Suite No. 3, “Villageoise” (1938)

By Bernard Jacobson

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

As a composer, George Enescu (1881-1955) may well have suffered even more than he gained from the breadth of his talents and interests. His very celebrity as a virtuoso violinist, as a conductor, and most of all as a teacher–his pupils included Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux, Ivry Gitlis, and Christian Ferras–has tended to throw his creative work into the background. As a result, though one or two short works of folkloric inspiration have attained some popularity, his more ambitious compositions are little known beyond the border of his own country. Yet, according to as good a judge as that other distinguished composer-conductor, the late Jean Martinon, Enescu’s Oedipe stands with Roussel’s Padmâvatî as the most unjustly neglected of 20th-century operas.

Another case of double focus had, for Enescu, a more congenial result. This was his widely acknowledged gift for bringing his cosmopolitan career and experience and his firm roots in Romanian tradition into fertile combination. Having completed his composition studies in Paris with Ambroise Thomas, Massenet, and Fauré, he divided his time thereafter between the French and Romanian capitals, as well as teaching at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, at several American universities, and at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, Italy. But Enescu’s compositions never degenerated into facile stylistic globe-trotting. They were supported throughout by the integrity of the sheer Romanian-ness that formed the core of his musical personality. His first published opus, completed when he was sixteen, was a Romanian Poem for orchestra with wordless chorus. By that time he had already sketched two Romanian Suites. The two Romanian Rhapsodies of Opus 11, which followed just four years later, have remained by far his most celebrated compositions, and even those Enescu works that do not have the word “Romanian” in their titles are, almost without exception, closely linked with the tradition of Romanian folk music.

The last of his three completed orchestral suites, the Suite villageoise in D Major commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and composed in 1937-38, is especially personally involved with Enescu’s native inheritance, for it is in essence a reminiscent and imaginative series of “scenes from childhood.” The five movements suggest the passage from morning, through afternoon, sunset, and night, to morning again. The title of the opening Allegro moderato, Renouveau champêtre, may be translated “Springtime in the Country”; it establishes as once the bright, fresh sonority that results from Enescu’s highly accomplished scoring.

If Enescu’s represents a gentler evocation of awakening nature than Stravinsky’s famous image of ice breaking up “like the whole earth cracking” in The Rite of Spring, it is another Russian piece–Musorgsky’s observation of children playing in the Tuilerie Gardens in Pictures at an Exhibition–that may be suggested by the next movement, Gamins en plein air (“Urchins in the Open Air”). But Enescu’s portrayal, marked Allegro con brio, has plenty of character of its own, and again displays an orchestral technique just as brilliant as Ravel brought to bear in his arrangement of Musorgsky.

If you know Enescu chiefly from the Romanian Rhapsodies, or even if you have heard the irrepressibly propulsive performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony that is part of the sparse legacy he left as a conductor, you may well think of him primarily in terms of fast music and driving rhythms. The heart of this suite, then, will come as an illuminating surprise, for its consists of two very leisurely, poetic, atmospheric, and quite beautiful slowish movements. The first of these, Moderato pensieroso, quasi andante, is a kind of stream-of-consciousness ramble through early memories. These present first “the old house of childhood, at dusk,” and pass, by way of “a shepherd” and “migratory birds and ravens,” to the peaceful tolling of “the evening [or Vesper] bell.” Next is a Moderato malinconico, ma senza lentezza, that beautifully paints the “river in moonlight.”

Finally, daytime sunshine asserts itself again (Allegro giocoso, non troppo mosso) in a rousing sequence of “country dances,” vernacular in idiom and colorful in scoring. But it is probably those evening and nocturnal scenes that will stay most persistently in the listener’s mind when this unfailingly individual suite has run its course.