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.