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George Enescu, the composer

by Pascal Bentoiu

George Enescu - a famous musician since his early childhood, highly appraised in Europe and in North America for both his performances as a violin virtuoso as well as his well-known Romanian Rhapsodies. And yet, this musician represents the typical case of a composer whose importance has never been fully understood even during his lifetime.

Enescu's revaluation has only just begun and is therefore confronting one difficulty or another. And it appears to be quite obvious that the musical qualities that turned Enescu into one of the most celebrated violinists of his era - an era adorned with names like Kreisler, Thibaud and Heifetz - and enabled him at the same time, quite on the contrary to the celebrities cited above, to become a great conductor and a fascinating teacher as well, are to be held responsible to have restrained his contemporaneity to rightly judge upon the true worth of his works.

There must have been quite a few who might have thought Enescu's oeuvre to be no more than the understandable, if also somewhat unimportant wish of a tremendous virtuoso to try himself out for once on a more creative ground (like it was the case with Fritz Kreisler, for example, who wrote not only with some enchanting little pieces, but also with a very interesting quartet for strings). However, the Romanian artist left us with symphonies, suites, an opera, sonatas, quartets and several major works for both orchestra and chamber music. Collective memory has mainly focused firstly on the two Romanian Rhapsodies, that he composed at the aged of 20, then - to a much smaller degree - on a Sonata for Piano and Violin "in Romanian folcloristic character" (op.25). The composer Enescu was thereby attributed an exotic, folk quality, assuming further that he was to be regarded as another picturesque representant of a certain "national school". This description alone falls nonetheless too short and is wrong from the scratch.

There are however many reasons for such a misinterpretation (or, better yet, a very limited interpretation). For once there was the composer's legendary modesty itself, that might have had a part in that, as well as - possibly - a rather lax support from his editors, that did neither ensure the presence of Enescu's works in the concert halls and recording studios nor cared for a translation of the various essays and monographs on him into one of the major world languages. The fact that the composer belonged to a relatively small people speaking a beautiful but only scarcely spread language might also have. The quite important musicological input that the composer has generated in his homeland over the past 50 years has - in consequence - remained pretty much unknown to wider international circles.

All of the above have undoubtedly played a part. I would, however, like to focus now on the main reason for this sad state of affairs, that furthermore belongs to the main characteristics of Enescu's oeuvre. The subject is somewhat difficult and I am not giving in to the illusion that I will be able to fully outline it in such limited space. But let's proceed, at least, with sketching the problem in clear words, attempting to achieve a conclusion.

One can divide Enescu's oeuvre grosso modo in two large periods. There is for once a time for introspecting and collecting, and then there is another time for harvesting the results of this previous period. The composer starts the series of his works with two remarkably mature pieces of chamber music, the 2nd Sonata for piano and Violin and the Octet for Strings. Enescu is not yet 18 years old when finishing the sonata and has not reached his 19th birthday when delivering the octet. Especially the latter is a contrapuntal chef d'oeuvre displaying an extraordinary architecture.

After having thereby reached the peak of his creativity on a highly concentrated level of utmost excellence, he starts a series of very interesting explorations, that will show one, two works at the utmost representing each direction. Each of these stylistic "regards" would have been suited for an entire period à la Strawinsky. We encounter an ultra romantic piece (the Symphonie concertante for Cello and Orchestra op.8), a part with neo-classical traits (the 1st Suite for Orchestra op.9), a piano cycle, that one could describe as belonging to a neo-classical style with strongly influenced by French impressionism (the 2nd Piano Suite op.10), then there are the two famous Rhapsodies op.11, displaying the picturesque charm of Eastern European national schools, the clearly neo romantic 1st Symphony op.13, the Dixtuor for Winds op.13, where a very thorough classical style meets with the reminiscence of imaginary folk music, and - last, not least - the 2nd Suite for Orchestra, a striking example of how to adapt neo baroque to modern musical ideas. And one must insist upon the fact that each of the works mentioned above is always forcefully stressing both Enescu's unmistakable personality and sensibility.

Those explorations described here, the suggested perspectives are preparing the ground for a thorough synthesis. All these "roots" the over generously gifted artist, who delivers his self-confidence from so many different sources, claims as his own, find themselves solidly united into one body, reminding one of a vigorous oak trunk. The marking point of this "unification" lies with the 2nd, more so with the 3rd Symphony (1918) and is also to be found in the Quartet in e flat major op.22,1. Starting with these works we can consider the synthesis complete, and Enescu's creative abilities emerge to a fully grown "foliage", that is no longer tributary to any exterior stylistic influence whatsoever. To the remarkable encounters of this time are to counted the opera Oedipe, the 3rd Suite for Orchestra (the "Villageoise"), the symphonic poem Vox Maris and a vast oeuvre for chamber music - several Sonatas, Quartets with and without piano, a monumental Piano quintet, finally the Chamber Symphony op.33. Worthy to be remembered are also some unfinished works, that round up his image as a composer: the 4th and 5th Symphony, the poem Isis, the Caprice Roumain for Violin and Orchestra, the poem Nuages d'automne sur les fôrets.

Up to here nothing seems out of the extraordinary. "We meet here" thus the remark of a an attentive observer, "with the familiar case of a composer who left us with a neither very large, nor very small heritage (summing it up, it can approximately be compared to that of his colleague and friend Ravel) with a diverse and interesting range, that will sooner or later find its own way to the hearts and minds of its listeners."

Unfortunately things do not appear to turn out this way. Most of the works presented above are only sporadically present in concert halls, on new recordings and broadcasting shows. I am naturally not referring myself to Enescu's own country (where his presence in culture and media is represented at an average level), but to the international concert life, where Enescu is not appearing with a regularity matching the true value of his works.

The explanation? The real explanation, not the usual ones due to more or less circumstantial elements? There is but one. Enescu's most important works are all displaying an unusual amount of musical information and density.

They are difficult, they are - so to speak - too difficult for the conditions reigning our days' concert halls. In order to be fully understood, they demand to be listened to over and over again, something that is only rarely possible, they demand an extremely high amount of time, energy and commitment from the interpreters (and interpreters nowadays are quite in a bit of a hurry). In short, Enescu's music is therefore asking for a loving approach, for true commitment and almost for a credo from both its musicians and its public. But after piercing through the hard skin, one is rewarded by the incomparable sweetness of the fruit. An aroma that one isn't likely to ever forget.

Slowly but unavoidably the composer George Enescu is starting to make his way up to his rightful place as one of the greatest authors of his time. 50 years after the death of this great musician he is finally not longer measured by his potential to be used as a propaganda tool, but by the number of enthusiastic listeners touched by his music. Their community is constantly becoming more and more numerous.

Pascal Bentoiu (born 1927) is living in Bucharest as a composer and musicologist. He has published numerous essays on Enescu, providing in 1984 one of the most important books on Enescu up to this day, Capodopere enesciene [Enescu's Masterpieces]. In 1990 he became the first president of the Society of Romanian Composers after the downfall of the communist regime, his large oeuvre includes operas, symphonical and chamber music. Pascal Bentoiu is the author of the article on Enescu in the recent edition of the encyclopaedia "Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart" (Music in history and presence).

(C) Copyright of the original (Romanian) article by Pascal Bentoiu 2005, (C) Copyright of this translated text by the International Enescu Society 2005. All rights reserved.