Enescu Festival: the story of the 60 years

A country without music?

Before the Festival, there was the Musician. The complete Musician, in almost all the possible parts: composer, violin virtuoso, conductor, professor – brilliant in all of them – less musicologist (even though he was an expert in Bach) or critic. But, most of all, an engine of the Romanian musical life. He loved Wagner, therefore he organised and conducted the act 3 of Parsifal at the Romanian Athenaeum, in 1915, continuing Wachmann‘s passion, and, at the same moment, he conducted Symphony 9 by Beethoven; after all, if a country does not have a symphonic orchestra that can decently play Beethoven’s last symphony, then that country is not civilised enough.


Pablo Casals, George Enescu, George Georgescu

A country without  music, or… with very little music. This is why, in 1913, George Enescu founds a composition contest, with his own name (but also his own money: he donated 27.000 lei, which stands today for nearly 145.000 €). It could seem arrogant in our times. But, then, his action was not seen as such, as Enescu had been known since his youth as the absolute musician of Romania. And his competition launched several important names: Mihail Jora (1915), Alfred Alessandrescu (1916), Mihail Andricu (1924), Theodor Rogalski (1926), Sabin Drăgoi (1928), Dinu Lipatti (1934), Constantin Silvestri (1935), Paul Constantinescu (1938) are just a few of the winners who confirmed. In those times, one could not be a good conductor if one was not a composer too.

The period between the two world wars was a moment when the Romanian culture was catching up with the Western world. This included the seasons of the Athenaeum, when Claudio Arrau or Arthur Rubinstein became regular and banal guests. The Festival did not exist yet. Those seasons included famous names and made Mihail Sebastian write in his diary:

I already know by heart the repertoire of the Philharmonic – where I go regularly. And no wonder, after three years of attendance. The only event for me: the Goldberg Variations, played by Kempff

And the  music critic Virgil Gheorghiu was writing a horrendous thing in an analysis of the 1936-37 season:

Due to a very strict selection, the management of the Philharmonic offered extraordinary concerts to the public of Thursday evening; the mediocrities disappeared from the programs. For instance,  Serkin was not invited any more.

Arrau, Serkin, Kempff. They all died in the same year, 1991, and  this produced a moving title for Diapason magazine: Adieux aux poètes. „The mediocrity” is the one in the centre of the photo.

Unfortunately, we, in Romania, told them good bye much earlier, when stalinization started in Romania. The last composition contest was in 1946 (won by Gheorghe Dumitrescu). It was the year when Enescu left Romania forever.

A Festival of hope

Then, more than 10 years of silence. The isolation of Romania was profound and all that world seemed lost forever. The national football team was not even enlisted for 1950 World Cup qualifiers rounds. The transcripts of the Communist Party meetings mentioned the Philharmonic as a former „citadel of the reactionary movement”. Its important conductors leave the country (Ionel Perlea) or are persecuted for different political reasons (George Georgescu for collaborationism, Constatin Silvestri for formalism, like Shostakovitch). Paul Constantinescu and Alfred Alessandrescu, two of the winners of the composition contest, are constantly followed by the Securitate (Secret Police). Dimitrie Cuclin, winner of the first edition (1913), is arrested and sent for two years to forced labour, for having published in the Iron Guard (fascist) newspapers. Mihail Jora’s wife is sent to prison just because she was the sister of Grigore Gafencu, former minister of foreign affairs, and leader of the post-war Romanian exile. The socialism realism imposes itself with the conviction of another winner of the competition: Mihail Andricu (1956). With Enescu’s death, in 1955, everything seems lost forever.

Nobody knows exactly what were the political mechanisms that created the Enescu Festival. It is rather clear that musicians lived tough times and, therefore, could not have an influence on this; moreover, the ideological directions were still suggested, even ordered from the Soviet Union. After the first ten years of communism in Eastern Europe, governed by terrible abuses against human rights, classical propaganda was not enough. Moscow founds the Tchaikovsky Competition, in 1958,  that was to become one of the most important musical competitions in the world, even though the composer’s homosexuality was a difficult aspect for the soviet morality. At the same time, Bucharest founds the Enescu Festival and Competition, even though, a few years before, the international recognition of his value could not defend him against the accusations that he had been, even from a distance, close to the “reactionary” aristocracy.

All the histories about the Festival start with 1958, and Richter, with the return of Arrau, with Oistrakh and Menuhin playing Bach together, with the first Œdipe (and the only one conducted by Silvestri) and with a great amazement to the normality opposed to the horrible daily life of the second stalinist period of the Romanian communism, after Budapest ’56. Because, after the first edition of the festival, in December 1958, started the “trial of the intellectuals” (known as Noica – Pillat).

The opening of the first Enescu Festival (1958)

The fact that, after so many years, this first edition is still a reference shows that communist propaganda was very efficient. Who could associate the Russian Gulag with the perfect grace of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake? Even today it is difficult to put together the political arrests in Romania and the great concerts at the Athenaeum, at least when you listen to the recordings made at that time.

