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To Serve as a Mentor – George Enescu and the Youth

Could George Enescu really have signed a “marriage of reason”1 with the violin, as he claimed at a certain point in his memoirs written by Bernard Gavoty, to which he consented exclusively in order to ensure his material security? The question is rhetorical, of course, because the rare gigantism and exhausting intensity that distinguished his career as a performer can, by no means, be explained in the absence of strong inner drives. A man who played almost every day – whether in organised concert halls or friendly soirees, or in a plethora of impromptu circumstances, in hospitals for the wounded, in boarding schools, etc. – is far from having done so merely to earn a living or simply to display some virtuoso skill that had reached a particularly sophisticated form. He repeatedly bemoaned the fact that the violin frustrated his compositional yield, but the truth is that his energies were actually expended too richly in the direction of performance not to have been impelled in this direction by intimate consent. He lived by nurturing in himself the imperious will to devote himself entirely to composition, but his vital need to always play shows that, in reality, he had another vocation – that of the total musician: it is obvious that, for him – as in the past for Bach or Mozart – the virtual existence of music, assured through compositional thought, could only be artificially separated from its actual existence, from its actualization through interpretative rendering.

But Enescu assumed his “enslavement” as a performing artist with so much pathos not only as an organic form of musical expression, but also because his moral fibre dictated it. Out of a feeling of generosity seldom equalled in its inexhaustible power to scatter in all directions – a feeling which for himself seems to have been simply a matter of elementary common sense – Enescu devoted himself much more to the promotion of others than to self-promotion, and the ardour with which he consumed himself in the transmission of musical beauty was unfailingly concerned with the spiritual elevation of those around him. For he for whom the fundamental state of mind – long coveted, seldom fulfilled – was rather retractility, solitary retreat into a world of the creative dream, was in fact one of the artists most animated by the awareness of “fulfilling one’s duty”2 to one’s fellow men. This awareness was often translated into the explicit educational dimension of the enormous repertoire reductions through which the instrumentalist and conductor Enescu has, season after season, for over fifty years, encouraged the development and consolidation of a Western-like level musical life in Romania. From the almost continuous series of recitals and concerts in which he has performed practically the entire repertoire for violin, with and without piano (sometimes standing in front of the keyboard himself), and conducted, in Romanian premieres, the canonical works of the symphonic and vocal-symphonic repertoire, several systematic crossings of the most significant pages of the repertoire of violin concertos and sonatas – gathered under the generic titles “History of the Violin” (November 1915 – February 1916) and “History of the Sonata” (March – May 1919) – as well as the complete cycles of symphonies (October – November 1937) and Beethovenian string quartets (March 1941) stand out at an incomparable altitude in the history of the country (and, in fact, in the history of world musical life). Repertory visions of such a global and systematic nature were still a novelty at the time; and their exemplarity still stands today, when the idea of including complete cycles of works in musical programs has, it is true, become much more familiar thanks to recordings, without, however, pervading the current seasons themselves.

In addition to the encyclopaedic musical marathons that could only take place in the capital Bucharest, Enescu’s unwavering belief in what he himself at one time called “the wonderful pacifying, purifying echo”3 of music carried him further, almost year after year, to obscure little towns all over the country, where he gave countless recitals and benefit concerts in halls and under conditions that are easy to imagine. For thousands and thousands of people, such tireless wanderings through forgotten places have provided an unexpected apprenticeship in the school of musical listening. And the first “campaign” of this kind, undertaken in 1912, has a special symbolism not only because of its chronological primacy, but also because it opened up yet another direction – a broad and essential one – in which Enescu’s generosity was perhaps most keen to be spent. Specifically, the money collected from the concerts held on that tour financed the first edition of the national composition prize that bore the name of George Enescu and which, through the consistency and almost annual continuity of its awarding between 1913 and 1946, certainly represented the most decisive impetus for the coagulation of the interwar Romanian composition school. In addition to the financial encouragement that was more than welcomed, the prize was, of course, an important means of enshrinement, as Enescu was quick to use his supreme prestige to include the works of the young prize-winners in symphonic programs conducted by him at home and abroad. By accepting his election as president of the Society of Romanian Composers – an organisation founded on November 2, 1920, as a result of several efforts made mainly by Constantin Brăiloiu and Ion Nonna Otescu – Enescu had a decisive influence on the insistent approaches made to the authorities to establish copyright in music. Through all of this, he confirmed and concretised, with a generous measure, the noble aspirations he had confessed in an interview in 1916:

“To serve as a mentor. To see music popularised in the suburbs, in the provinces, in the countryside – through festivals, gatherings, choral or instrumental societies. […] To instil the lost confidence of the few [creators] through awards and encouragement or recommendations, giving them the opportunity to assert themselves.”4

