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Random Perspectives on Enescu's 3rd Violin Sonata
--- Acharya Dr Chintamani Rath Ph.D. (Music)
Tauranga, New Zealand
November 2006

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Part I - Introduction:

In early September 2006, my respected friend and colleague Prof. Dr. Donald Maurice M.M., Ph.D., LRSM, LTCL, FTCL, New Zealand's finest violist, acclaimed music scholar and Head of Strings at New Zealand School of Music at Wellington, sent me the violin part of Georges Enescu's Third Violin Sonata, together with a recording of the work by the composer himself on the violin and Dinu Lippati on the piano.

My brief was to provide Dr. Maurice with some feedback about the work. Dr. Maurice was curious to learn what a musician trained in the Indian art music tradition would glean from the music. The background to this request was Dr. Maurice's perception that this particular sonata used structures and sounds that seemed to have had some sort of "non-European" flavour. This phenomenon, coupled with the fact that since time immemorial there has been cross migration of different people between eastern European countries and India, warranted some research about possible Indian musical influences that could, consciously or unconsciously, exist in the present day musical repertoire originating from the eastern European countries.

As a frontranking scholar-performer of the highest academic and musical integrity, it is Dr. Maurice's routine endeavour to research thoroughly the works that he performs. He had recently decided to perform this composition in public, as also speak about Enescu in general and this work in particular, so that there would be a greater public appreciation of Enescu as the brilliant composer that he truly was, on equal footing with the other well-known, "mainstream" and more performed and recorded composers of Europe. Hence Dr. Maurice's request to me, to enable him to examine and appreciate the music from as many viewpoints as possible.

When I listened to the recording of the sonata, I found it to be an intensely beautiful one. Its beauty was not any the less for the careful and intellecually driven crafting Enescu seemed to have done with the music, in terms of the fashioning of the melodies and the blending of the themes, motifs and figures in the development. The composition commanded great respect on all counts, including the virtuosity it demanded of the performer. The more I listened, the more it grew upon me and the more I enjoyed its profundity, its subtlety, its elegance, its mystery and not the least its pathos. I was also struck by the resemblence, in parts, of its soundscape with some Indian sounds. It was a pleasure for me to study the composition and I take this opportunity to record my deep gratitude to Dr Donald Maurice for having introduced me to so beautiful a composition and for giving me this splendid musicological opportunity.

The notes that follow are my preliminary impressions. I do not claim to have been, by any measure, exhaustive. There are large gaps in my analysis that need to be filled, including the area of certain microtones Enescu has directed the performer to use. Indian art music uses microtones extensively: they are referred to as Shruti. However, the philosophy of using Shruti in Indian art music follows specific and formalised logic, which may or may not be compatible with that Enescu had in mind in using his microtones. I have not herein pondered this point.

Nor have I addressed the question of the nature of music as it was at the time the migrations took place (more than two thousand years ago), the many fundamental changes the state of music has undergone since and the extent to which it is justifiable to talk about possible influences (in present day eastern European music emanating from Indian sources) that can be explained with reference to present day Indian musical features, which have in any case themselves progressed through a great many evolutionery steps since then to now. My reaction to Enescu's sonata as expressed in these notes is therefore necessarily at a superficial level, and is being offered here only to indicate that Dr Maurice's hypothesis is very probably correct and that a case for further rigorous study on this question is certainly, as a result, well established.

Dr. Maurice has prepared an excellent PowerPoint presentation, illuminating and lucid, for his forthcoming lectures on Enescu and this particular work. He has kindly included some of my unworthy comments in it, for which I acknowledge my gratitude. The presentation, which can be viewed by clicking here, gives information on the place of Enescu in musical history, the great esteem in which he was held by renowned musical personages of his time and his works, with particular reference to his third violin sonata.

Part II - Notes:

The human mind naturally compares new information with information that is already stored within it. This includes musical information. Accordingly, a musician trained and immersed in Indian art music cannot help linking and comparing (or contrasting) new musical information with those already imprinted in mind and psyche through rigorous Indian pedagogy. This was my experience upon listening to Enescuís third violin sonata. This very interesting work approximated, at places, certain sounds that reminded me of snippets of Indian motifs, more particularly, of specific Raga.

