Polishing the Jewel: The Genius of George Enescu

By Leon Botstein

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

Since World War II, many of the leading twentieth-century composers of Eastern Europe have become part of the standard concert repertory. But figures such as Szymanowski, Bartók, and Janáček, despite the popularity of their works, are still viewed through the prism of a simplistic notion of national identity. No doubt they were indeed nationalists, and used an array of folk materials and distinctive characteristics of their native language and culture in their music—but the same can also be said of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Yet we never marginalize these classical masters as idiosyncratically German or Austrian; they seem to transcend national characteristics. Despite the broadening of Western European and American tastes, our attraction to the composers of eastern European is still intimately connected to our sense that there is something exotic about their music. When these composers have tried to counter that sense and avoided highlighting an audible nativism, their music has been traditionally criticized as derivative. This double bind has been particularly true in the case of the lesser known twentieth-century Russian symphonists. We still fall into the trap of concentrating on what seems uniquely Finnish about Sibelius or Danish about Nielsen.

There are two composers from Eastern Europe who have suffered particular neglect because their work does not lend easily to reductive nationalist symbolism: Ernst von Dohnányi and George Enescu. The careers of both of these musical geniuses have unusual parallels. Each was a remarkable prodigy as an instrumentalist—Dohynanyi as a pianist, Enescu as a violinist. Each was trained in Vienna at a conservatory over which the tradition of Brahms held a profound influence. Dohnányi and Enescu both went on to achieve international success primarily as performers, and both contributed actively to the development of concert life and musical culture in their homelands, Hungary and Romania respectively, after 1918. Unlike Dohnanyi, however, Enescu honored a longstanding Romanian cultural connection, and went on to study in Paris, where he came under the spell of French masters and influences. In this regard, Enescu’s experience bears particular resemblance to those of Szymanowski and Martinu. Unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, the linguistic connection between Romania and France was quite intimate. Bucharest prided itself on being the Paris rather than the Vienna of Eastern Europe. As a result, Enescu more self-consciously than Dohnányi became a truly international and cosmopolitan figure, who lived not only in Romania and Paris but (again like Martinu) in New York.

As CD re-issues of his violin playing have made clear, he was a spectacular and original violinist, as well as a great violin pedagogue who found a way to integrate the French violin tradition with that of central Europe. His sound and interpretive strategy were completely different from the Russian tradition that emanated from Leopold Auer (which has left a distinct mark on our tastes through the artistry of such pupils as Jascha Heifetz), or the tradition which took hold in Berlin through the influence of Joachim and Flesch. In this regard, Enescu outpaces Bartók, Szymanowski or Janáček, because he maintained a virtuosity as an instrumentalist that was indisputable and lifelong. Perhaps only Dohnányi, who returned late in life to public piano performance, offers a legitimate comparison. But the comparison is a bit ironic, because even more than Dohnányi, Enescu saw himself first and foremost as a composer. Despite this conviction, however, most of his music is largely neglected today beyond the borders of Romania (though, thanks to the advocacy of Lawrence Foster, the opera Oedipe [1936] is experiencing something of a revival today). This is also ironic, because Enescu’s music cannot in any way be simplistically defined as Romanian, but rather is an innovative extension of the three traditions he knew—French, German, Romanian.

To acknowledge that Enescu artistically transcended nationalism is not to say, however, that he abandoned his native country. Rather, Enescu’s life and work serve to disrupt the hard and fast categorization of a restrictive nationalism in the first place. Unlike many of his equally famous Romanian contemporaries, Enescu managed to avoid both sides of a terrible opposition. He neither flirted during the 1930s with local fascist movements that exploited national pride, nor succumbed to the lure of distancing himself entirely from Romania through acculturation into an international world of artists (which is often a form of cultural conformism in disguise). Like Bartók, Enescu was a courageous and honorable individual in a world obsessed by nationalist hatred, xenophobia, fascism, and anti-Semitism. His tireless work to expose Romanian musicians to the range of European tradition and technique, as evidenced in his founding of Romania’s most important musical institutions, make Constantin Stihi-Boos’s comment on Enescu’s constant compositional revision–that he was “like a first-rate jeweler continually polishing precious jewels”—applicable to his service to his country as well. Enescu wanted to point out a direction for his native land towards an open, proud, and tolerant democratic society. He has been a national symbol in Romania in both the autocratic and democratic eras. The conservatory and leading orchestra of Bucharest are named after him, and there are Enescu streets and statues everywhere.

It is not, however, out of respect for Enescu’s life and personality that his music deserves to be reintroduced into the repertory. In one final comparison to Bartók, it must be acknowledged that Enescu was a great composer. To this end, this concert has been designed to provide as concise a snapshot of his orchestral output as possible. Two pre-World War I works show the full range of his mastery and appropriation of nineteenth-century traditions. One major work represents his most productive period in the 1930s, and there is one fine example of the music he wrote later in his career.