He was indeed, as one of his closest collaborators called him, “the teacher of Romanian composers”5, and this not only by virtue of official duties, but especially through a kind of collegial promptness, of solicitude without pedantry, which made him available to all those he considered worthy of his moral, professional and not infrequently even material support. The same fellow mentioned above puts it best:

“There is no musician in the Romanian country who has knocked at the master’s door to ask for advice, guidance or help and who has not received the desired support or the deserved encouragement. Young performers or composers, and not only young ones, have always received from Enescu precious advice, his help as an admirable colleague, evidence of his immense selfless generosity and unparalleled nobility of spirit.”6

Evidence of such a generous heart can be found, in fact, also in documentary terms, in the extensive (but still incomplete and poorly edited) corpus of Enescu’s correspondence; there abound, by the dozens, those notorious letters of recommendation through which Enescu intervened with various artistic and administrative authorities for the benefit of many of his colleagues, some of them securing, for those who asked for his help, certain professional positions in education or in symphonic ensembles, others facilitating their obtaining some kind of engagement or scholarship abroad. Some recommendations written by Enescu to ask for sponsorship of the studies of very young, even precocious musical talents have also been preserved. All of them can be understood, in the end, as extensions of a constant concern for the guidance of young people, of the intrinsically formative, educational tendency demonstrated by Enescu in his entire artistic and human behaviour.

In addition, teaching was, like violin-playing, another activity that, although he did not really enjoy (at least not in the traditional sense of rigid authority), it can be said that Enescu carried it out almost permanently, but with varying intensity, depending on the circumstances. It took on a particular amplitude in the last years of the musician’s life, when his increasing physical decline forced him to gradually withdraw from concert life. Thus, immediately after his painful self-exile from Communist Romania, he resumed, in May – July 1947, the tradition of public lectures at the Instrumental Institute founded in Paris by his faithful disciple, Yvonne Astruc; Enescu had also taught there in the interwar period, in 1936, 1937 and 1939. Together with the lectures given earlier at the École Normale de Musique in 1924-1925 and 1928-1930, these masterclasses, intended mainly for young performers already formed, were a unique attraction in Parisian musical life. Their audience was large, made up not only of officially registered violinist “auditors”, but also of passionate amateurs and musicians of all kinds. The Mannes School of Music in New York, later integrated into the ranks of the most renowned conservatories overseas, also included Enescu among its distinguished teachers. It speaks for itself of the importance attached to his personality that only his courses – held from November to April in 1949 and 1950, and intended not only for violinists but also for pianists, chamber ensembles and advanced instrumentalists from other classes of study – required an entrance exam, and enrolment was made two years in advance. Also in America, Enescu was a guest of the University of Illinois College of Music, where in April 1950 he gave several lectures on violin performance and three concerts (both as conductor and violin soloist) with the two orchestras of that institution. Finally, his annual appearances at summer schools in the English towns of Brighton and Bryanstone (1949-1952) and at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena (1950-1954) were also of considerable interest. Of Enescu’s tactful and modest guidance, in the form of what he himself prefers to call “my suggestions for interpretation”7, benefited many of the most important violinists of the early post-war decades. Some of them (Ivry Gitlis, Ida Haendel, Serge Blanc, Uto Ughi) have left extensive and moving testimonies, in volumes of memoirs and in interviews, on the overwhelming influence that the Enescu episode, which occurred early in their biographies, had not only strictly on their musical formation, but even on their entire vision on life. For, more than a teacher in the current sense of the word, the figure of Enescu emerges from all these evocations as a new incarnation of a spiritual master. Without needing too many words, and never resorting to factitious theorizing, he acted through a special power of suggestion on his disciples. And the fundamental attitude he thus instilled in their layers of consciousness – devotional fervour towards the noble, unspectacular essences of music – seemed to turn, from a certain point onwards, into a kind of underlying existential manifesto. In the eyes of his “young colleagues”8, Enescu became living proof that the combination of art and goodness is not only a possibility that is not suspect or perishable, but also a duty of human beings in search of true greatness.

Among the few educational lines signed by Enescu himself, there is an admirable letter addressed by the musician to Yehudi Menuhin. And it may help us to better understand why that stubborn eight-year-old who, in 1925, first succeeded in persuading Enescu to give lessons, later became one of the most impressive contemporary examples of master-disciple spiritual communion. Published in an American newspaper (The Evening Star, Washington, January 14, 1934), this letter is a veritable handbook that should be brought to the attention of every performer. Here it is quoted below in full, instead of the conclusion of these notes. A cleaner, simpler, warmer way of calling a spade a spade can rarely be found:

“In all compositions, the personality and intentions of the composer should be borne in mind. It is necessary to read his biography, to carefully note the traits of his character, to know what his work meant to him and what he wanted it to mean to humanity and the world in general. Absorb his ideas and sentiments and, having absorbed, try to communicate them to your listeners while effacing yourself, as well as you know how, in favor of the work presented, allowing the ideal of the composer to speak for itself.

