Dragoș Călin

Constantin Silvestri: Insights into the Beginnings of a Conducting Career

        Grove Dictionary lists the following in the entry for Constantin Silvestri: ‘British conductor born in Romania’1. In the same logic, we could continue: Sergei Rachmaninoff, American composer and pianist born in Russia, or Belá Bartók, American composer born in Romania … Assuming the risk of being suspected of nationalism, I must assert that Silvestri was one of the greatest Romanian musicians, born in 1913, on May 13th, in Bucharest, where he studied piano and composition at the Conservatoire, where his teachers were Florica Musicescu and Mihail Jora. He previously studied composition at the Conservatoire in Târgu Mureș, with Zeno Vancea. It is true that Silvestri obtained the Romanian citizenship as late as 1935, because his father, Aloysius, was an Austrian citizen, and his mother, Ana, was Romanian. Silvestri was given his father’s citizenship at birth and, although a permanent resident in Romania, he became a Romanian citizen at 22 years of age, in 1935. Much later, in 1967, two years before his premature death, he received the British citizenship.
        At 10, he had his first public performance as a pianist. He was perceived mainly as a pianist and composer until 1930. It was then, at 17, that Constantin Silvestri conducted the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Bucharest, playing his own composition, Prelude and Fugue (Toccata). His success determined the young musician to remain profoundly attached to his baton. Although his career seemed very similar to Dinu Lipatti’s, his friend and colleague in the class of Florica Musicescu, Silvestri took another road: ‘My final goal is conducting and composition, which have proved so successful lately’, wrote Silvestri to George Breazul, in October 1932.2
        His becoming one of the greatest conductors in the world might tempt us to believe that Silvestri studied assiduously the art of conducting and took plenty of conducting classes. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the art of conducting, the musician was self-taught. Like many of the great conductors of those times, for instance Toscanini or even George Georgescu, Silvestri was a pioneer. In one of his interviews, Constantin Bugeanu, who was to become the father of the modern conducting school in Romania, said:

        While being an assistant music master at the State Opera in Bucharest, Silvestri had the opportunity to conduct several insignificant works. Still, in a talk I had with him about La Bohème, I was impressed with the way he commented upon and judged this work, especially the way he analyzed the conducting skills needed. Back then there was an amateurish atmosphere in Bucharest Opera, and the conductors used to learn the works by heart, rather than follow the score. Even George Georgescu, the most reputed Romanian conductor of the time, used to come to the piano rehearsals of soloists and the choir and learnt the works by heart while listening to the assistant music master. At the time, Georgescu, was a dilettante who had no idea about harmony and composition; by comparison, Silvestri was an exquisite professional, a specialist in forms and harmony, who believed that you cannot be a great conductor without studying a work in detail.3

        Nevertheless, Constantin Silvestri found it difficult to get a stable, decently paid position. In despair and seriously depressed, he set most of his early compositions on fire, in 1938. In a memorandum to the Romanian Musicians’ Union in 1945, he pointed to authorities’ lack of understanding for his talent:

        Until 1935 I had numerous concerts, I won George Enescu Prize and many of my compositions were interpreted in many of the world’s concert halls by musicians such as Hermann Scherchen, Lotte Lehmann or Felix Borowski. Still, I could not get a position in this country’s institutions. I managed to get hired by the State Opera in Bucharest with great difficulty. After innumerable memoranda, and no sooner than 1941, I managed to conduct a few concerts. Both the Radio Orchestra and the Philharmonic Orchestra closed their doors to me. At the Opera, my wages were cut down four times. I conducted only matinees or cheap productions turned down by my colleagues. To survive, I had to sell my piano, although Toscanini conducted several of my works, while others were published in America! …4

        Unfortunately, according to the British biographer John Gritten, Silvestri did not mention in this memorandum which of his works were interpreted by the orchestras conducted by Toscanini. In any case, although Silvestri was in excellent relations with both Jora and Paul Constantinescu, his taste did not coincide with his generation’s taste, and his friends classified him as an eccentric. His ideas were more advanced than his fellow Romanian composers’. If, in the 1930s, his avantgarde compositions had won him the reputation of ‘a lunatic’, as Silvestri himself noted5, his vast conducting comprehension reveals him as a precursor of the more conciliatory visions, generalized in recent decades under the all-comprehensive umbrella of postmodernism: a visionary, a musician before his time, as John Gritten chose to title his monograph. His precocious familiarity with avant-garde music had been facilitated by Zeno Vancea, during the visit he paid to Vancea’s estate in Târgu Mureş in 1933.
        In May 1939, Silvestri wrote to his maestro and his friend in Târgu Mureş:

        Dear Zeno, thank you very much for your invitation. Unfortunately I do not think I can leave Bucharest at this moment. I must stay here to conduct and play as much as possible with the Radio. Mu finances are extremely precarious. I have been suffering for years from these irresponsible criminals leading Romanian music, people whose salaries are 60.000-70.000 lei a month for 3 or 4 positions they fill simultaneously. It is well understood that they raise barriers to young people and push them away. I have recently written a memorandum to the king but unfortunately it has reached people I have criticized, so you must understand the kind of relationships I have with everyone now…6

        Silvestri was eaten up by these problems for a long time; these left deep traces in his mind, even though his art became eventually appreciated. It is not surprising, then, that in 1956 he decided to move to Paris and, after extraordinary success worldwide, he chose to become a British citizen, two years before his premature disappearance.
        Let us take note of the fact that national values recognition has always been a problem with us. Silvestri is one of the many artists who decided to leave Romania and were not regretted (since nothing much has been done to recover them). In this context, I can only praise the recent initiative of creating the Romanian Music Information Centre7 and the accomplishment of Professor Lavinia Coman, author of a long-waited Romanian monograph of Constantin Silvestri8. I would like to conclude with a critical touch: 13 years have passed since John Gritten’s British monograph was first published and no Romanian publishing house has translated this work in Silvestri’s mother tongue.

English Version by Simina Neagu

2 John Gritten , A Musician before his Time: Constantin  Silvestri – Conductor, Composer, Pianist (London : Warwick Editions, 1998): 54
3 John Gritten : 56
4 Gritten: 57
5 Gritten: 57
6 John Gritten , 57
8 Lavinia Coman, Constantin Silvestri (Bucharest: Editura Didactică şi Pedagogică, 2013)