This week’s music, continuing our series on music written for the octet, is the Octet for Strings in C Major by the Romanian composer George Enescu.
It is unfortunate that Enescu is not more well-known than he is, for he is arguably the greatest musical genius since Mozart. He began composing at the age of 5 and graduated from the Vienna Conservatory at age 13. The international premiere of his compositions began when he was only 16. In addition to being a masterful composer, Enescu was also one a generational talent on the violin (Heifetz himself called Enescu one of the greatest violinists of all time) and a world-class pianist. As a composer, Enescu is unmistakably original, yet accessible and enjoyable to a wide range of listeners.
The Octet was written in 1890. After writing for individual instruments for most of his life, Enescu found the orchestration of the eight-person ensemble to be a challenge. “An engineer launching his first suspension bridge over a river could not feel more anxiety than I felt when I set out to darken my paper,” he wrote. Yet the music he created is among the most complex and sophisticated works of chamber music in the repertoire. Much like Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2018/07/31/an-amazing-discovery/) (which, as some of you know, I believe to be the greatest work of chamber music ever composed), Enescu’s Octet is a tour-de-force of musical texture. It is nuanced, invigorating, and unbelievably dense; lush, but also powerful and relentless; chromatic, yet intensely tonal.
Take a minute to compare this octet to what we’ve heard thus far in this series. Schubert’s Octet, for instance, could not be more different than this one. Where Schubert’s horn and clarinet lines weave delicate melodies through a soft accompaniment texture, Enescu flies without hesitation to the peak of emotional intensity. Where Mendelssohn’s violin solos soar gloriously over the cellos and violas, Enescu forces each instrument to fight for its time in the spotlight.