In 1949, Menuhin, Enescu’s student, an absolute celebrity in the anglo-saxon musical world, reconciled two worlds when he accepted to play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, conducted by the recently denazified Furtwängler, in Lucerna. In 1958, George Georgescu invited him, with naive hopes, to do the same with David Oistrakh, the absolute violinist of the soviet Russia, in Bach’s Double concerto. Maybe in 1964, before the third edition, that he did not see, George Georgescu still believed that his idea could become reality. Menuhin always believed that music is above politics and he supported the Festival with his personality during the communism, as he came to Bucharest for each edition, until 1998.

This area of normality was very well used by the Romanian musicians, and maybe the most important result of the Enescu Festival was the fact that it produced the publication of almost all Enescu’s works, the foundation of Enescu Museum, and the restauration of some buildings that had belonged to him. It was the huge effort of finding again a European musical identity.

A Sad Festival

Everything ran incredibly smoothly until 1970, when Ionel Perlea died a few weeks before the festival, the same as George Georgescu had died before the 1964 edition. Ionel Perlea had returned to Romania one  year before, producing an emotion still vivid today. The five editions had seen important conductors: Herbert von Karajan, John Barbirolli, Zubin Mehta and soloists such as Arthur Rubinstein, Henryk Szering or Gaspar Cassado (who had returned to the Romanian Athenaeum after many years). The list of guests is all very impressive, especially as it is a contrast to the times. The photos of 1969, with Perlea conducting so eloquently that one almost does not notice that he uses only one arm, had the value of a symbol, that of a possible reconciliation with the Diaspora. But this reconciliation never came, as Ubu Rex Ceaușescu came to power.

Six editions will follow, during almost two decades, when even the idea of resisting through culture seemed forever defeated. In 1973, the Festival lasts for only one week, as if we were in full war. The Enescu Competition, which had always been associated with the Festival, completely disappears in 1970, and is relaunched after the Revolution (1991). Meanwhile, almost all the winners of the Composition Contest between the two World Wars, had died: Lipatti in 1950, Rogalski in 1954, Alessandrescu in 1959, Paul Constantinescu in 1963, Silvestri in 1969. The ones who lived the longest were those who had suffered the most: Mihail Jora (1971), Mihail Andricu (1974), Dimitrie Cuclin  (1978).

1989 – The XIVth Congress of the Romanian Communist Party, in the Palace Hall

The Western guests are less and less numerous (but they do not disappear completely), the budget gets smaller and smaller, the Song of Praise to Romania becomes the most important “cultural” event. Little by little, Romania is more and more isolated, like immediately after the war, in a world of fear, hunger, cold. Even the recordings made for the concerts of those years are poorer in quality than those of the first editions. These are the saddest Festivals.

A Festival for everybody

The history of the Festival starts again after the Revolution. From one edition to the next, we see more and more influent musicians, from all over the world, more than are invited in a decade by all the Philharmonics in Romania. People speak about a Romanian cultural brand. But, even before commenting on the value of truth of this phrase, it is first of all a recovery of decades of isolation and a real feast for the music lovers in Romania. It is a Festival for everybody because, unlike Salzburg, where the history of the festival created in Mozart’s birthplace knew very different periods, under the influence of Furtwängler, Karajan or, more recently, Muti, in Romania there has never been a musician who could shape the festival according to his artistic vision. Maybe because we have never had a musician as extraordinary as Enescu. Therefore, the Festival has always been eclectic and cosmopolite, in a very strong contrast with the musical activity of the “normal” seasons, which are national and mediocre.

Œdipe – Director: Andrei Șerban, ONB 1995

If, in 1958, the biennial pushed the publishing of scores and the restauration of buildings belonging to Enescu (the Palace in Calea Victoriei, the house in Tescani, the villa in Luminiș), maybe the most important side effect of the Festival was tha Œdipe was honoured at the National Opera of Bucharest with more productions than any other opera in the Operas all around the country, meaning seven: Jean  Rânzescu (1958), Cătălina Buzoianu (1991), Andrei Șerban (1995), Petrika Ionescu (2003), Nicolas Joel (2009), Anda Tăbăcaru Hogea (2011), Valentina Carrasco (2015). For those who have just discovered Traviata maybe this does not mean too much. But there is no other opera theatre in the world that has staged so many productions of Œdipe.

Œdipe – directed by Valentina Carrasco, BNO 2015

Next steps

We have been members of the EU for more than a decade and this also means an opening of the border to the Western world, including in culture. After Ioan Holender, who was the artistic director of the festival and introduced new concepts in organising the concert (“musical dramaturgy”), the festival also reached its longest length, of four weeks, that tested its limits in terms of organization.


A qualitative leap is now compulsory: the halls dedicated to concerts do not cover the needs. A topic intensely discussed is the one of a new concert hall, but the budget is huge and the artistic content for such an investment does not exist outside the Festival. We are facing a new era, with Vladimir Jurowski as artistic director, a musician after so many years. A conductor who might be on the short list as successor of Antonio Pappano at the Royal Opera House. Near Glyndebourne, the Enescu Festival could be a place where he can show his artistic vision. We shall have a new Œdipe, exclusively for the Festival and not staged by the National Opera, in a semi-concert version, but with an excellent orchestra and cast.

The story of the Enescu Festival and the debate about a new concert hall will continue. Towards what?