Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 13 (1905)

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.

Symphony No. 1, Op. 13 vividly reflects Enescu’s training in Vienna, where he studied with Robert Fuchs and mastered the Brahmsian tradition in composition. At the same time, however, this work reveals the enormous French influence on Enescu that took hold when he studied in the 1890s with Massenet and Fauré. In 1905, Enescu was already well established as a violinist and some of his first pieces, including the Symphonie concertante for cello and orchestra, Op. 8, had already appeared. However, the numbering of Po. 13 belies the fact that Enescu had written four previous symphonies already which are now known as “school” symphonies. The fourth such symphony is in the same key as Op. 13 and was completed in1898.

When encountering an early symphony by a young composer, one might be struck by the enormous burden of the task, the great weight of tradition and accomplishment behind the form. It certainly struck Brahms, who waited decades before writing his first symphony. Enescu, however, had no hesitation in confronting his predecessors confidently–he chose as a key for this symphony E-flat major, inviting a comparison to the Eroica Symphony of Beethoven, not to mention Schumann’s Third Symphony as well. Like these two earlier works, the piece opens with a dramatic and stunning statement in 3/4 meter announcing not only the key but the basic thematic material. Both first and second thematic groups are related in the first movement, which is written in sonata form and marked assez vif et rythmé. Enescu makes good use of percussion coloring including triangle, cymbal, and bass drum. In a concession to the habit of dramatic extension characteristic of the later nineteenth century, he structures a fabulous closing coda to the opening movement.

The second movement, marked lent is based on a slow-moving eighth-note pulse and is particularly noteworthy for its original instrumentation. The use of bass clarinet, English horn, and trumpets and two harps, alongside an innovative use of timpani, give the movement a distinctly mysterious and French atmospheric sensibility. The movement has aspects of a free, improvisatory fantasy on a basic opening motif. It opens in A-flat minor and closes in B major, as it dies away with an eloquent evocation of the unique sonorities that the composer evokes.

Enescu prefigures a modernist tendency to rethink the four-movement symphonic form in the Op. 13. Instead of writing a scherzo and then a grand finale, he chose to write only a three movement symphony. The last movement the finale marked vif et vigoureux combines aspects of scherzo and finale. In this sense, the Beethoven and Schumann models, which can be brought to bear in an understanding of the first movement, become less significant in favor of a new idea. The examples of Brahms and Bruckner are left behind as well. Enescu mixes the rondo form and the sonata form, and explicitly challenges the tendency during the nineteenth century to shift the weight of the symphonic form away from the first movement toward the last movement. This is a process which began with Mozart’s last symphony and which was measurably popularized by Beethoven’s Eroica and Ninth Symphony. Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler sought to give the symphony an organic character by making the last movement the dramatic highpoint so that a symphony would not, as had become customary in the classical period, become defined by the opening movement. The third movement of Enescu’s Op. 13, however, is shorter than the first two, and is marked by tightly constructed episodes. However the movement shows a clear and concise architecture. It opens with rapid string figuration characteristic of a scherzo, above which is the thematic material of a grand finale. As the movement progresses, Enescu utilizes his mastery of orchestration to give increasing weight to the powerful dramatic gesture. The movement closes in a blaze of symphonic glory. In the final bars, the Viennese influence is present as Enescu slows the pulse of the work down, permitting a majestic ending to unfold, asserting with trumpet fanfares the framing tonality, E-flat.

Since Enescu is best remembered as a violinist and as an advocate of Romanian folk traditions, the choice of this work was motivated by the conviction that in Enescu the twentieth century possessed a great and overlooked master of symphonic form. All of the four “school” symphonies are worth hearing and performing. Of the works that Enescu himself considered worthy of publication, there are three symphonies in all, the last of which uses both chorus and piano solo. Further, there are also two more unfinished symphonies. It is clear that Enescu was throughout his career fascinated and compelled by symphonic form. Of all seven completed works, this one may be the most impressive. In the massive output of symphonic music after the death of Bruckner, the symphonies of Enescu deserve a better place in concert programs than they now occupy. This work reminds us that it is not sufficient for English and American and German critics and audiences to pigeonhole composers from Eastern Europe as merely ethnic and exotic, as figures from so-called peripheral cultures who have appropriated mainstream European forms. Insofar as there is any residual value to the claim that music transcends ethnicity and nationalism, the unexotic originality of Op. 13 is a straightforward tribute to the compelling talent of this great violinist and composer.