George Enescu (1881-1955) is today most widely celebrated as one of the world’s greatest violinists of his generation, a fine conductor and by far the most significant composer of his native Romania. Certainly many great musicians who knew him – including his pupils and protégés Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux and Ivry Gitlis, and colleagues such as Alfred Cortot – held him in the highest esteem. Yet even today his music, apart from his exuberant Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 for orchestra (1901), is scarcely known by the wider public. His one major opera, Oedipe (1921-32), though recorded and since accorded increased respect, remains rarely staged; and his extensive work for solo violin (though – perhaps significantly – not including a concerto) is only beginning to catch the attention of a new generation of soloists.
In adult life George Enescu liked to describe himself as a ‘son of the soil’, yet his father was in fact an estate administrator and in his own right a modest land owner – therefore a man of some importance to the local community in Liveni where the future composer was born. Nonetheless, Enescu’s earliest musical experiences were close to the local peasantry: among his childhood memories was listening aged three to a gypsy band playing on panpipes, violins, a cimbalom and a double bass; and hiding in an orchard to listen to an old gardener play a flute.
In Romania, masters of improvisation and ornamentation in instrumental music were known as ‘lautari’ – literally ‘fiddlers’ but a title which applied to any professional folk musicians with such skills – quite often but not invariably gypsy musicians. It was from such a musician, known as Lau Chioru (‘Squinting Nick’), that Enescu first learned to play violin at the age of four. Such was his innate talent that his parents soon took him to audition with the violin professor and director of the Conservatoire at Iasi (capital of Moldavia) Eduard Caudella. The good professor recommended that Enescu should learn to read music; Enescu accordingly was taken home to learn this skill, and he almost immediately started to compose. Taken back to Caudella when he was seven, the professor – highly impressed by the youth’s burgeoning talent – now recommended that Enescu should enter the Vienna Conservatoire. This he did that very year, on 5 October 1888.
Enescu continued to compose, and while in Vienna fell under the spell of both Wagner and Brahms. He saw no paradox in admiring both composers, and once explained: “Wagner and Brahms were not at all antithetical as people have made them out to be. They were opposed to each other much more by reason of policy than musically.” The prospect of studying under Massenet then brought him to Paris early in 1895. Though the Paris Conservatoire was then still under the directorship of Ambroise Thomas, whose stifling academicism was to inspire much rebellion from Paris’s more able musicians, Enescu appreciated the teaching and encouragement he received from both Massenet and his successor, Fauré. Enescu also received a solid grounding in counterpoint from the lesser-known but much admired teacher André Gédalge (who also taught Ravel, Koechlin and Schmitt, as well as, some time after Enescu’s graduation, Ibert, Honegger and Milhaud). Enescu found Gédalge’s methods very much in accord with his natural inclination, and was later to state: “Harmonic progressions only amount to a sort of elementary improvisation. However short it is, a piece deserves to be called a musical composition only if it has a line, a melody, or, even better, melodies superimposed on one another.”
In April 1899, Enescu composed his Second Violin Sonata. By then he had achieved compositional fame with his Poème Roumain, completed in 1897 and which had enjoyed remarkable success when premiered by the Colonne Orchestra in Paris. It caused an even greater sensation when played in Bucharest, securing Enescu overnight national fame and the patronage of the Queen of Romania. In the meantime a theme had been germinating in Enescu’s mind, one which first occurred to him – he later said – “At the age of 14, when I was walking by myself in Prince Maurouzi’s garden… I carried it inside me for three years; then, at 17, I wrote my Second Violin Sonata in the space of a fortnight.” The success of his Poème had no doubt galvanized his confidence, and his Violin Sonata in F minor was the most distinctive work he had ever composed till then, in terms of its character and its lean, purposeful sense of unity, being largely derived from its long opening theme.
In three movements, it begins with that sombre and mysterious theme, played in unison by violin and piano. As the music progresses and blossoms, one may perhaps hear the influence here of Fauré, and there of Chausson in the music’s moments of harmonic poignancy; but Enescu’s delivery is far more forthright than the sensibility of either of those French composers. The second movement, also in F minor, is more straight-forwardly songful in a melancholic manner: there is a central section in which the melody undergoes a dreamy variation, with perhaps a hint of the twin influences of Brahms and Wagner which had been so crucial to the young Enescu. The former mood returns, though with the violin now muted and entering a more shadowy realm with a scurrying tremolo. The movement ends as if with a question, which links straight into the finale. In that movement the strongest influence appears to be Fauré, its scherzando mood built on quirky, elliptical harmonies. In true cyclic style the Sonata’s opening theme reappears, an impassioned statement in the midst of so much light-hearted banter; and later still the second movement’s melancholic song also appears. The general mood, though, is playful and merry, with an appropriate final pay-off.
Asked once to describe the essential character of Romanian music, Enescu replied: “Dreaming. And a tendency, even in fast sections, towards melancholy, towards minor keys.” It was above all the doina – a slow and melancholic song or instrumental melody found particularly in Romania – which inspired some of Enescu’s most characteristic music, including his Third Violin Sonata. Enescu composed this in August through to November 1926, and described the Sonata on its title page as “dans le caractère populare roumain”. In an interview two years later, Enescu emphasized the difference between ‘style’ and ‘character’ and why he opted for the latter description: “I don’t use the word ‘style’ because that implies something made or artificial, whereas ‘character suggests something given, existing from the beginning.”
Enescu was particularly wary of using genuine folk themes in sophisticated music for the concert hall, describing the result as “diamonds set in concrete”. Rather, he in effect invented his own folk language, having deeply absorbed the peasant and gypsy music of his native country. This influence can be not only heard in the exotic inflections and character of the music, but may also be witnessed in Enescu’s meticulous notation of the violin part – generally inspired by the improvisatory style of Romanian fiddlers – indicating which part of the bow the player should use, degrees of vibrato and exactly how to execute the many ornaments in the violin’s music. Meanwhile the piano is often imitating instruments such as the cimbalom, or such natural sounds as bird song or the chirping of crickets.
Enescu brought this imitative art to a new level 14 years later with Impressions d’enfance – truly an artful evocation of a child’s perspective on a world that appears intriguing, magical and sometimes threatening. The suite, very specifically, recalls Enescu’s own childhood; as the twelfth and only surviving child, he had been cosseted by his mother who had prevented him from playing with other children. So the memories evoked by this suite are those of a solitary child, who hears a gypsy musician, encounters a beggar, a caged bird and a cuckoo clock, and such living creatures or natural phenomena he might encounter in the family’s garden. There’s even an eerie evocation of the wind howling in the chimney. All of this is woven into music which is not merely evocative, but haunting, disturbing and strange, until dawn the next morning brings the suite to a joyous conclusion.
© Daniel Jaffé