Music: George Enescu — Gentle Giant

“Enescu was the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart.” Thus said Pablo Casals, no mean musician himself. Stokowski agreed: “I have known very many great musicians, and very few geniuses. Enescu was a genius.” Yehudi Menuhin, Enescu’s student from 1927, confessed, “Every time I play music, I still feel the presence of that most inspiring man, the greatest musician I’ve ever known.”

One hears the phrase “well-rounded musician” fairly regularly. But the tales of George Enescu’s musicianship invite disbelief. He made his living principally as a violinist, of course one of the world’s finest in the era of giants like Kreisler, Flesch, and Heifetz. He was good enough a conductor to have been considered as Toscanini’s successor at the New York Philharmonic in 1936. He was an outstanding pianist—Alfred Cortot, one of his closest friends and perhaps the most important French pianist of his generation, asked Enescu why he, a violinist, had a better piano technique. He was at home with the cello and the organ.

In Bucharest, in 1937, Enescu was conducting a rehearsal of Act 3 of Wagner’s Siegfried when it was learned that the bass who was to sing Wotan was ill and couldn’t attend. Enescu sang the part from the podium, in a voice described as “incomparably full and exact,” and repeated the feat at the next day’s rehearsal.

On another occasion, the British writer John Amis relates, Enescu had been sent the score of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, but the parcel had gone missing, and he arrived at the Bryanston summer school of music, where he was to conduct the work—a thing of phenomenal rhythmic complexity—without ever having seen it. He was given another score and conducted the first rehearsal at sight, without putting a beat out of place.


Perhaps the most astonishing illustration of the capacity of Enescu’s mind comes from a story Menuhin used to tell. He and his father were with Enescu when Ravel popped by with the score of his newly completed Violin Sonata; could they play it through?, he asked. Afterward, Enescu sought clarification on a few points, and they decided to play it again. Enescu closed his music and did the whole thing from memory.

This massive intellect was entirely devoid of ego—though not pride. He died in poverty in Paris in 1955 because he refused the offers of his friends, Menuhin among them, to help him out financially. Amis went out to see him shortly before his death and found his room was “like a monk’s, with just a chair and a bed: he lived very, very simply. I asked him one day—this was in the ’50s, when rationing was still on— was there anything he wanted, and he said: ‘Yes, a spoonful of jam.’ And he leapt on it like a cat at milk.”

His teaching and conducting reflected the gentleness of his spirit. Amis recalls that “he never put down his foot about anything: it was always suggestion; mostly, he stopped and did it again and they knew what was wrong. He had a session with the Amadeus Quartet and he didn’t say anything; he just occasionally moved a finger or a hand in their direction and played a few bits on the piano, and they played immediately much better than they had ever played before?’

I publish books on music as Toccata Press, an imprint I set up because I got fed up waiting for other publishers to bring out the books I wanted to read; one of them was a study of Enescu, since there was nothing on him in English. In my search for an author, I talked to many who had been personally acquainted with him. And I soon discovered that everyone who had known him loved him, directly and unreservedly—the warmth of his personality could still be felt three decades later. “Oh yes, we all loved him,” Amis remembers. “He was the most humble person, practically, that I’ve ever met. He seemed to take no account of himself whatsoever.” (Eventually I did find an author, the English polymath Noel Malcolm—he’s also a linguist, Hobbes scholar, current-affairs expert, and who knows what else; his George Enescu: His Life and Music, which I brought out in 1990, is still the only book written in English on this great figure.)

But Enescu was more than a saintly man and all-encompassing musician: He was also one of the 20th century’s finest composers. The list of his published compositions is short: Only 33 opus numbers, although there are numerous unpublished or unnumbered works—music flowed from him all of his life. And it is of extraordinary quality—every one of his works exhibits a richness of texture that sweeps the listener in, beguiling the ear with an endless supply of melody as it rewards the brain with polyphony of increasing complexity.

There’s one constant in Enescu’s music. He was born at Liveni, in the Romanian countryside, in 1881, and grew up with the sound of Romanian folk music in his ears. It stayed with him, coloring even the more abstract scores of his last works. Indeed, given the sheer accessibility of Enescu’s music, it’s astonishing that only the two Romanian Rhapsodies have entered the repertoire. But there’s so much more.

The Symphonie concertante for cello and orchestra, for example, written when Enescu was 19, melts the heart from its very first dreamy bars, the cello entering with a line that seems to unfold forever. The Octet for Strings, composed a year earlier, likewise bounds into life with a huge, heart-warming paragraph of a tune that doesn’t stop for breath until almost four minutes in.

Enescu wrote nine symphonies in all: four breathtakingly confident “Student Symphonies” when he was 15 or 16 and three numbered works; Nos. 4 and 5 were left incomplete. Nos. 1-3 are masterpieces, each with a polyphonic weft of lines more complex than the previous work—Pascal Bentoiu, a fellow Romanian composer, described No. 2 as a “magic jungle”— but with an exhilarating onward rush that bowls the listener along irresistibly.

He produced a generous quantity of chamber music: two each of cello sonatas, piano quartets, and string quartets; a piano quintet; an elliptical Chamber Symphony for twelve instruments; and three violin sonatas. There would have been three piano sonatas, too: No. 2 was complete in his head, but he never got around to writing it down, and so we have only the First and Third. There are three piano suites, though, the first two on Baroque models, the third, Pièces impromptues, a series of wonderfully evocative reminisces of the countryside in which he grew up.

And the masterpiece of all his masterpieces is his deeply moving opera Oedip (1922-1931), a vast fresco of a score epic in its sweep and luminous in its detail. It ought to be part of the standard repertoire in the world’s major houses, like Busoni’s Doktor Faust and Szymanowski’s King Roger—and, of course, like them, it’s not.

For me Enescu’s music communicates the love that Enescu the man evoked in the people who knew him. He left behind one of the finest bodies of works of any composer since Bach, as intellectual as that great master’s but as immediately touching as Schubert’s. To know it is to be a richer person.


At the time this article was published, Martin Anderson wrote on music for several publications, including Fanfare, International Piano, and International Record Review.