George Enescu

(d. 4 May 1955)

George Enescu was a Romanian composer and violinist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; he also worked as a conductor and teacher. Though his work only comprises 33 opuses, it spans many genres and styles, from neo-Baroque to Romantic and from solo works to symphonies. He had a fantastic reputation during his lifetime, both personally and professionally.

Enescu was born in 1881 in Leveni Vîrnav into a modest middle-class family. He began playing the violin at the young age of 4 and started composing at age 5.

In 1888 Enescu went to Vienna to study at the Konservatorium der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. There he studied violin, harmony, chamber music, and piano with Sigmund Bachrich and Joseph Hellmesberger jr, Robert Fuchs, Joseph Hellmesberger Sr and Ernst Ludwig, respectively. He also learned the organ and the cello. While in Vienna he attended many influential Wagner performances at the Hofoper.

I do love only one thing in the world: music, music immense.

Enescu’s first public performance as a violinist was in 1889 at Slănic, north-eastern Romania. After graduating in Vienna in 1893, he decided to stay an extra year to follow Fuchs’ composition class. Afterwards, he went to Paris to study at the conservatory. There, he studied composition with Massenet and Fauré and counterpoint and fugue with André Gédalage. His main interest remained composition throughout his studies and his lifetime. Enescu’s compositions were first performed publicly in a chamber music concert in Paris in 1897 and dedicated solely to his works.

One of his earlier works for orchestra, Poème roumain (1897), was premiered in Paris in 1898 under the direction of Edouard Colonne. Enescu’s conducting career led him to Bucharest, where he was named a ‘figure of national importance’ by the Romanian press.

Music has to go from one heart to another.

After graduating from the Paris Conservatory in 1899, Enescu split his time between France and Romania and between performance and composition. While in Paris, he concentrated mostly on his performance and worked with such musicians as Cortot, Thibaud, and Casals. He also formed a trio with Casella and Fournier in 1902, and the Enescu Quartet was formed in 1904. He travelled through Europe as both a violinist and conductor and had the opportunity to conduct the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, among others. During this time, he also composed two of his most famous works, ones that would later haunt him, Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 (1901) and Romanian Rhapsody no. 2 (1902). He found that these highly successful works, based on Romanian folk music, defined and limited his career. He disliked always having to use existing folk music, as the only possibilities are “to rhapsodize it, with repetitions and juxtapositions.”

During the summers Enescu would retreat to the countryside of Romania to work on his compositions. While in Romania, he also became active in the music scene and enjoyed the privilege of the royal family’s patronage. In 1912, he also founded the Enescu Prize for Romanian composers. The onset of World War I led to Enescu staying in Romania. While there, he formed a symphony orchestra and the first national opera company of Romania. Their first production took place the same year, in 1921, of Wagner’s Lohengrin, which Enescu conducted.

Between the wars, Enescu worked on his great opera, Oedipe (1921-31), which he had conceived already in 1912, but orchestrated much later. The orchestration and revision were long-term processes which took place between his demanding concert tours. The opera is influenced by Wagner in its use of leitmotifs, at least 21 of which have been identified. However, due to the way Enescu uses the leitmotifs, it is possible for the listener to be unaware of them. He also frequently scores for solo instruments amid the orchestral texture.

In the 1920s, Enescu went to the USA, where he made several recordings as a violinist. While in America, he also had many opportunities to conduct the American orchestras. He was even considered as a replacement for Toscanini as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The young and aspiring Yehudi Menuhin was inspired by Enescu and travelled to Europe in 1927 to study with him. Despite his hesitation to teach, Enescu’s teaching had a profound influence on Ferras, Gitlis, Grumiaux, and Haendel. He also gave masterclasses throughout Paris. After World War II, Enescu’s career as a teacher expanded and he received teaching positions at the Mannes School in New York and the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, along with several summer programs.

In the 1920s, Enescu went to the USA, where he made several recordings as a violinist. While in America, he also had many opportunities to conduct the American orchestras. He was even considered as a replacement for Toscanini as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The young and aspiring Yehudi Menuhin was inspired by Enescu and travelled to Europe in 1927 to study with him. Despite his hesitation to teach, Enescu’s teaching had a profound influence on Ferras, Gitlis, Grumiaux, and Haendel. He also gave masterclasses throughout Paris. After World War II, Enescu’s career as a teacher expanded and he received teaching positions at the Mannes School in New York and the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, along with several summer programs.

For the last nearly 30 years of his life, Enescu composed almost exclusively chamber music. His love for this genre was already evident in Oedipe. This set of chamber works begins with the Third Violin Sonata (1926) and includes both the Piano Quintet (1940) and Second Piano Quartet (1944). The most important element in his works is the melody. He once stated that “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.” He was also influenced by Doina, a meditative and melancholic type of song, which allows for the extension and flexibility of long lines. This type of phrasing was coined parlando rubato by Bartók. Percussive dance rhythms, reminiscent of those of Bartók, can also be seen in his work.

During World War II, Enescu stayed in his homeland, where he made several recordings of his works with his godson, Dinu Lipatti. When the Communist Party took control after the war, Enescu went into exile in Paris in 1946.

By this time, Enescu was quite old and fragile. He had problems with his heart and back, in addition to hearing problems. Furthermore, he was poor and had a mentally unstable wife, to whom he remained unconditionally devoted. Despite these problems, he resumed his career briefly as a violinist and recorded many works by Bach. He also continued conducting, especially in England. In 1954 he suffered a stroke causing partial paralysis and died the following year. His last work, the Chamber Symphony (1954), was completed with the help of his friend and colleague, Marcel Mihalovici.

After his death, more than 100 works were discovered in various states of completion. Three of these works have been completed by other Romanian composers. These include the Caprice roumain for violin and orchestra (1928) and two of his symphonies.

Header image: taken by Yusuf Karsh
Other images: courtesy of Romania Pozitiva, Autentici

Béla Bartók

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