George Enescu

On the trail of Romania's national composer

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George Enescu Museum

If Britain has a national composer, it's probably Elgar. But compared to the honours lavished on Romanian composer George Enescu in his homeland, Elgar is languishing in obscurity here in the UK.

Enescu, who lived from 1881 to 1955, not only appears on one of the country's bank notes, there are also a handful of museums dedicated to him, roads named in his honour, a festival set up in his memory, an airport named after him and even a 'George Enescu town'.

It's difficult, therefore, to judge his music fairly – to fight through the layers of hagiography that have built up around him. 

Without doubt, he was an important figure in 20th-century music – there are photographs in the museum in Bucharest of him performing with David Ostrakh, chatting at dinner with Shostakovich and advising a young Yehudi Menuhin, there are posters and programmes for concerts in which he conducted landmark performances of Wagner, or performed alongside Wanda Landowski.

But his music – and indeed even his name – is largely unknown outside of Romania. And without the encouragement of the George Enescu Festival his music would be largely unperformed (when an orchestra comes to the festival for the first time, they're invited to perform a work by the composer).

Enescu enrolled in the Vienna Conservatoire 1888 before going to Paris to study in 1895 under the likes of Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré. He became well-known for his brilliant violin playing, though his dream was to taken seriously as a composer. 'I wasn't thinking too much about violin,' he once said. 'I was drunk with music and not with giving performances on an instrument. I dreamt only about composing, composing, and again composing.'

His best know works include the two Romanian Rhapsodies from 1902, and his opera Oedipe, which he worked on for ten years, finally completing it in 1931. The George Enescu Festival is staging a rare performance of the work at this year's festival.

Later on he became an important violin teacher, numbering among his pupils Yehudi Menuhin, Ivry Gitlis, Ida Haendel and Arthur Grumiaux.

But his current ubiquity also has a lot to do with good fortune. Enescu married Mária Rosetti, known as a princess Cantacuzino, who inherited one of the most lavish palaces in Bucharest – the Cantacuzino Palace (pictured above), though the composer and his wife actually lived in a much more modest, though equally beautiful, house behind the palace (pictured below). When Enescu died, his widow drew up a will which directed that the house should become part of a museum celebrating Enescu's life and achievements.

George Enescu House

Moreover, the composer was a favourite of the Queen – Elisabeth of Romania – and was given an endless list of honours. A selection of the ribbons, rosettes and medals are kept in a crowded display case in the museum. 

Enescu died in Paris in 1955 – he'd left Romania during the Second World War. And among the museum's most hallowed items on display are his death mask and two casts of his hands.

All of which feels a bit irrelevant for a man who was so keen for people to pay attention to his music. So rather than make the pilgrimage to his house, stick on one of his discs – try the Romanian Rhapsodies. Meanwhile, how about a petition to rename Heathrow 'Edward Elgar airport'?