Romania’s Bright Emblem

By Norman Manea

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

At Age four he started violin lessons, at seven he was accepted into the Vienna Conservatory, which he graduated cum laude, at eleven he gave concerts in the Austrian capital, at thirteen he had a first performance of the Sonata in A minor for Piano and Violin and of his Quintet at seventeen he had the premiere of his Romanian Poem and his Sonata in D major for Piano and Violin…

George Enescu’s ascent was prodigious. Born into a musically gifted family of rural clergy and clerks, he followed a series of four stillborn siblings and seven others dead in childhood. Similarly, in his career, he would come to fulfill definitively his country’s longstanding aspirations and striving for a national school of music.

This is not the only such correspondence. Just as his native region, in Northern Moldavia, bordered the frontiers of Romania, so the life and work of this artist would both embrace and exceed the boundaries of his homeland. His deep connection to his country and his family would soon be challenged, from childhood on, by his passion for music. The early separation, imposed by his concert tours, would dramatically affect his mother, to whom he was particularly close. His galvanizing role in Romanian musical life, on the other hand, would be enhanced by his brilliant presence in the world’s music capitals.

His relationship with Romanian fold and fiddle music went deep and remained constant. It started in early childhood, before his departure for Vienna, when he built himself a plywood violin. Shortly afterward he received his first real one, on which he played mostly folk tunes. It continued throughout his life. “The Gypsies–he would write in 1921–they are the ones we have to thank for preserving our music… with that sacred regard they have for what they hold most precious in the whole world: song.” The fiddle-like improvisations in his compositions often provide a link between Romanian folk music and Balkan and Mideastern melodies. The tempos, accents and variations also reveal the connection with archaic roots. It is probably not a coincidence that some of the most genuine appreciation of his Romanian folk inspired music, would come from Britons in France and Irish music lovers in the American Northeast. They may have been particularly sensitive to the Celtic “gene” in the sonorities of some of his pieces, reminiscent of both the Geta-Thracians as well as the Celts, whose path it seems they crossed on the ancient territory of Romania.

Unlike his friend Bartok, Enescu does not borrow directly from the folkloric raw material. Instead, he filters the hybrid elements, and, going deeper and stylizing, strives for a new musical vocabulary, for a personal compositional syntax within modern esthetics. His music becomes an expressive synthesis between East and West, a unique fusion of inspiration and arduous experimentation, of nostalgic, pastoral lyricism and bracing serenity.

At twenty-four, Enescu would define himself first as a symphonic composer and then as a virtuoso player. This order of preference would be challenged, again and again, as his fame grew. It would be left to posterity to confirm and legitimize his place as a composer. His virtuosity as a violin and piano player, ever more engaged in triumphant tours with some of the greatest performers of the times, his prodigious memory (he knew all of Wagner’s work by heart), the grace with which he could conjure up each musical note, as if recovered then and there out of nothingness–all this stunted his compositional projects. It only delayed the reception of his compositions, which amply deserved the recognition conferred upon him, among others, by his illustrious student, Yehudi Menuhin, who called him “the most complex musician of our century.”

At the time they met, the young American saw Romania as “the most musical of European countries,” a privileged place, where “music symbolizes the national soul,” and where his beloved Maestro reigned as “first in the heart of his compatriots.” “The lion with dark locks”… as these compatriots describes him, was a man of refined civility, passionate and gentle, with a strength “unencumbered by any common conventions,” and with that mark of genius which distilled and heightened his vibration. As befits an aristocrat of the spirit, he was, above all, possessed of a proverbial modesty, a rare blend of common sense and decency. Its eloquent expression was his “mute violin,” an instrument the size and shape of a regular violin, without the sound box, which he preferred to practice on, so as not to disturb the other inhabitants of the hotel where he lived. “Let’s exercise our craft in silence,” Enescu would say, in an age that was beginning to ignore silence, modesty and decency.

On the eve of the great world war and of generalized hatred, Enescu reflected with concern on the destiny of his country and his music: “Our artistic life is in shameful disproportion to the rest of our social life. If Romanian politics and administration were on the level of our artistic life, we would be one of the most blessed countries.” It wouldn’t take long before the “disproportion” would darken and bloody the sky above the Danube and the Carpathians. Enescu’s name would remain unblemished, however, etched into the Romanian consciousness, as a rare and happy conjunction between creative genius and high moral conduct. Impervious to political manipulation, disgusted by militant extremism, Enescu never wavered; neither when he reflected the nationalism of Fascist Romania (which many of his illustrious intellectual contemporaries supported), nor when he left Communist Romania (where so many other artists would compromise their conscience and their work). He also stood his ground when he refused to participate in a charity concert at Carnegie Hall, in 1948, marking the 20th anniversary of the Autonomous Jewish Republic of Birobidjan, in Stalinist Soviet Union, yet took part – in the “triple posture of violinist, pianist and philanthropist”–in a concert for the newly established state of Israel.

In this Olympian being, the virtues of his native land were intensified, heightened by the moral, intellectual and emotional stature of a great artist. A “child of nature,” he had a sacred, instinctive solidarity with the humanness in every person, also at home within the vast artistic family of the planet. “Having a foundation in German education and living in Paris, which I adore, while being Romanian by birth,” he wrote, “I am essentially international, and insist on being perceived as such, despite the adoration I have for my native country and the many treasures of Romanian folklore.”

Enescu–“Eneas’ son”… a Moldavian in Romania, a Romanian in Paris, a European in New York, a cosmopolitan musician, drawing equally from the folkloric sources of his country and the universal adventure of modernity.

The artist as a citizen of the world belongs often to the great encyclopedia of Exile. Even while living far away from his native land and language though, Enescu did not inhabit his biography as an exile. His true residence was in the spiritual realm, just as it was for the two other great innovators of modern art, Constantin Brâncusi, and Eugene Ionesco, whose names, like his, brighten lastingly the Romanian presence in our syncopated twentieth century.