Reactionary Composer of the Week: George Enescu

This week’s reactionary composer, the Romanian George Enescu (1881-1955), was suggested by a reader. Said reader, a musicologist with an interest in Enescu, sent me an extremely informative e-mail on the subject, so I’ll let him take it from here:

If anything I say about Enescu seems like the exaggerations of an enthusiast, I invite you to consult Noel Malcolm’s excellent biography (1990), which is my main source for anecdotes. I may also occasionally be thinking of the chapter in Janos Starker’s recent autobiography (2005, I believe) in which he encountered Enescu in Bucharest around 1946-47.

As a man, Enescu was not very political. He came from the peasantry, but his father was a well-to-do land manager, so he had the best education and upbringing available in rural Romania. (The unification of Moldova and Wallachia took place about 20 years before he was born; Transylvania followed, of course, after Trianon.) As a young boy, he attended conservatory first in Vienna, then in Paris.

It quickly became evident that even among great musical talents, Enescu’s was unusual. Among other things, he memorized essentially the entire corpus of piano, orchestral, and chamber literature, and could reproduce it spontaneously at the piano at will. His student Menuhin tells us that Enescu memorized the freshly-written Ravel violin sonata as he was reading it, so that by the second read-through, he set the score aside. Likewise, Norbert Brainin (Amadeus Quartet) said that Enescu could play any of the Beethoven string quartets at the piano without music, Menuhin said that he’d seen Enescu play entire acts of Wagner without music, etc. Enescu was a first-rate pianist, violinist, and conductor — he routinely performed with the leading orchestras (Berlin Phil, Vienna, NY Phil, etc) as a violinist and as a conductor, and he was shortlisted to replace Toscanini in New York in 1936, though the job ultimately went to Barbirolli instead.

While a student, Enescu decided to become a composer, and quickly produced four student symphonies and his first works of lasting significance, the Op. 6 Violin Sonata and the Op. 7 Octet. The Op. 6 Sonata recalls Fauré to some extent, but its harmonic, formal, and expressive language is individual. It is still widely played and studied. The Op. 7 Octet is quite different — a 45-minute symphony for strings with elaborate and complex polyphonic writing. It is almost too hard to play because all the players must know the score and play like soloists. Note that these works are not in any way “nationalist” except insofar as Enescu’s early life played some role in forming him; rather, they were sophisticated and cosmopolitan, recalling French neomodal harmony (Fauré, Lili Boulanger, etc.) and Viennese chromaticism respectively.

Enescu produced a number of brilliant works in his late teens and early twenties — the Piano Suite Op. 10 (composer’s partial recording), the first two symphonies, and the D major Suite for orchestra. But then he fell silent, spending some 20 years on the monumental opera Oedipe, a work that I admit I do not begin to understand. In my view, this silence recalls Sibelius’s wrestling with his 8th Symphony, or Falla’s with Atlantida.

Moreover, he had married into the aristocracy, and found constant touring was the only way to support his wife, the Princess Cantacuzino, in her accustomed style. During this period, he completed at least two more symphonies in short score with orchestration notes; they have been reconstructed by Bentoiu and the musicologist Cornel Taranu, and they are superb, particularly the 5th. I am not aware of any commercial recordings, however.

But Enescu’s later life was not entirely without issue. He composed a stunning violin sonata (Enescu and Lipatti), two superb piano sonatas (both Lipatti), and several substantial pieces of chamber music. In the interesting grab-bag of the 3rd piano suite, he wrote this arresting piece — note the striking effects of the pianissimo doublings in the high register, which create a haze of non-harmonic partials around the melody. To my ears, it sounds rather like ring modulations.

Enescu’s oeuvre shows a complete mastery of modern techniques, an adventurous harmonic and melodic sense, and the ability to assimilate “popular” musical concepts without in any way compromising his architectonic sense or descending to mere quotation. For instance, the 3rd Violin Sonata cited above produces an entirely synthetic “folk language” in which pervasive and refined portamento, “parlando rubato,” and so forth are deployed in the service of basically classical goals, just as in Schubert’s Ländler and Chopin’s waltzes.

