George Enescu, Octet for Strings

February 2, 2018

George Enescu (1881-1955)

String Octet, Op. 7, 1900 (published in 1905, premiered in 1909)

George Enescu Enescu was a true musical prodigy of the rarest kind. He started playing violin at 4, composing at 5, became the youngest student ever admitted to the Vienna Conservatory when he was 7, graduated when he was 13, spent 4 years at the Paris Conservatory while premiering his first mature composition at the age of 16. As he would spend much of his life and earn much of his fame in Paris as well as Romania, Enescu is also widely known by the French version of his name, Georges Enesco. While he thought of himself first and foremost as a composer, over time, Enescu blossomed into one of the most complete musicians in history: a virtuoso concert violinist (one of the finest of his generation), superb pianist, conductor, teacher, mentor, dedicatee of numerous extraordinary masterworks emerging from the best composers of the day, and finally, as well, a truly original and astonishing composer. He has been lionized as Romania’s greatest musical genius to date, but he is quite possibly underappreciated everywhere else: Enescu is a discovery of epic proportions.

Enescu composed his String Octet in 1900 when he was between 18 and 19 years old. He labored for a year and a half over this vast work of giant proportions and grand designs creating one of the most daunting masterworks in the history of chamber music. Deploying the luxuriant octet ensemble in a consistently layered polyphony of true chamber textures, Enescu constructed a single entity of dense music spanning the four “traditional” movements but played without pause and intricately interwoven by a set of motto themes that appear all throughout like vivid leitmotifs in a truly technicolor fantasia of late Romantic character. As ripe as Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (composed one year earlier) on the cusp of the transition from Romantic to Modern, Enescu’s Octet is formally bound within by the strong sinews of classic counterpoint and polyphony, and then, within the well defined containers of the four-movement structure with a sonata, scherzo, slow movement and rousing finale. With essentially four main recurring themes exposed in the first movement and variously carried throughout until the end of the finale, the Octet is indeed an entity (like Verklärte Nacht, and later, Schoenberg’s First Quartet). Enescu revealed the incredible totality of his vision in the preface of the first published edition. His words provide invaluable insight (Italics are Enescu’s):

This Octet, cyclic in form, presents the following characteristics: it is divided into four distinctive movements in the classic manner, each movement linked to the other to form a single symphonic movement, where the periods on, an enlarged scale, follow one another according to the rules of construction for the first movement of a symphony. Regarding its performance, it is to be noted that too much emphasis should not be given to certain contrapuntal artifices in order to permit the presentation of essential thematic and melodic elemental values.

Needless to say, Enescu’s daring epic is complex and difficult to perform. The first attempt to stage the work was a failure: after five rehearsals, the conductor Édouard Colonne dropped the Octet feeling it was too risky to stage. Meanwhile, André Gedalge, one of Enescu’s favorite professors, assisted in having it published in 1905 and Enescu ultimately dedicated the work to him in gratitude. The ultimate premiere took place in Paris in 1909, nearly a decade after Enescu first composed it.

The String Octet is frankly a stunningly original and mature masterpiece suggesting an obvious comparison with Mendelssohn and his Octet, each a landmark summit within its own historical and stylistic context. Like Mendelssohn’s, Enescu’s is full of rich melody, staggeringly artful counterpoint including a significant fugue as well as a pleasing diversity of moods and motions throughout the journey. But whereas Mendelssohn’s is almost purely classical, Enescu’s is deeply romantic, highly chromatic with the vastly expanded harmonic palette of Wagner, Mahler and Strauss along with the spicy modal character of Eastern European folk music including what some might call an occasionally “Gypsy” flavor. Also of late Romantic cast is the drama, the layered and episodic polyphony, and the kaleidoscopic if not psychedelic singularity of a tone poem: a miraculously vivid but ineffable dream.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.