A Raga is a complex concept that comprises several features of which the use of certain specific notes to the exclusion of others and in specific combinations are but two. Other characteristics include, among others, certain types of ornaments to be used (or avoided), permissible registers, tempi and even times of performance. If all these characteristics are not present, the resulting music will not qualify as Raga music. [See my article " Indian Art Music" in this website for a fuller explanation.]

For this reason I will not go so far as to say that Enescuís subjects or motifs in this work bear the stamp of Raga. However, I was distinctly reminded of certain Raga through the course of my listening to this beautiful and evocative sonata. In order to appreciate some marks of similarity between this sonata and Indian art music sounds, I recorded a few motifs/subjects from Enescuís work, played little bits of Raga and tried to approximate the original Enescu subjects as an Indian musician might interpret them. I then went a step further and attempted to improvise on the original subjects within the framework allowed by the Raga in question. At appropriate places, I added bits of Indian percussion (on the Tabla, played by me on a separate track and subsequently mixed down) to lend a measure of completeness to the proceedings.

First Movement:

In this movement, there are two main, but related, subjects. The composition straightaway begins with the first subject, which is a very beautiful and skilfully crafted melody (bars 1 - 10) that ends with a motif very similar to the one with which it begins. This little motif is the dominant and operative idea that actually binds the whole movement together. The motif itself is a kind of emotional suspension, an unanswered question or an unresolved statement, frequently presented in an imperfect cadence (ending in B when the general local tonality of the piece is E). The second subject is contrasting and occurs right after the first subject (bars 11 - 16). Thereafter starts the development: both subjects (particularly the first) are presented in a variety of ways. There are new melodic forays in the body of the movement (as part of the development), but these are related in some form or other with the main subjects.

Because the aforesaid dominant and operative motif is the concluding motif of the second subject and the opening motif of the first subject, and because this motif occurs thrice in the first subject - at its beginning, middle and (in a slightly altered form) its end - reflections or reminders of the both subjects are constantly present throughout the development. The movement concludes with the remergence of the dominant motif, bringing us right back to the very start of the story, as it were, and leaving it unresolved, as all great human questions really are, to be addressed and answered anew by each new generation - since, after all, for fundamental epistemological, aesthetic and moral questions there is no one right or wrong answer that holds true for all time or for all people.....

This joint sense of resolution for the time being as well as the simultaneous knowledge that what is true today will not necessarily be so tomorrow and a fresh workable answer will have to be discovered later is reinforced by the soft sounding (at the very end of the movement) of the final pizzicato note, like a question mark. That note is a dissonant A, soft and low, sounded (and left in mid-air so to speak) after many assertive statements of the motif ending in a long B note each time (8 bars backwards from the end of the movement). It is as if a whole generation decrees: "Follow this path, for this is what is right", but the composer, prophetic seer that he is, gently asks, "Is it?"

The movement, like the entire composition, is marked by a masterly economy of notes that Enescu achieves, being able to communicate, within the brevity of the movement, a whole gamut of ideas.

1st subject Ė The first phrase or motif somewhat resembles a Raga we call Basant Mukhari. However, this Raga is soon lost by the way the rest of Enescuís melody develops and is replaced by the Raga Bhairavi. Because Basant Mukhari and Bhairavi are closely related (in a way we need not explore here), I chose Bhairavi as the closest Raga for my recording.

This recording (click to hear) shows my response to Enescuís melody. There are five little clips in this recording:

  1. Enescuís melody, as is
  2. Enescuís melody, with a percussion (Tabla) cycle added (the cycle or Tala called Keherva)
  3. An Auchar Alap (very short introduction of a Raga) in Bhairavi
  4. My approximation of Enescuís melody and
  5. My approximation of Enescuís melody supported by percussion cycle (Keherva) and improvised upon (as in an episode), in Bhairavi, before returning to the melody itself and then ending with the Indian equivalent of a coda (here, a very short codetta!).
2nd subject Ė I was reminded of three Raga in the course of this short subject:

  • Brndavani Sarang
  • Megh Malhar and
  • Bhairavi
Bhairavi occurred naturally to the mind on account of the clever manner in which Enescu guides the second subject back to the very first little motif of his first subject, meshing together the two very different subjects as if the contrasting sentiment of the second cannot but lead to that of the first.