Malcolm says somewhere that Enescu was never really a modernist because, while he happily and masterfully drew up modernist materials in the service of his artistic goals, he never felt any of the disgust, alienation, or revolutionary sentiment that were so often the motivations behind modernist experiments. Thus, for me, Enescu’s work represents the road not taken in modern classical music: what if the search for new forms of organization and expression had taken place in the context of love for and engagement with our artistic forebears?

P.S. On reread, I see that I was going to conclude without mentioning the Romanian Rhapsodies Op. 11, nos. 1 and 2. Op. 11 no. 1 is probably Enescu’s most widely-performed and -recorded work by a wide margin, which is a shame, because it’s basically a party piece and doesn’t represent his oeuvre. Still, since it is so widely known, it must be accounted for, so let us allow Celibidache to do it. Note that even the debased genre of the medley is elevated by Enescu’s loving touch — feminine endings appear unexpectly to create enjambment, unexpected contrapuntal potential is uncovered, canons lead to logical but surprising harmonic regions, tempi evolve seamlessly to allow for the emergence of new hypermeters, countersubjects undergo their own development to reinforce the accumulation of formal energy.

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16 thoughts on “Reactionary Composer of the Week: George Enescu

  1. “Enescu’s oeuvre shows a complete mastery of modern techniques”.

    No doubt that’s why his music is so rebarbative.

    • Alex, I suspect you clicked the first link and didn’t like it. If it’s too “modernist” for your taste, try the links to the Piano Suite op. 10 or the Rhapsody op. 11.

  2. Enescu’s idiom was Impressionist. He was at his best, as was Claude Debussy, in miniatures. He was at his best, when attempting large-scale composition, when he adopted neo-baroque models, as in at least one of his orchestral suites. The dance-forms and the patterns of passacaglia and fugue impose orderliness and direction on the music. The works involving a solo instrument in a featured role, like the Symphonie Concertante for Cello and Orchestra, also work well because the solo part tends to focus the composer’s attention. In a concerto there is a demand for dialogue and self-explanatory musical rhetoric.

    Enescu intended his symphonies to be spiritual dramas, like those of Beethoven, but the Impressionist’s tendency to exploit atmospheric effects too often got the best of him. He First Symphony offers the clearest outline: It resembles in part the famous D-Minor Symphony by Cesar Franck and in part “La mer” by Debussy. The Second and Third Symphonies sprawl. They suffer somewhat from a lack of memorable thematic material, but mostly from the incapacity to signal clearly to the listener where the “argument” wants to go. Passing individual episodes (the Third Symphony integrates a wordless chorus into the orchestra) are fascinating exercises in colorism, without however adding up to a truly purposive “journey” from a noticeable “here” to a definite and convincingly inevitable “there.” Yet I would describe Enescu’s large-scale compositions as fascinating, even as worthwhile failures.

    “Édipe,” Enescu’s opera, belongs in a category with Karol Szymanowski’s “King Roger” (an adaptation of Euripides’ “Bacchae”), Igor Stravinsky’s similarly named “Oedipus,” and Arnold Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron.” Each is a study in cultural sickness, particularly in the perversion of religion, and in civilizational breakdown, culminating in one form or another of mob-action and lynching. “Édipe,” like T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land,” belongs to the misunderstood category of formally modern, culturally reactionary works of art. Traditionalist intellectuals should study “Édipe,” “King Roger,” Stravinsky’s “Oedipus,” and “Moses und Aron” closely.

  3. Op. 7 octet sounds stressed out to me, the violin harmonies are interesting though; perhaps he wrote this during his touring years while married to the princess?

    piano suite Op. 10 sounds like rainy day music

    carillon’s nocturnes –this is my favorite…I like nocturnes. Very imaginative use of the music.

