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Rumanian Rhapsody in A major, Op. 11, No. 1

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: George Enescu
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Kristjan Järvi, conductor / Jennifer Koh, violin, plays Barber Oct. 31 - Nov. 2, 2013
© Robert Markow

Most concertgoers tend to think of George Enescu as the composer of a famous Rumanian Rhapsody and leave it at that. However, Rumania's most outstanding composer was also one of the twentieth century's most unfairly neglected musical geniuses. His centenary in 1981 went largely ignored outside his native country, but so highly respected is he in Rumania that there is a festival, a museum, a composer's prize, a violin competition, a symphony orchestra and even a town (his birthplace) named after him.

George Enescu, also known by the Gallicized form of Georges Enesco, was a prodigiously talented boy. He began violin studies at the age of four and composition at five. He was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory at seven and heard a concert of his own works at sixteen. Professional studies were undertaken principally in Vienna and Paris. The latter was to become Enescu's adopted city, where he remained for most of his professional life, but he did not by any means sever ties to his homeland; he maintained an estate near Bucharest, returned as often as he could, and drew upon his country's folklore for musical inspiration.

The term rhapsody comes from the ancient Greek rhapsodia, meaning a portion of an epic poem (especially from the Iliad or the Odyssey) to be recited or sung by a specially-trained rhapsode. Rhapsodia itself derives from rhaptein (to sew or stitch together) and oide (ode, song) - hence, song-stitching. Today, we generally define any musical composition bearing the title "Rhapsody" as a highly-charged instrumental work in irregular, free or improvisatory form, usually consisting of several linked sections.

Enescu himself conducted the first performance of both his Rumanian Rhapsodies (written in 1901 and 1902) at a concert in Bucharest on March 8, 1903. (Some sources say in Paris in 1908, but the actual program exists at the George Ensecu Museum in Bucharest proving the earlier date.) The folk element is naturally predominant, and Enescu has commented on it as follows: "Contrary to the general idea, Rumania is not a Slavic country, but a Latin one. Settled two thousand years ago, it has maintained its completely Latin character. ... Our music, curiously enough, is influenced not by the neighboring Slav, but by the Indian and Egyptian folk songs introduced by the members of these remote races, now classed as gypsies, brought to Rumania as servants of the Roman conquerors. The deeply oriental character of our own folk music derives from these sources and possesses a flavor as singular as it is beautiful."

Rhapsody No. 1 opens with a perky tune played by the solo clarinet. Though somewhat reminiscent of rustic shepherd piping, it is actually a drinking song entitled "I have a coin and I want a drink." Other instruments in turn take up the theme, until it gives way to the second episode, a gypsy song in 6/8 meter that begins with a sweeping upward flourish followed by a swirling effect. Other melodies follow, ranging from boisterous to languid, played by anything from a solo instrument to full orchestra. Some of the melodies have a distinctly eastern flavor, reminding us that Bucharest, Rumania's capital, is closer to Istanbul and Damascus than to Paris and London. Approximately the last half of the rhapsody, beginning with a jaunty flute solo, is devoted to a virtuosic display of orchestral color and rhythmic vitality, bringing the Rhapsody to a spectacular close.