Concert Notes

George Enescu’s Symphony No. 2

Notes by TŌN violinist Haley Schricker

George Enescu’s Second Symphony (completed in 1914) was not truly the composer’s second effort in the genre, but rather his sixth. During his teenage years, Enescu wrote four “study symphonies” which undoubtedly helped shape his understanding of large-scale form. A prodigiously gifted child, the young violinist and composer graduated from the Vienna Conservatoire at the age of 12—he even played in the first stand of the conservatory orchestra with his hero, Johannes Brahms, on the podium! 

In adulthood Enescu gained notoriety abroad as a great violinist and conductor. He taught the likes of Yehudi Menuhin and Ida Haendel, and conducted many American orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic. Revered cellist Pablo Casals even described Enescu as “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart”. Considering all these endorsements of his exceptional abilities, one might reasonably wonder why Enescu’s works aren’t better known, at least outside his home country of Romania. I can deduce three possible factors contributing to his relative lack of popularity, none of which need to be a hindrance to the programming of his compositions today: political divisions in Europe in the aftermath of World War I; the composer’s own modesty and reluctance to self-promote; and the sheer difficulty of his mature works for the performers.

Enescu’s Second Symphony marks a turning point in his trajectory as an artist: his many varied influences are synthesized into a unique compositional voice. Enescu himself was none too pleased with the premiere, however, and abandoned the symphony for the rest of his life. During the First World War, the only copy of the work accompanied the Romanian government’s gold reserves on a train to Moscow, where it vanished for years—and though the manuscript was eventually returned to the composer, it remained unpublished until 1965, a decade after Enescu’s death. 

The symphony consists of four movements, the last two of which are played without pause in between. The first movement is the longest, and is bursting with energy in contrast to the melancholic second movement. The third movement is a march that plows straight into the kaleidoscopic finale, which is at one moment troubled and at another triumphant.