    I see why Celibidache is the most popular. It is cute and happy with decent melodies. That director is amusing to watch as well.

  4. Reactionary lovers of music would have no truck with any modern or avant-garde composer. They would denounce impressionism, serialism, minimalism, experimental music etc., as pretentious manifestations of the spirit of modernism in works of art. They would declare that after the death of say Brahms, or Beethoven, or Bach, no music has been composed worth listening to.

    An even deeper dyed reactionary might want to go back to Palestrina as the ideal model. The ultimate reactionary would only be content listening to monophonic liturgical music.

    A truly reactionary composer of today would be writing neo-Gregorian chants.

    • Stern, uncompromising words, Alex! But I suspect the ‘true reactionary composer’ you identify there, composing ‘neo-Gregorian chants’ would not exist anyway, as Gregorian chants don’t really have a composer – just as folk-songs don’t have a composer, or jokes don’t have a writer, etc. I like Svein’s focus on modernist/post-modernist composers and look forward to them every week.

      • The origins of the Gregorian chant are, perhaps, lost in antiquity. We know, I think, that Pope Gregory the Great didn’t personally inaugurate the plainsong tradition.

        But I cling to my supposition because a modern composer might compose a neo-Gregorian chant on the analogy of, let’s say, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ use of a traditional melody in his Fantasia on Greensleeves.

        There are no reactionary modern composers – if the sense of ‘reactionary’ is taken to mean an artist seeking to completely restore an earlier order of art, or someone trying to revitalize traditional but moribund institutions etc.

  5. It is worth formulating explicitly what makes George Enescu a “reactionary composer.”

    First, although he is not a “folksong” composer in the manner of Bela Bartók or Gustav Holst, he composes under the influence (the deep and abiding influence) of Romanian ethnic music and of the acoustic atmosphere of his countryside childhood. Ingredients in the mixture are: The rhythms of the Romanian language, Moldavian fiddling, and the Orthodox service, including chant. After Enescu’s long sojourn in Paris, the composer’s music making assimilates Gregorian chant, which listeners will detect in the tone poem for orchestra with voices “Vox Maris.”

    Second, Enescu’s music reacts with anguish and nostalgia to modernity’s destruction of the traditional world, not merely in the paroxysm of World War I, but also in the steady assault on popular custom and in the mechanical routinization of life associated with urban life and the industrial economy. When Enescu recalls the church bells that punctuated village life in his early years, he mourns the passing of that life and condemns the trends that relentlessly erase age-old habits and institutions. Where the music turns complex and dissonant – that is a type of painful keening for the destruction that modernity brings down on so much of what has made life genuinely humane and livable in a previous age.

    Third, Enescu understood music (and art generally) as spiritual rather than as merely aesthetic. When the solo instrument sings, it is the equivalent of the village priest in intense prayer; when the orchestra answers, it is the congregation joining in spirit with the priest. In this way, Enescu’s Symphonie Concertante for cello and orchestra and his Caprice Roumain for violin and orchestra resemble Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo” and Ottorino Respighi’s “Concerto Gregoriano.” All are exercises in the re-spiritualization of music for the spiritually apostate twentieth century.

  6. Do the mere influences of traditional forms, degrees of aesthetic interest, and subliminal references – when expressed in a modern work of art – make that work “reactionary”? If so, then all works of art from any period could be described as reactionary because no composer, painter, poet, etc., works in a cultural vacuum.

    • Let me throw it back to you, Alex. In their day, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms all had detractors who considered their music to be unacceptably ultra-modern and offensive to musical norms. Eduard Hanslick famously denounced Wagner and Bruckner in the same sweeping judgment. If any alteration from some degree-zero of this genre or that were a destruction of tradition then would not all new composition or new painting or new poetry be destructively anti-traditional? Greco-Roman music was monodic; Gothic Catholicism invented polyphony, which is unique to the Western World. Western music is thus founded on a radical innovation. Josquin and Perotin were radical innovators. Precisely because human beings exist in time, in the historical continuum, and precisely because they must react somehow to their circumstances, the mode of expression will, in order to remain vital, always be a dialogue between the present moment and the past. Where the artist is of a conservative element, this reaction will entail the revival of old forms in the new context in a way that is critically appropriate in that new context.

