Concert Overture (on Popular Romanian Themes), Op. 32 (1948)

By Anthony Burton

Written for the concert Polishing the Jewel: The Genius of George Enescu, performed on Feb 4, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In the last years of his life, after the end of World War II, Enescu was living in poverty in Paris, cut off from Romania and from his savings there, and prevented by hearing and spinal disorders from pursuing his most lucrative career, that of solo violinist. During this period, he devoted most of his effort as a composer to works which had previously remained unfinished: in particular, he completed his Second String Quartet and his symphonic poem Vox Maris, both of which he had begun as long ago as the 1920s. But he did also compose two new works, the Ouverture de concert sur des thèmes dans le caractère populaire roumain and the intimate Chamber Symphony. The Overture was completed in September 1948, and first performed the following January by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., conducted by the composer.

As its full title suggests, the Concert Overture belongs to the long line of pieces by Enescu inspired by the riches of Romanian folk music. This began with his precocious Opus 1, the Poème Roumain, and the two highly successful Romanian Rhapsodies. But, while these had been based on actual folk melodies, later pieces in the same line–like the Third Violin Sonata of 1926 and the Suite villageoise–were in a language inspired by folk traditions, and used no folk material. The Sonata shares with the Concert Overture the phrase in its sub-title “dans le caractère populaire roumain.” Enescu explained this choice of words in an interview for a Romanian magazine in 1928, speaking about his Caprice Roumain for violin and orchestra, then in progress but never completed (the translation is from Noel Malcolm’s biography of Enescu):

“I’m writing it in the character of folk-music. I don’t use the word “style” because that implies something made or artificial, whereas “character” suggests something given, existing from the beginning … The use of folk material doesn’t in itself ensure an authentic realization of folk character; it contributes to it, circumstantially, when it is done with the spirit of the people; in this way Romanian composers will be able to write valuable compositions whose character will be similar to that of folk music, but which will be achieved through different, absolutely personal mean.”

The Overture is in the bright key of A major, and is scored for a large orchestra, including céleste (doubling keyed glockenspiel), piano and harp – a combination of colors of harmonic instruments which may have been suggested by some of the richer orchestral scores of Szymanowski. The intricate detail of the orchestration, in particular the use of solo strings playing something completely different from the rest of the section, is characteristic of Enescu. So too is the precise indication of phrasing, dynamics, harmonics, and many minute inflections of tempo (all with exact metronome markings)–the legacy of many years’ experience as an orchestral conductor.

The Romanian character of the thematic material is established by its strong rhythmic impetus, mostly accumulated through short two-measure phrases of 2/4 time, and in its stress on certain intervals–notably the fifths of open violin strings, and the augmented seconds which may have reached Romania from the Middle East. Equally characteristic of folk tradition are the heterophonic textures, in which different instruments decorate the same melodic line simultaneously in different ways, and the manner in which the melodies are constantly varied and extended, as if by a fiddler relying less on memory than on fluency of improvisation. Indeed, there is almost no exact repetition of thematic material in the course of the work’s nine or so minutes. It is shaped instead by its alternation between passages at the hectic basic tempo and episodes at slower speeds: a lament led by a solo flute, a darkly passionate cantilena leading to the work’s central climax, and a powerful coda.

This coda conveys a strong sense of tragedy; and it suggests that the Overture as a whole expresses the all too familiar twentieth-century emotions of nostalgia and protest at separation from a lost homeland. The work is dedicated to the memory of the Romanian princess Elena Bibescu, the influential patron of many writers and artists in Paris until her death in 1902. She had taken Enescu under her wing some fifty years earlier, when the young Conservatoire student’s Poème Roumain had first expressed his feelings for his distant native land.