Pablo Casals called George Enescu ‘the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart’. During his lifetime he was most famous as a violinist, pianist and conductor, internationally celebrated for his interpretation of the classics.
As a composer, he was best known for a few early, colourfully ‘nationalist’ scores such as the Romanian Rhapsodies. Yet he considered himself a composer first and foremost, and his mature works – drawing on the rich heritage of Romanian gypsy music – have a sophistication and individuality that show him the equal of those other East European masters Bartók, Kodály, Janácek, Martinu and Szymanowski.
Enescu was born in Liveni Vîrnav, Romania, and entered the Vienna Conservatory at the age of 7, graduating with distinction as a violinist at the age of 10. Subsequently he played in orchestras under Brahms and in 1892 entered the Paris Conservatoire as a pupil of Massenet and Fauré and a fellow-student of Ravel. Within six years he had won first prize for violin at the Conservatoire as well as writing four symphonies and premiering his own Violin Concerto. He came to regard these as mere ‘school’ works and began numbering his compositions from the symphonic suite Poème roumain, Op. 1, premiered to great acclaim in Paris and Bucharest while he was still a student.
After his graduation Enescu lived a busy life as a performer, based in Paris but with frequent visits back to Romania. He was selfless in his generosity to his contemporaries and performed a great deal with such friends as Casals, Thibaud, Cortot, Kreisler and Ysaÿe. He spent the First World War in Romania, teaching at the Bucharest Conservatory and the Conservatory at Ias, where in 1917 he founded the George Enescu Symphony Orchestra.
He resumed his international career between the wars, and married the mentally unstable Princess Maruca Cantacuzino, for whom he cared for the rest of his life. His summers were devoted to composing.
The Second World War was again spent in Romania, where Enescu did what he could to try and shield gypsies and Jews from the pogroms of the Nazi occupation. Following the Communist seizure of power in Romania after the war, he returned to Paris, where he lived until his death. Although he visited the Dartington Festival in the late 1940s and was still considered a peerless interpreter of Beethoven and Bach, Enescu’s last years were spent in poverty and crippling pain, the result of a chronic curvature of the spine and a severe stroke.
Enescu was dedicated to the encouragement of young musicians. His pupils included his godson and especial protégé Dinu Lipatti, as well as Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux, Christian Ferras and Ida Haendel. As a composer he was not only inspired by Romanian folklore but also drew veins of Impressionism, post-Wagnerian chromaticism and Fauré-like aristocratic intricacy into a rich and unique synthesis. He founded no school and was internationalist in outlook; but after his death the Communist regime in Romania promoted him as a nationalist composer, diminishing his reputation as an original in his own right.
© Calum MacDonals