      There is a different type of reaction, associated with the Left, which is worth considering. In the Soviet Union, the commissars of music tried to freeze the concert idiom at the moment (more or less) of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Comrade Zhdanov banned polyphony on the grounds that “the workers” would not understand it and that they required only simple, singable tunes. Mao in China went further, urging the mobs of the Cultural Revolution to smash Western instruments and burn sheet-music. The favored music of Communist China was the mass song. The justification was the same as in Russia; only the application was more severe. Islam would ban music altogether, except for the ululations of the muezzin.

      There is, of course, an irreducible element of subjectivity in all aesthetic taste. People who discover that they dislike Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Enescu, Stravinsky, or Bartok should not listen to those composers. Nor should anyone cajole such people to listen to music to which they are unsympathetic. Or should one? I take advantage of the AV equipment in my classrooms to give students the opportunity to listen to all sorts of music that they would otherwise never encounter. Whenever I have an early morning class, I arrive early and put a CD in the disc player. A few students invariably acknowledge at the end of the semester that they have learned to appreciate some of what I have offered them. And they often admit that at first they were extremely prejudiced against anything except the current “pop” idiom. But I have never really cajoled them; I have only made an opportunity.

      I remember how difficult it was for me to listen, say, to the slow movements of the Brahms symphonies when I first became interested in serious music as a teenager. I remember telling one of my teachers at the high school that Brahms’ slow movements seemed to me to be an incomprehensible muddle. “Boring” would have been my summation. By degrees I came to terms with the Brahmsian andantes and adagios although it was an arduous struggle. The difficulty comes from Brahms’ sense of harmonic progression, in which chromatic shifts play an important role and from Brahms’ relentlessly polyphonic textures. In other words: His modernity. It took audiences some time to appreciate the “rootedness” of the Brahms symphonies in Bach and Beethoven, but eventually people saw the beauty that had been there all along. The history of the reception of the Brahms symphonies parallels my personal coming-to-terms with them (or rather the other way around).

      Best to Alex — TFB

      • Thank you for your thoughtful observations – which of course throw a critical light on the boundaries of my taste in music. I already know that in many ways I’m a narrow man.

        I have tried to listen to performances on the radio, borrowed and even bought CDs of a number of the composers in your list (Liszt, et al.) in hopes of ‘educating’ my musical sensibility. It’s all been a waste of time. Apart from some of Mahler’s more ‘accessible’ works, I would not willingly listen to any music composed by the rest of composers you mention.

        The pleasure I get from the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and to a lesser extent Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, can always be counted on and I never weary of it. Sometimes I explore further – but only, as it were, ‘backwards’ in the direction of Thomas Tallis and his contemporaries.

        I guess what I took issue with is the use of the word ‘reactionary’ as a description of certain modern composers (or indeed any composer). It doesn’t make sense – at least to me – to say that one can hear a reactionary spirit in the sounds of music, whether it was intended by the composer or not.

        On the other hand, I’m not hostile to the literature of reactionary writers. Maybe the blogmasters, here at the Orthosphere, might eventually open a discussion on their merits and influence.

  7. It is true that “reactionary” has an almost exclusively political connotation (it is by the way a coinage of the Left). In art, “conservative” or “traditionalist” might be the better word, but then there is immediate trouble, because someone like Stravinsky simultaneously innovates and honors the tradition. My proposed term, “modern anti-modernist,” is an attempt to reconcile the verbal discrepancies.

    Some (Stravinsky, for example) would argue that instrumental music can be the bearer of no semantic import whatever. (Roger Scruton also makes this argument.) I remain unconvinced and believe that Spengler was right in his claim that in Western art, all the genres become fused: That music becomes semantic and poetry musical, and so forth.

