20 May 2016 at 4.00pm | Comment on this article
It is one of the paradoxes or disappointments of operatic fashion that while a handful of works recognized as undeniably great become rapidly established as household names, numerous operas of real stature languish virtually unnoticed for many years after their birth. Enescu’s Oedipe is a classic example.
From the start of Enescu’s career – to his frustration – he was known primarily as a performer. Alongside Kreisler, Ysäye and the later Oistrakh (all of whom were his colleagues and friends), he was one of the great violinists of all time. He was also a pianist of distinction, a second violin and viola player in chamber music and a sometime cellist. But this did not suffice. It was as a composer and conductor that Enescu was most determined to shine.
Enescu was well-acquainted with traditional Romanian music from childhood. Both his parents were musical, and from his youngest days he was conscious both of the music of the Romanian Orthodox church and, more importantly, of the tradition of folk musicians (lăutari). Some of the most pathos-ridden passages in Oedipe, especially the Shepherd’s pipe music, rely on this folk tradition. It was to Romania’s north east that Enescu returned time and again to recharge his batteries and draw inspiration as a composer.
At the age of five, the prodigiously talented Enescu had become a student in Iași, capital of Moldavia. The young Enescu was already interested in composition, and wrote a piece he called Opera for violin and piano – he was already thinking dramatically. Two years later he enrolled at the Vienna Conservatory. The only other musician to join so prematurely had been Kreisler, at a similar age.
Enescu’s early years in Vienna proved essential in establishing him as at least potentially a composer, and as a virtuoso pianist and violinist. Following his graduation with honours in 1894, he progressed to Paris, to study with Massenet, Fauré and others. His experiences in the French capital were very important to him, and he made a dazzling impression; Massenet declared ‘This child – barely 14 and a half years old – is an exceptional figure, a musician of genius.’
Paris was a centrepiece of composing talent, and Enescu knew all, befriended most and was admired in return. A clutch of Enescu’s most important emergent works found their outlet in Paris. But the platform for Enescu’s work was also international. In conducting, he played a major role importing French music by his fellow students and his contemporaries to America.
Some of Enescu’s orchestral works travelled with him to America. Enescu wrote that ‘I was most delighted that in America I was received as a composer and conductor, and only secondarily as a violinist. Above all, it was the fact that I was greeted as a composer that gave me the supreme delight.’ Nadia Boulanger, who was one of Enescu’s students, and loved him as man and teacher, concurred: ‘Deep down, only composing mattered to him.’
This is an edited extract from Roderic Dunnett’s article ‘George Enescu, Musical Polymath’, available to read in full in The Royal Opera’s programme book for Oedipe.
Oedipe runs 23 May–8 June 2016. Tickets are still available.
The production is a co-production of La Monnaie, Brussels, and Opéra National de Paris, and is generously supported by the Monument Trust, Richard and Ginny Salter, The Romanian Cultural Institute and The Friends of Covent Garden.