruments are only employed after the shortened recapitulation, entering after a great climax. An original motif, with a strident rhythm is used as the principal theme. The work begins with this and it acts as a unifying factor. As a second theme, Dohnányi uses the melody of a Hungarian anthem, and this brings the exposition to a close. In the development section, Dohnányi adds material from an earlier work written in 1920. The high point of the work is the coda – striving ever upwards – we sense that the development and brief recapitulation sections are simply preparing the way for it. When this climax is achieved, the windband, that has been silent so far, enters playing the Hungarian national anthem (written by Erkel), and the work finishes amid a masterly contrapuntal texture comprising of all the material presented earlier.”