    I am pleased to tell you, Alex, that I share your delight in Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart.


  8. It is quite interesting how a number of educated musical figures have a strong identification with this traditionalist label – Svein here of course, and R. J. Stove, and Scruton (who I really know little of, either musically or philosophically). Surely not a coincidence! Maybe it’s partly due to an awareness of the musical achievements in western civilisation of the past 600 years, and the way many of these have been abandoned in the short space of 50 years.

    I’m enjoying most of the composers Svein is linking to here; I’m not sure if they are, in the final definition, ‘reactionary’ – whatever it means, or we decide it means – but they certainly represent a reaction to many of the more egregious parts of the 20th century.

  9. I don’t hear Enescu as a “reactionary” composer; try on George Lloyd’s post-WW II symphonies – written in the style of Berlioz – for that label. He seems to have drawn freely from both traditional harmony and form, mixed in certain early 20th-century innovations – impressionism in particular – and produced some wonderful, essentially conservative music. I listen frequently to the Op. 30 Piano Quartet, a masterpiece cut from the same Transylvanian cloth as the exquisite Piano Sonata #1, as well as the early Roumanian Poem and Violin Sonata #3. Though not in my Top 10 (Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Vaughn Williams, Brahms, Bax, etc.), I enjoy Enescu’s music very much…way more than, say, the noises produced by Stravinsky or any other of the self-conscious avant-garde.

  10. Since you are dealing with an area of study I greatly love, even after reading all these posts, I still don’t see how Enescu can be considered ‘reactionary,’ in the same way, say, as Tavener, who clearly has both ‘gone back to chant’ and has also imbued his music (or tried to) with the Weltanschauung of Patristic Orthodoxy.

    In reading the lives of the some of the composers of the early 20th Century, I became struck with the almost tacit assumption that those who were in the forefront of ‘progressive ‘ social causes, or who were incarnations of those same ‘social causes’ themselves (one thinks of Scott Joplin, Gottschalk, etc.) – for example, the fascination/absorption of people like Debussy with Balinese tone patterns/scales, etc. precisely because it was NOT Western/European.

    I know that is just one example, but reactionary has to have some connection with the society, and not just the music alone. That is why Bruckner is considered ‘reactionary’ even though he espoused much of Wagner, precisely because Bruckner was a traditionalist catholic, whereas R. Strauss appeared to have little use for faith, the Church, and models of piety re: Death (the Four Last Songs are vastly different from the Four Serious Songs of Brahms, for instance). E. Michael Jones’ book on music as cultural tool was clearly delineated in his “Dionysos Rising: The Birth of Cultural Revolution Out of the Spirit of Music.” Seeing Schoenberg as the musical equivalent of Antichrist gave me both patristic insight, as well as racial reason to LOATHE this Jew’s music, for the very reasons it OUGHT to be loathed- it is both ‘anti-incarnational’ and blasphemous, which are strong terms to use in a field that almost strives to be ‘morally neutral.’ Which is a shame. Imagine how much crap that passes for music could have been axed at the beginning, because it was not ‘morally uplifting’…. music from Elvis et al. on the one hand, and Partch, the serialists post Berg, and the ‘sodomite faction’ – Blitzstein, Rorem, Bernstein, etc. if we had only used biblical/religious modes of determining a music’s ‘worth.’

    Of course, to some (anarchists, or at best antinomians) this smacks of Nazi models for ‘good music.’ Yes, it does. And I don’t see anything wrong with it, when you contrast the now-lauded ‘eintartete musik’ that is suffused with vulgarity, sexuality, and bestiality in contrast to simple peasant German marches, and the amazing intelligence of a Wagner- moral reprobate that he was…..

    But it IS still a question that needs to be asked, and a term (‘reactionary’) that needs to be defined.

    - Fr. John+

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