George Enescu

George Enescu

1881 - 1955

Nationality: Romanian


Most notable works:

Romanian Rhapsody No.1 in A major, Op. 11, 1901

Symphony No.1 in E flat major op 13. 1905

Oedipe, tragedie lyrique in four acts, Op. 23, 1931.


The history of music is littered with countless composers that were highly praised by their contemporaries, but nowadays remain unfairly neglected and undervalued. Such a fate has certainly befallen the Romanian George Enescu, except in his native country where he is still very much regarded as a cultural icon. Enescu’s neglect elsewhere, however, is particularly puzzling given the spectacular accolades that were bestowed upon him by some of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. As far as cellist Pablo Casals was concerned, Enescu was unequivocally ‘the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart’. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who spent several years studying with him, echoed this estimation: ‘Enescu was an extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence I have truly experienced.’

Enescu’s talents as a musician were indeed prodigal. He carved out a long-lasting international reputation as a violin virtuoso, but was no less skilled as a pianist, boasting a consummate technique that was the envy of his close friend, Alfred Cortot. A proactive conductor, he worked tirelessly to enhance musical life in Romania, but also appeared frequently in this capacity in France and the US. His reputation as an interpreter was so high that during the 1930s, he was even courted as a potential successor to the great Arturo Toscanini as music director of the New York Philharmonic.  

Yet Enescu’s chief preoccupation was with composition, and it was for this that he craved the most recognition. Although his catalogue of published works amounts to only 33 opuses, a relatively low number for someone who lived over 70 years, he mastered almost every major musical genre. However, the only piece that gets anything like a regular outing in concert programmes these days is his First Romanian Rhapsody – a deliciously exuberant and brilliantly orchestrated potpourri of folk-inspired melodies, composed at the beginning of the 20th century. For all its undoubted fluency, the work is hardly characteristic of the composer, and unfortunately has served to obfuscate the emotional range, musical depth and creative originality that he achieved elsewhere.

Perhaps the popularity of the First Romanian Rhapsody has also created the misapprehension that Enescu was a narrow-minded Eastern European nationalist. True, his musical idiom was profoundly influenced by the uniquely defined folk music of Romania, but his outlook was far more cosmopolitan and embraced a wider range of concerns. No doubt this cosmopolitanism was prompted by his exposure to two very different European traditions that were flourishing at the turn of the 19th century.

His first port of call was Vienna, where he arrived at the age of seven from the village of Liveni to study violin and composition, immersing himself in a stimulating cultural environment and becoming a lifelong admirer of the music of Brahms. Then, after graduating from the Vienna Conservatory at 12, he eventually moved onto Paris, where he imbibed the subtly fragrant harmonies of his principal composition teacher Fauré, and was no less responsive to the colour and textural sensuality explored by his contemporaries such as Debussy and Ravel. Paris was to remain his main musical base in Western Europe for the rest of his life, though during the two World Wars, he returned to Romania, working assiduously to enhance the country’s musical life.

Enescu was astonishingly prolific in the early part of his career. By 19, he had already composed four apprentice symphonies and sketched drafts for several concertos and string quartets. His first published opus was the Poème Roumain, an ambitious Lisztian symphonic suite for orchestra first performed in Paris in 1899 to considerable acclaim. Even in this relatively early work an individual voice is already evident, most notably in his atmospheric assimilation of the doina, a highly ornamented melismatic melody that betrays an almost Middle Eastern influence, and in the imaginative orchestration which also includes a wordless chorus.

Enescu continued to be highly active in the first decade of the 20th century, writing technically challenging works such as the Octet for strings (1900) whose range of expression and emotional intensity can be compared to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. From this period, there is also the impressive and haunting Second Violin Sonata (1899), plus two engaging orchestral works, the First Suite (1903) and First Symphony (1905).

But he was unable to sustain this level of activity. One important factor that affected his productivity was undoubtedly the obligation to pursue a career as a performer, which inevitably deflected his attention away from composition. Perhaps too he experienced a crisis in confidence. He became increasingly fastidious, refusing to release a work until he was fully satisfied with it – for example, the Second String Quartet, on which he began work in the early 1920s, underwent seven revisions before it finally saw the light of day in 1952, only three years before his death.

