String Octet

George Enescu

String Octet in C major

Op. 7

About this work

Enescu acknowledged that his String Octet, written when he was nineteen years old, was a transitional work, coming as it did between his highly accomplished juvenilia (he had written four worthy "Study" Symphonies by the age of sixteen) and the first appearance of his mature voice. The experience of his early large-scale scores bears impressive fruit in the Octet, a work of nearly three-quarters of an hour in length, and one which exploits Enescu's mastery of counterpoint to the fullest.

Enescu later noted the difficulty he had in marshalling his musical forces for this work. That's not surprising given the task he set for himself of encompassing within a four-movement structure the elements of a single, sonata-form movement, much in the manner of Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy. The opening movement presents no fewer than six themes which will form the basis of the entire work. In addition, there are other features that will recur, including the relentless, pulsing pedal point heard right at the outset, over which the first theme, with its characteristic descending major sixth, is sung unison by massed strings. This rhythmic pulse becomes the engine that drives the contrapuntal web spun by Enescu's eight players, each of which is treated as a full-fledged soloist. The texture is rich, often dense (an episode in 3/4 time in the first movement is accompanied by such an intricate weft of counterpoint that there is the suggestion of delicate tone clusters), and hyper-Romantic in feeling.

Most remakable is how the Octet partakes of some very up-to-the-minute developments in music. Enescu was in Vienna between 1888 and 1893, studying theory under Robert Fuchs, who also taught Mahler, Wolf, Schreker and Zemlinsky, and it's not inconceivable that the younger Enescu was well-attuned to the radical changes in music wrought by his Viennese colleagues.

Already in the first movement, the six themes are not so much developed (they retain a certain resistant quality throughout the Octet) as they are fragmented and recombined, producing, as it were, a sort of infinitely variable "meta-theme," giving the work thematic unity (and helping the listener keep his bearings in the counterpoint!) while keeping it from straying into monotony. This sophisticated material, with its suggestions both of Roumanian and Gypsy music and of the cosmopolitan boulevards of Europe, represents Enescu's biggest advance to date as a composer.

The relatively brief scherzo is packed with aggressive unison activity, alternating with heavily chromatic, often dissonant passages. Its busy, forward-looking music is succeeded by the serene slow movement, a long, rhapsodic melody accompanied by simple, repeated chords (which are related to the pulsing pedal notes of the first movement). An agitated bridge passage, with fragments of the themes sounding over tremolando strings, leads to the finale, in which the rhythmic impulse that has driven the work now breaks forth as a delirious waltz ("Mouvement de valse bien rythmee"). The themes, in increasingly intricate ways, recombine as the movement is carried forward. The climax is an impressive peroration of the "meta-theme" over the driving pedal point, anticipating by a full fifteen years a similar dramatic moment at the climax of Zemlinsky's second string quartet.