Admiration without Idolatry

Noel Malcolm, George Enescu. Viaţa şi muzica

Noel Malcolm, George Enescu. Viaţa şi muzica
(Translated from English by Carmen Paţac)1


          Have you ever thought that the most important Romanian musician would be looked upon with “polite compliance” in Western cultural milieus? Well, British historian, philosopher and journalist Noel Malcolm recounts in the introduction of his volume George Enescu. His Life and Music (Toccata Press, 1990) how people responded with “polite compliance” every time he manifested his enthusiasm for Enescu’s music.
          In the preface for the same volume, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Enescu’s favourite disciple, called him “the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and his strongest influence”. Nevertheless, for the Western world, the composer’s name remained completely obscure.
          Translated into Romanian after two decades from its first edition, Malcolm’s book proposes a rather different approach from Romanian musicological literature on Enescu. Without presenting striking novelties for specialists, the author adopts a relaxed, fluent and exciting discourse which is still a rarity for Romanian writings on music. Enescu’s reception before 1990 as a nationalistic, folkloric composer is blamed on “crass chauvinism, the basic capital of Ceauşescu’s cultural politics”. The author doesn’t ignore Enescu’s polyvalence; his success as a performer – violinist, conductor and pianist – and composer doesn’t seem to have benefited this latter side. (Whether or not the reception of his work changed in the mean time is hard to tell, despite some truly visible events, such as the “George Enescu” Festival. But this is another discussion).
          The documentation for this book offered Malcolm, in ‘80s Romania, the possibility of consulting the composer’s manuscripts at the George Enescu Museum, but also of thorough musical analysis and theorizing of Enescu’s language, by Pascal Bentoiu, Ştefan Niculescu, Clemansa Firca etc. In order to articulate the biography, the author used, as main source, the accounts given by the musician in his discussions with Bernard Gavoty, recorded for the French Radio. Furthermore, he showcased the voices of Enescu’s disciples or acquaintances (for instance, Helen Dowling, Yehudi Menuhin), that clearly state some truths – often ignored – regarding the musician’s personal life. Here is an example: “When he was on his deathbed, semi-paralyzed, his wife started to sell his manuscripts to raise some money and thus most of them ended up in Bucharest. Those that visited Enescu during this time remember the princess’s grotesque look, excessively made up and her shrill voice that would babble gossip and trivialities from Bucharest”. Malcolm also mentions the illness that affected his hearing in the last years of his life, which manifested through the distorted perception of a sound’s pitch: “We can only imagine how hard it must have been for him […] when he walked up to a concert podium to play solo violin works by Bach. For a few concerts he instructed a devoted student to sit at the front row and use a discreet sign language to tell him if the note was sharp or flat”.
          Beyond physical suffering or the self imposed exile to avoid communist authorities, the greatest pain seems to have been, at the end of his life, the inability to write the music he envisioned. And if Malcolm cites from time to time remarkable personalities – for instance, Casals who spoke of him as “the biggest musical phenomenon since Mozart” – he does it because he cannot hide his deep admiration towards the man and musician Enescu.

Florinela Popa
(English Version by Simina Neagu)

1 Review published first in Romanian, in Dilemateca, no. 66, November 2011