Composing the symphonic poem Vox Maris, a wonderfully effective portrayal of the sea that warrants direct comparison with Debussy’s La mer, was a similarly fraught process.  First drafted in 1929, it was eventually published in 1954. His magnum opus, the opera Oedipe, occupied him from 1910 to ’31, but then had to wait another five years before it was staged with some success in Paris. Several other substantial projects, including two large-scale symphonies (Nos 4 and 5), remained in an embryonic state.  

In charting Enescu’s development towards the more angular modernist style which became his musical lingua franca from the 1920s, it is worth considering him in the context of his contemporary, the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. The parallels between the creative preoccupations of the two in the period that preceded and encompassed the First World War are striking. For example, both composers’ pre-war second symphonies respond powerfully to the late-Romantic Austro-German tradition and to the increasingly chromatic rhetorical gestures pursued by such composers as Richard Strauss. There is also a fascinating congruence between their respective third symphonies. Both were composed during the war and although Enescu’s work is conceived on a much grander and more epic scale than Szymanowski’s, they share similar stylistic traits, not least in their extravagant orchestration, which includes a prominent role for chorus, and in their rejection of Strauss in favour of a more perfumed mystical style with unmistakable allusions to the East. The link with Szymanowski could be extended well into the 1920s, when both expended much creative energy on their operas – Szymanowski’s King Roger and Enescu’s Oedipe, both based on Greek drama.

It’s notable, too, that both Szymanowski and Enescu shunned the fashionable neo-classicism of the 1920s by turning for inspiration towards the traditional folk music, the landscape and the natural environment of their countries. In Enescu’s case, this resulted in a series of works which explore these improvisatory and exotic idioms in a very individual manner, the most famous being the Third Violin Sonata (1926) with its subtitle ‘dans le caractère populaire roumain’. 
It’s tempting to consider Enescu as following a similar path to Bartók. But whereas Bartók was also an ethnomusicologist rigorously transcribing indigenous music from Eastern Europe, Enescu never quoted exact folk tunes. Rather he was responding nostalgically to the music he heard as a child. The idiom was so profoundly absorbed into his bloodstream that it sounded authentic and was therefore bereft of any element of modernist alienation.        

So, given this fascinating and multi-faceted output, why has this great composer has thus far failed to be more widely recognised? Can we simply put this down to his modest and self-effacing personality and a reluctance to advance his cause more assiduously? Or could it be a problem of dissemination? Admittedly, a substantial proportion of his work is now available on disc, but his scores are still not easily found either in libraries or music shops. This situation would not have arisen had Enescu enjoyed greater luck with his music publishers – undoubtedly, his reputation would have been strongly enhanced had he been invited to sign a contract with the influential Vienna-based music publisher Universal Edition, an organisation that promoted a substantial proportion of the early 20th century’s major composers, including Bartók and Szymanowski.

Two main difficulties, perhaps, face newcomers to Enescu’s mature style. The first is that much of his music is densely argued with complex linear passage work. It requires repeated and concentrated listening before revealing its secrets. On the surface, the structures in some of his large-scale movements appear rhapsodic, whereas in essence they are highly organised and often cyclical, utilising an extremely subtle transformation of a limited number of musical ideas. A second issue is that his development cannot be so easily pigeon-holed in terms of a progression from the Austro-German and French influences of the early period to an indigenous assimilation of Romanian folk music of his later style. Rather there was a constant shift in the balance of all these elements at any one time in his life, and they either moved to the foreground or the background depending to a large extent on the kind of music he was currently writing.  

Unlike Szymanowski, Enescu thus far has not enjoyed the imprimatur of a leading interpreter such as conductor Sir Simon Rattle to place him more firmly on the musical map. Yet there is some evidence that his cause is beginning to be taken much more seriously. This year, for example, Vladimir Jurowski programmed the massive Third Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, and the work was received with great enthusiasm. However, it is the eagerly awaited British premiere of Oedipe at Royal Opera House in 2016, 80 years after its first performance, which may well act as the catalyst for a major and much-needed reappraisal of his colossal achievement.

Erik Levi

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