Underrated: George Enescu

We should welcome the belated rediscovery of this neglected giant of 20th-century music

George Enescu: Much more than simply a composer of "national" music (Illustration by Michael Daley)

It may seem paradoxical to describe as “underrated” a composer whose opera has just enjoyed a triumphant run at the Royal Opera House. George Enescu’s Oedipe (1931) was described by the Independent as “a masterpiece”, and by the Guardian as “truly one of the great operas of the 20th century”. Thanks to reviews such as these, and word of mouth, bookings quickly accelerated during the run, leading to sold-out houses and loudly cheering audiences convinced that they had just witnessed something extraordinary.

They had. For this was the first ever staging of the opera in the UK, exactly 80 years after its premiere in Paris. While good recordings do exist, one must doubt whether more than a tiny percentage of the audience had ever heard this work before. The intense musical pleasure they received was sharpened by the shock of the new. And that in itself is rather shocking, given that this is a major work by one of the most deeply original composers of the 20th century.

Ask average, moderately informed music-lovers what they know about Enescu, and you will probably be told that he was a Romanian violinist who also did some composing, writing pieces in a “national” or “folk” style. The works they will have uppermost in their minds are his two Romanian Rhapsodies, orchestral showpieces built up from sequences of popular dance and song. Yes, these two sparkling early works (written in 1901, when he was 20) are certainly “national”. But they are also quite untypical of his mature output, for which the “folk”  label is absurdly inadequate. No wonder that, in the latter part of his life, he cursed whenever he was asked to conduct these well-nigh irrelevant lollipops.

George Enescu was in fact one of the most universal figures in modern European music. He studied first in Vienna, arriving at the Conservatoire a couple of months after his seventh birthday, and then in Paris, where his classmates included Ravel. By his late teens he had absorbed into his bloodstream the music of Brahms, the operas of Wagner and the whole oeuvre of his revered Parisian teacher, Fauré. The Germanic and French traditions fused in his musical character, in a way that was perhaps impossible for any French or German composer. Enescu’s blotting-paper memory for all the music he had heard must have helped here; but from his late teens onwards, the fusion was authentically original, never mere imitation.

Other influences, including Richard Strauss, are audible in the grand orchestral works of the 1910s, his Second and Third Symphonies. And it is a pared-down version of that musical language, richly late-romantic but glinting with touches of astringent modernism, that is used in Oedipe, a work first fully sketched in 1921. But the development did not stop there. From the 1930s until his death in 1955 he produced an extraordinary series of chamber works, written in an increasingly taut and subtle musical language, both precise and organic, rarefied and rich. His Piano Quintet (1940), Second Piano Quartet (1944) and Second String Quartet (1951-2) are like nothing else ever written in 20th-century Europe.

So why the neglect and the underrating? There are, alas, too many reasons. His own talents formed a major obstacle: in Europe he was best known as a violinist, and in the US as both a violinist and a conductor. His intense personal modesty was another: he strove selflessly to promote other musicians, and never pushed for the programming of his own works. Enescu’s status as a “tertium quid”, not in fact Germanic or French, helped to make him a perpetual outsider, even when he was such an omnipresent insider in the world of music-making from late-19th-century Paris to the BBC studios of the 1950s.

And then there was politics. Taken up as a young man by the Romanian court, and eventually marrying a noblewoman, he was a patriot of mildly conservative views; during the takeover of Romania by the Communists after the Second World War he left the country, never to return. For many years, the Communist authorities viewed him with frosty suspicion.

That hostility was class-based, not related to his own political record. Several of the Romanian intellectuals who went into exile were indeed tainted with the far-right politics of the inter-war years; no such taint applied to Enescu, who had always been an enemy of jingoism and anti-Semitism. Once, when disruption by fascist Iron Guardists in the audience made it impossible to play a work by the Jewish composer Ernest Bloch, he came onto the stage and calmly announced that he would play, instead, a work by a French composer: Ravel’s Kaddisch, the Jewish prayer.

Eventually, of course, the Communist authorities had to honour his work; it was the greatest music their country had ever produced. But they did so with a practical incompetence (where scores and recordings were concerned) and a blinkered view of his significance (as a purely “national” composer) that could only serve to reinforce international neglect. Only now, at long last, is this modest giant of 20th-century music emerging from the shadows.