To know a composer, one must not only know his biography but also know the majority of his compositions. Compare them with each other and place them in a proper interrelation. One must also familiarize oneself with the epoch in which he lived, the trend of thought of his time and his relation to it, as in the case of Beethoven, who stands unique.

It is only by having all these resources at hand that one can hope to be certain to have touched upon his intentions. The reading of the history of music, its evolution and the influence which individual composers exercised upon it is essential. Consult several histories of music, since some are incomplete, some again viewed from too personal an angle. Compare and make your conclusions.

In all events, when presenting a work, while underscoring the intentions of the composer without exaggeration, keep intact the aesthetic side of the composition, its proportion of movement and nuance. Build the composition as you would build a monument, having a foundation, a body and a top which crowns all. Take care to make the work alive, plain, expressive and persuasive. Be enthusiastic and clear minded. Play a great deal of chamber music and learn the laws of composition. Bear in mind [that], in spite of what I have said, the spontaneity must be preserved intact. Do good work, dear friend, always in the direction we both love.

Your old affectionate friend,

George Enesco.”

George Enescu and Yehudi Menuhin.
Viorel Cosma archive


Article written by Vlad Văidean.

English version by Ana Lică.


1 There are, they say, marriages of love: with the violin I have made a marriage of reason”. Enescu, quoted by Bernard Gavoty, in Les Souvenirs de Georges Enesco / Amintirile lui George Enescu [The Memories of George Enescu], trans. Ileana Bulai, Curtea Veche Publishing House, Bucharest, 2016 (ed. princeps: Flammarion, Paris, 1955), p. 179.

2 The word I’ve been repeating to myself every day for as long as I can remember: doing my duty. In the doing of it is also included kindness and loyalty, honesty, cordiality, accuracy. Let us all do our duty and the world will regain its ultimate meaning”. Enescu, quoted by Miron Grindea, in George Enescu”, Cuvântul liber, Bucharest, 19 (17.03.1934), p. 7; republished in George Enescu. Interviuri din presa românească. Volumul I (1898-1936) [George Enescu. Interviews from the Romanian press. Volume I (1898-1936)], ed. Laura Manolache, Editura Muzicală, Bucharest, 1988, p. 243.

3 Not once did I notice how much joy bloomed on the cheeks of the sufferers after the first notes. This transformation in the soul is the supreme raison d’être of music. Were it not for its wonderful pacifying, purifying echo, music would be an absurd string of sounds.” Enescu, quoted by Adrian Ranta, in Sub vraja lui George Enescu…” [Under George Enescu’s spell], Lupta, 15/4501 (18.10.1936), p. 5; republished in George Enescu. Interviuri din presa românească. Volumul I (1898-1936), p. 259.

4 Enescu quoted by Cleante, in Psihologia creațiunii artistice cum o definește maestrul G. Enescu” [The psychology of artistic creation as defined by Maestro G. Enescu], Rampa nouă ilustrată, 1/279 (19.06.1916), p. 2; republished in George Enescu. Interviuri din presa românească. Volumul II (1936-1946) [George Enescu. Interviews from the Romanian press. Volume II (1936-1946)], ed. Laura Manolache, Editura Muzicală, Bucharest, 1991, p. 222.

5 Alfred Alessandrescu, Înălțătoarea pildă a artei lui Enescu” [The lofty example of Enescu’s art], Scânteia, Bucharest, 24/3277 (7.05.1955); republished in George Enescu. Concertul de adio [George Enescu. Farewell Concert], ed. Viorel Cosma, Fântâna lui Manole Publishing House, Râmnicu Vâlcea, 2005, p. 106.

6 Alfred Alessandrescu, Ce ne-a învățat George Enescu” [What George Enescu taught us], Scânteia, 25/3679 (19.08.1956), p. 2; republished fragmentary in Gânduri închinate lui Enescu [Thoughts dedicated to Enescu], ed. Victor Crăciun and Petre Codrea, Committee for Culture and Art of Botoșani County, 1970, p. 134; and in George Enescu în memoria timpului [George Enescu in Memory of Time], ed. Viorel Cosma, Casa Radio Publishing House, Bucharest, 2003, p. 15.

7 Enescu, quoted by Gavoty, p. 343.

8 Let’s not say «teacher» but «older colleague»; let’s not say «students» but «young colleagues»”. Enescu, quoted by Gavoty, p. 341.