by Claudiu Badea



George Enescu was born in the town of Liveni on August 19, 1881. He is regarded as Romania's most versatile musician and certainly it's greatest composer. Enescu was surrounded by music from an early age. His father sang, conducted a choir and played the violin. His mother played the guitar and the piano. He began to play the violin at the age of four. He got his first lesson from a gypsy 'lautar' who could not read music and so taught his pupils by making them imitate him by ear (Malcolm p.30)

Enescu showed progress very quickly and his parents decided to start him on piano. At the same time he was taught how to read music, and the floodgates were opened. Enescu began to compose in styles which he knew or just imagined, but it was very fascinating to others because of his young age and his very limited range of exposure to classical music. At the age of seven, Enescu was brought to the Conservatoire in Iasi where he auditioned with the director, Eduard Caudella. When he was done performing, Caudella recommended that Enescu be sent to Vienna where he could receive a much better musical education. His debut performance was as a violinist in 1889, and by the time he left the Conservatory in Vienna to study in Paris in 1895, he was regarded as a mature performer (Malcolm p.60).


Enescu's early success as a composer, which raised some eyebrows at the Conservatoire, came with the performance of his Poeme Roumain in January 1898. This work became Opus 1 in his mature series of opus numbers. This piece was to remain one of the (if not the most) favorite composition to the composer as it was his first major performed work. It is a symphonic suite which incorporates Romanian styles of folkloric influence (Voicana, p82). Three years later, Enescu completed the two Romanian Rhapsodies which were again written along the styles of some Romanian dances. As it would turn out, these two rhapsodies would become the most successful pieces that he wrote. He would look back later in his life and regret that those two pieces became those by which the world would remember him since they were not his favorites.

During this whole time, the Royal household was one his main sponsors. Actually, it was the Queen herself who was a big admirer of his work. She was herself an author writing under the pen name of Carmen Sylva. Enescu grew to be attached to her and when she died he dedicated to her memory all the works which had not already been dedicated to someone else(Malcolm, p75). In the years preceding the first World War, Enescu was based mainly in Paris. Much of the Parisian music making at this time was semi-public in the forms of performances at salons, soirees, and receptions. Nonetheless, while he was living in Paris he also made contributions to the development of music in Romania.


Enescu stimulated opera performances, concerts and recitals - especially containing his cycles of violin sonatas. He wrote articles and gave Lectures. He was a member of the examination committees at the Bucharest and Iasi Conservatories where he helped to foster young talent. In 1912 he founded the Enescu prize for composition in Bucharest. During his stays in Romania Enescu gave frequent performances as a violinist and as a conductor. Although in Western Europe he was entrusted with the baton only to conduct his own works, in Romania he spread his wings and conducted whole programs.

Enescu spent the war years giving benefit concerts for the Romanian orphans or the wounded(Malcolm, p121). His violin playing was legendary. I remember my grandfather telling me how when he was young he got season tickets to the Romanian Atheneum because it was across the street from the shop he owned and it was convenient for him to see Enescu play. During these years, Enescu also met his future wife, Marie Cantacuzino, the daughter of a rich landowner in Moldova. She was known to everyone as Maruca and met the composer at one of his performances for the Royal Family. During the war Romania fared disastrously, being hit on a new front from Bulgaria and having to retreat to Moldova. At this time Enescu sent all his manuscripts with the rest of the Romanian patrimony for safe keeping in Moscow. Many years later the communist authorities returned his works but expropriated the treasures of the government. The War ended however and Romania wound up being on the winning side. At this time Enescu's music was to be used for propaganda as he was sent on a goodwill tour of Bessarabia to rev up support for unification with Romania.


The 1920's saw Enescu's greatest challenge... the writing of his opera Oedipe. It was finally finished in 1931, and was performed a few years later. It did not fire the imagination of the public and after 1937, it was not played again until after his death in 1955. In the years between the wars, Enescu continued to compose and also traveled extensively, giving concerts in Romania, Western Europe and North America. He also had a number of pupils under his tutelage. Ferras, Gitlis, Grumiaux and perhaps the most famous of them, Yehudi Menuhin.

With the eruption of World War 2 Enescu once again spent time in Romania. He stayed clear of politics and got involved only in the musical life of the capital. Romania was at the time under heavy influence from Germany, and the Iron Guards performed their anti Semitic intimidation work unhindered. Once at a concert in Transylvania, Enescu was due to play a sonata by a Jewish composer Ernest Bloch. The audience was packed with members of the Iron Guard who protested loudly. Enescu came out on stage and said that he would no longer play Bloch's piece. This announcement was met with great applause. Instead, Enescu proceeded to play Ravel's Khaddisch, the Jewish prayer (Malcolm, p210).


After the war ended, Enescu and his wife realized that the days before the Communists would take power were numbered. They settled their affairs and left Romania in 1946. After the communist takeover, the relations between Enescu and the new government were conducted in an atmosphere of frigid politeness. He refused to return to Romania for reasons both personal and political. He was getting old and just wanted a simple quiet life to devote his final years to composition. It was very clear that neither tranquillity nor justice would be found in Romania for a long time to come.

Enescu, like any good patriot, had kept his money in Romanian banks prior to World War 2. Now after the great conflict and with Romania under communist domination he was denied access to his savings as the state confiscated his wealth. He was now in his late sixties and broke. He was a very proud man and did not want to accept handouts. He insisted on earning a living. This meant that he had to go on tours again as a violinist since that is how he was best known at the time.


He spent the last years of his life living with his wife in a basement apartment in Paris. Occasionally he would conduct orchestras or give small concerts. A year before his death he suffered a massive stroke the night before a concert in England. He was paralyzed. When a maid found him in the room, he began to whistle the Brandenburg concerto just to let her know that he was still alive. In the last years of his life, the Romanian government wooed him to come back to his homeland. Honors were bestowed upon him to tempt him to go back. He refused however, politely declining to return to a country ruled by those who threw out his former benefactors, the Royal Family. He indicated that after his death he did not wish for his remains to be returned to Romania so long as the country remained under communist control. He died the night of May 3-4, 1955, and is buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.



Malcolm, Noel, "George Enescu",New York: Toccata Press, 1990.

Voicana, Mircea, "George Enescu, Monografie", Bucuresti: Editura

Academiei R.S. Romania, 1971.




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