George Enescu (1881-1955) was 3 when he heard some village fiddlers. The next day he tried to imitate the instruments.
He made a violin by attaching some thread to a piece of wood and a cimbalom from some wooden sticks. He imitated the reed pipe with his lips.
His parents noticed his growing preoccupation with music and gave him a toy violin with three strings when he was 4. Offended at not getting a real violin, he threw it in the fire.
Once they bought him a real one, he started picking out tunes by ear, using one finger on a single string.
Eduard Caudella, professor of composition at the Conservatory in Iași, noticed him when he was 5 and persuaded his parents to let him direct the boy’s musical studies. Young Jurjac (his family’s pet name for him) made his first attempts at composition when he was 6.
Enescu studied at the Vienna Conservatory between 1888 and 1894 and then at the Paris Conservatory from 1895-1899. He studied composition with Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré.
Although he was more interested in becoming a composer than a virtuoso violinist, he won second prize in the conservatory’s violin competition in 1898 and first prize in 1899.
While in Paris, he adopted the French version of his name, Georges Enesco, by which he is best known in the West.
He remained in Paris and founded a piano trio (in 1902) and a string quartet (in 1904). Paris became his base of operations for a career as a touring violinist and conductor. He was also a very good pianist.
His tours took him all over Europe as well as to the US and Canada. Somehow he found time to become a teacher at various institutions on both continents. His Paris students included Christian Ferras, Ivry Gitlis, Arthur Grumiaux, and Yehudi Menuhin.
Enescu also maintained a home in Sinaia, Romania and took an active role in developing musical life in his home country. He founded the Enescu Prize in composition, which was awarded every year from 1913 to 1946. He also founded the George Enescu Symphony Orchestra in Iași (1917), and inaugurated the state-owned Romanian Opera House in Bucharest by conducting Wagner’s Lohengrin.
Like his contemporary Rachmaninoff, he found that the necessity of making his living as a virtuoso kept him from composing as much as he would have liked. Nevertheless, he managed to complete an opera, some large-scale choral works, three symphonies, a violin concerto, several other orchestral works, and a great deal of chamber music. Two more symphonies and other works remained unfinished at his death.
Like his contemporary Busoni, his creative efforts were complicated by his decision to divide his time between two countries. As actively as he fostered Romanian music, he refused to consider himself a strictly nationalistic composer. When a Communist government took over Romania after the Second World War, Enescu severed all ties with his homeland.
Enescu’s worldwide renown as a composer began, and unfortunately ended for all practical purposes, with his two Romanian Rhapsodies, composed in 1901. The first is the better known.
They are comparatively superficial pieces, not representative of even his early style, that emulate Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. Later he resented their popularity, which overshadowed most of the rest of his work.
Like Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, the Romanian Rhapsodies display an improvisatory alternation of slow and fast sections based on gypsy folk elements. Enescu, however, conceived his rhapsodies as orchestral pieces from the start. (Liszt’s began as piano solos.) He showed a sure grasp of orchestral effect, including some never before heard on the concert stage.
Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 begins with one of the first folksongs Enescu learned to play as a 4-year-old, “Am un leu” (“I have a coin and I want a drink”). The orchestration reflects the conditions under which the tune was most often played.
Shepherds, amusing themselves during their long days in the field, would fashion wind instruments out of whatever they could lay their hands on—grass, bark, bones. They improvised ornaments on familiar tunes.
They might have been far away from home and family, but they were not alone. Enescu’s orchestration splits the tune between the clarinet and oboe, as if two colleagues are looking forward to a night on the town together. It even captures the bird songs that might have been heard in the background. That is, if anyone listening to the shepherds had noticed them.
After this opening, the tune becomes a dance. The other themes are all dances. Hardworking Balkan peasants turned to dancing and drinking for entertainment.
Peasant folk dancing does not at all resemble formal ballroom dancing. The music portrays the whistling, stomping, and whooping of the increasingly inebriated party. The cellos in particular have a difficult and oddly chromatic passage. They must scoop the pitch up at the end of every note.
In Enescu’s hands, the dances gather in intensity and include every kind of dance music villagers were likely to know. One dance early in the piece sounds a bit like a Viennese waltz. Others show the exotic scales left from 500 years of rule by the Ottoman Empire.
At least in Romania, Enescu’s more serious works are gaining more careful attention. Maybe they will get more of a hearing in the West. In the mean time, audiences will keep enjoying the rhapsodies.
George Enescu: biography and work / National Museum George Enescu
George Enescu, the composer / Pascal Bentolu
George Enescu (1881-1955) Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 / Lars Hoefs
Portraits of Enescu are public domain.
Romanian shepherds. Source unknown.