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8.223147 - ENESCU: String Octet, Op. 7 / Dixtuor for Winds, Op. 14

George Enescu (1881–1955)
String Octet in C Major, Opus 7 • Dixtuor for Wind in D Major, Opus 14


The Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu may now be seen as the most important figure in the musical history of his country. He was born in Moldavia in 1881 and had violin lessons there with a pupil of Vieuxtemps, before moving, at the age of seven, to the Conservatory in Vienna, where he studied with Joseph Hellmesberger. In 1893 he went to Paris for further study with Marsick and took composition lessons at the Conservatoire from Massenet and Fauré. In 1897 a concert of his work was given in Paris and by 1899, when he won the first violin prize of the Conservatoire, he was already known as a composer, his Poème Roumain having proved particularly successful. His subsequent career brought him similar distinction both as a performer and as a conductor.

Although Enescu’s career was centred on Paris, with the formation in 1904 of the Enescu Quartet, and increasing commitments both as an unwilling virtuoso and later as a teacher, he retained his connections with Romania and did much to encourage music there, through the Bucharest Conservatory and through the Conservatory at Iaşi, where he established the George Enescu Symphony Orchestra in 1917. His influence on younger Romanian composers was to remain considerable.

Yehudi Menuhin, in his autobiographical Unfinished Journey, has described the powerful impression that Enescu made on him, when, as a small child, he first saw him at a concert in San Francisco. He was later to become Enescu’s pupil in Paris, and has given testimony to the strong influence that Enescu had on his musical development. Other pupils included Arthur Grumiaux, Christian Ferras and Ida Haendel.

Enescu was a remarkably versatile musician. He was a competent pianist, accompanying Thibaud in the first performance of his own Second Violin Sonata, and able to play all of Wagner from memory at the keyboard. In his phenomenal memory he held the complete works of Bach, and Menuhin describes how he was able to play Ravel’s new violin sonata from memory after two brief readings with the composer. His natural ability as a small child had led him to become a virtuoso violinist, but his interest was always rather in composition than performance, the second providing the means for the first. His life was divided between Paris and Romania, his character and his music presenting a similar contrast between cosmopolitan urbanity and the more passionate elements that were part of his Moldavian inheritance.

Enescu wrote his String Octet, Opus 7, in 1900. As he himself was to remark, he felt that the Octet and the Violin Sonata No. 2, at the first performance of which, in the same year, he accompanied the great French violinist Jacques Thibaud, marked a stage of development in which he was finding his own musical voice. Until then he had been groping· his way, but with these new works came increasing certainty.

The composer has explained the problems that he faced in the Octet, in which he felt himself more apprehensive than some engineer designing his first suspension bridge, as he wrote four separate movements that were, nevertheless, to stand together, mutually dependent one on the other. He went on to compare his task with that of a Berlioz, a composer who might write for five orchestras, tackling chamber music.

The String Octet declares its scale in the opening bars. The first movement contains six of the themes that are to serve in a structure which is in the form of one great sonata-form movement. This first movement is the exposition, the second movement develops the dynamic first subject, the third movement the more lyrical subsidiary subject, while the finale serves as a recapitulation.

In addition to the Octet’s overall structure as one sonata-form movement, the individual movements may be seen as fulfilling their more usual functions. The second movement is a Scherzo, while the third is a slow movement, calm and poetical, leading gradually to the finale, a free repetition of the earlier material and the triumphant re-appearance of the principal subject. The whole work is a remarkable tour de force from a composer in his twentieth year.

The Dixtuor or Decet in D Major, Opus 14, was written in 1906. It is scored for pairs of flutes, clarinets, bassoons and French horns, with an oboe and cor anglais. The first movement is broadly in sonata-form, with the first subject announced by the flute, followed by a transitional theme played by horns and bassoons and leading to a lyrical second subject, introduced by the cor anglais. The slow movement introduces a song-like melody played at the octave by the oboe and cor anglais, while the central section, which serves as a scherzo, is dominated by the flute with a light-hearted melody that is to be paired, in the final section, with the principal theme of the movement. This leads to a final movement in sonata-rondo form, in which, as elsewhere in the work, the occasional modal treatment of material suggests the pervasive influence of Romania on the musical language employed. Symphonic in character, the Dixtuor avoids monotony of effect the instruments for which it is scored.

Keith Anderson

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