Enescu, Georges: Octet

Although Georges Enescu is not so widely known as a composer, he was a hugely influential musician. Born in Romania, he studied at the conservatory of the Gesellschaft für Musikfreunde in Vienna, and then studied in Paris with Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré. Though he was principally interested in composition, Enescu was most famous as a violinist. He performed with Pablo Casals, Jacques Thibaud, Alfred Cortot, Dinu Lipatti (his godson), and Louis Fournier, among many others. His performance in San Francisco inspired the young Yehudi Menuhin to go to Paris to study violin with him. He also played piano extraordinarily well (with Menuhin, e.g.), and was a fine enough conductor to be offered Toscanini’s former post at the New York Philharmonic. He was a performing musician of the very highest order.

His compositional style was not particularly well suited to the boisterous avant-garde ferment of the early twentieth century. His mastery of formal problems (thematic development especially) was very secure, and he had something of the same will to consolidate and condense 19th-century compositional techniques as Arnold Schoenberg. (The Octet for Strings in C Major, Op. 7, coinci- dentally, works as a one-movement sonata form laid over four movements, much as Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony works as a four-movement form laid over a single sonata movement.) He was much more circumspect in his compositional adventures, however, and so never made as much noise as the enfants terribles of Modernism. He had no school, no urge to break things, and no real disciples.

In the Octet, which he began to compose when he was a mere 19 years old, one can hear thematic development of a conventionally romantic type combined with the arched phrases of his teacher Fauré — that much is to be expected. But there is also a kind of fervency about the piece (almost like a performance technique – a kind of vibrato – encoded in its lines), which may above all serve best as the signature of Enescu the composer. There is an honesty about Enescu’s dynamism that affected a great many of the musicians with whom he had contact in his career: a force which lives still in all of his music, and nowhere more than in the Octet.

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