One of the many statues of Enescu in Romania
RADAR

George Enescu: ode to melody

George Enescu (1881-1955) was without a doubt the greatest Romanian composer of the 20th century. Don't freak out if his name doesn't immediately ring a bell though, unfortunately he is still unknown to a large audience. BOZAR tries to fix that by highlighting his work during EUROPALIA ROMANIA. 

George Enescu © The George Enescu National Museum, Bucharest
George Enescu © The George Enescu National Museum, Bucharest

A child prodigy between France and Romania 

The little Enescu grew up in the Romanian countryside. He was just three years old when he heard some Roma music that left an indelible impression on him. Not long after, his parents gave him a small three-stringed violin on which he developed his talents as a violin player. At the age of six he learned to play the piano. It was this that marked the beginning of his career as a composer:  

"As soon as I had a piano at my disposal, I started composing. (…) I was very happy to trade in the violin, the monodic instrument I had been playing until then, for the polyphonic piano; now I could make music, but also accompany myself! (…) And, without any hesitation, I began to compose.” 

At the suggestion of his teacher, Enescu left for Vienna at the age of seven (!), and later went on to study composition at the Paris Conservatory as a teenager, under the illustrious French composers Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré.

GEORGE ENESCU SONATA No. 3 Op. 25 IDA HAENDEL MISHA DACIC

A virtuoso composer and an outstanding teacher   

With an oeuvre of just 33 opus numbers, Enescu cannot be described as prolific. He was a perfectionist and also had little time for composing given his flourishing career as a violinist and his activities as teacher and conductor. In Paris, he developed into one of the greatest virtuosos of his time. He was also a remarkable teacher, training some of the greatest virtuosos of the next generation, such as Christian Ferras, Ida Haendel and Arthur Grumiaux.    

George Enescu with the young Yehudi Menuhin © The George Enescu National Museum, Bucharest
George Enescu with the young Yehudi Menuhin © The George Enescu National Museum, Bucharest

An innate sense of melody

Enescu’s music still has one foot in German Romanticism – especially Schumann and Brahms – while the influence of his teachers Fauré and Massenet is also clearly evident, as is his sensitivity to the innovations of Stravinsky, Schönberg and Bartók.  The Romanian composer also wove folk elements into his music. This is most apparent in the rich melody lines, a typical characteristic of Romanian folk music. He wrote about this in his autobiography:   

“I am not really a person who likes chord progressions … a work only deserves to be called a music composition if it has a line, a melody or, better still, various melodies that are stacked one on top of the other."

George Enescu © The George Enescu National Museum, Bucharest
George Enescu © The George Enescu National Museum, Bucharest

Enescu's most famous work is undoubtedly the Romanian Rhapsody (1901) – which will be played by the Belgian National Orchestra on 1 December. In this work, the 19-year-old composer makes extensive use of very melodic folk music. The first part, for example, is inspired by the folk song "I have a coin and I want a drink". As the movement progresses, the melody becomes more vital and rhythmic, culminating in a swirling folk dance.

The Enescu Music Competition is one of the biggest in Eastern Europe, the equivalent of our Queen Elisabeth Competition
The Enescu Music Competition is one of the biggest in Eastern Europe, the equivalent of our Queen Elisabeth Competition

Oedipe 

Enescu's undoubted master work is his opera Oedipe. He began composing it in 1912 but the opera was not premiered until 1936. For more than 20 years, he worked with heart and soul on this opera about the mythical Oedipus. BOZAR will be presenting not the original but a jazz version of this work. The Romanian pianist Lucian Ban and the American viola player Mat Manri will be immersing this opera in a kind of "jazz bath", and are both very enthusiastic about the work:   

“Enesco’s Oedipe is a monumental piece of music, and it’s one of the reasons why it is rarely staged, but its profound synthesis of the ancient and modern characteristics of late romanticism, and the sheer individualism of its composer is unparalleled, I think, among XXth century operas. This is why, after previously working with Enescu instrumental music, we wanted to approach Oedipe.”

OEDIPE REDUX (excerpts')

See also