This recording (click to hear) is my response to Enescuís second subject in the first movement. I have recorded seven small clips here:

  1. Enescuís subject
  2. Enescuís subject with a likely rhythmic cycle (Addha Tala)
  3. An Auchar in Brndavani Sarang
  4. An Auchar (very short) in Megh Malhar
  5. An Auchar in Bhairavi
  6. My approximation of Enescuís subject Ė I have deliberately fractionally slowed down the speed to fit the dictates of Addha Tala (to be used in the clip following) and
  7. My approximation again, this time on Addha Tala, with a little episodic improvisation in Brndavani Sarang, Megh Malhar and ďmodulatingĒ (not in the western technical sense!!) through Bhairavi to go back to the motif that sets the first subject in motion.
Second Movement:

The sound of this movement was rather too far removed from the familiar sounds of Indian art music for me to link any part of it to established Raga.

Third Movement:

There appeared to be two subjects and a motif in between them in this movement: these bound the movement together very cleverly, to great effect.

The first subject, a beautifully crafted and rhythmically strong melody spanning 24 beats grouped into 4, 4, 3, 5, 4 and 4 beats, was too close to folk tradition to evoke any particular Raga. So, I did not attempt a Raga response.

The motif between the two subjects is repeated in various keys (with chromatic shifts) before the second subject enters with a bold statement. This motif of five quavers preceding a long held note reminded me, on account of the 1Ĺ tone interval in it and being away from the local tonality of the passage, of the Raga Multani, although there was a very important departure from Multani in the way in which the long note ascended to the local tonic for the time being (B-flat to D in the fifth bar after number 35, D being the tonic in that part of the composition). In Multani, the note progression would rightly have been A Ė C# - D. The progession A Ė B flat Ė D as used in the motif is a feature of the Raga Gunkali or Raga Bilaskhani Todi. But, because the quavers are near the dominant rather than the tonic, the feeling is overwhelmingly Multani, in spite of the C-natural, which is contraindicated in Multani.

I have tried to show the innate similarity of the motif with Multani (in spite of important differences that cannot be overlooked) in this recording (click to hear). The first clip is Enescuís motif, recorded twice to reinforce the phrase. The second clip follows with an Auchar in Multani.

The second subject is a bold statement of a melody in the tonality of B, powerfully and gloriously presented on its own, without any assistance or backing by the pianoforte, whose job it is to reinforce a strong tension in the musical atmosphere by relentlessly sounding the flattened supertonic five times after each of the four phrases of the subject except the last. I was reminded of the Raga Ahir Bhairav, although there were important differences between Enescuís original melody and the characteristics of Ahir Bhairav.

It is interesting to speculate upon Enescu's seemingly consistent use of five notes in a group throught the composition. The last note of such a group is always a long note. The abovementioned dominant and operative motif occurring in both the first and second subjects of the first movement, the five quavers and a long note as a prominant motif in the third movement and the pianoforte's sounding of five dissonant notes separating each part of the bold solo melody following this motif in the third movement (note that the last of the pianoforte's notes is longer in time than the previous four): all show adherence to the basic format of this five note group in some form or the other. I was reminded of Beethoven's use of such a technique - the celebrated four taps on percussion with which Beethoven begins his violin concerto (and follows through the entire first movement with those four strokes), the figure of three notes followed by a longer one in Beethoven's fifth symphony ... there are many examples. Another case of a composer describing Time knocking on the door?

This recording (click to hear) is my response to this subject. There are four clips:
  1. Enescuís melody
  2. Enescusís melody with a rhythmic cycle (Keherva) added on the Tabla
  3. An Auchar Alap in Ahir Bhairav and
  4. My approximation, in Ahir Bhairav, of Enescuís melody followed by an improvisation and a return to my approximation.

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