Violin Concerto · Symphony No. 2
Violin Concerto · Symphony No. 2
August Enna (1859–1939) was a prolific composer of opera whose works were performed widely across Europe and as far away as the US and Australia – yet he failed to make a significant impact in his native Denmark. This album presents two of his most charming orchestral works. Several elements converge in the Violin Concerto: Enna’s background as a violinist, his deep connection to opera, and the tradition of Nordic national Romanticism. While Symphony No. 2 may be considered conservative for its era, it is abundantly rich in its continuous melodic flow.
'Time Will Tell'
By Jens Cornelius
No Danish composer had such great international success around the turn of the 20th century as August Enna (1859–1939). It was his operas that made him famous, with drama and colour in the international style inspired by Verdi, Wagner and French music, chiming perfectly with contemporary taste. His first opera was Heksen (‘The Witch’), premiered in 1892, which was hailed abroad as the most sensational opera since Carmen and Cavalleria rusticana; it was performed in no fewer than 40 European theatres during the following year.
Enna continued to compose operas for the rest of his life. These works were performed as far away as the USA and Australia, but Enna struggled to establish his standing at home in Denmark. Primarily, there were two things to blame: his musical style, which did not bear much resemblance to Danish traditions; and his unruly personality, which earned him many opponents. The narrow view of him as only a composer of operas meant that his other works failed to receive the attention they deserved, though his charming orchestral works share the richness of melody and colour of his operas.
August Enna’s Italian surname comes from the town of Enna in Sicily. His Sicilian grandfather, Alexandro Enna, served as a soldier and trumpeter in Napoleon’s army and travelled northwards at the close of the Napoleonic War. He fell in love with a Jewish woman in Hamburg, and the couple fled in a rowing boat, across the Baltic to Denmark, where they settled in the provincial town of Nakskov, on Lolland. They lived from making shoes, and their hand-work was their legacy, passed down to the generation which followed. Their grandson August will have expected to work as a shoemaker, but when he was a boy, his father Andreas, who maintained a substantial workshop, faced bankruptcy, so the family travelled to Copenhagen to try their luck.
Here August Enna grew up with his head full of ambitions and adventures, fuelled by his natural artistic talent which emerged very early. At 12 years old he sold tickets on the street to his own theatrical performances, which he mounted up in his loft. He also entertained in a hostelry on the violin and the piano. It was only when he reached the age of 17 that he first had the opportunity to receive a little classical schooling, but once started he progressed very quickly.
In 1880 he began to conduct and compose theatrical music in Copenhagen, and for a while he worked as a violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra (the Royal Danish Theatre’s orchestra) whose Kapellmeister, the Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen, backed up his ambitions as a composer. Enna wanted to make his mark with a substantial work and wrote a symphony in C minor in 1886, which he showed to Niels W. Gade, a leading figure in Danish musical life. Gade, who was usually quite reserved when it came to giving praise, remarked that Enna had, ‘unusual talent and gifts, as well as great skill in relation to his grasp of melodic and harmonic working and instrumentation’. Gade ensured that Enna received the largest prize for talent in Danish music, Det Anckerske Legat (The Ancker Scholarship). ‘Just now it will be of the greatest benefit to him’, commented Gade wisely: the restless Enna needed to be able to concentrate on composing.
Enna completed the opera Heksen in 1889, but shortly before he was due to deliver the score to the Royal Danish Theatre for assessment, he came across the score of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, and realised that his own musical universe, which was built on older models like Beethoven and Weber, was far too old-fashioned. Enna laid Heksen aside, and spent six months feverishly studying Wagner’s music. Then he resolutely rewrote the whole opera. The effort succeeded: Heksen became his first great success, and music drama came to form his primary focus for the rest of his life: he wrote 20 operas and operettas, the last of them, Ghettoens dronning (‘The Queen of the Ghetto’) completed at the age of 73 in 1932.
Violin Concerto in D major (1896)
August Enna had a great flair for creating orchestral music which overflowed with good melodies and effective handling of the orchestra. One of his most successful orchestral works is the Violin Concerto, composed in 1896. It was first performed on 27 February 1897, by the Royal Danish Orchestra and its concertmaster, Frederik Hilmer, conducted by Johan Svendsen. It was later performed in Berlin and Carnegie Hall, New York, amongst other places.
Traces of several elements from Enna’s musical life converge in his Violin Concerto: his background as a violinist and his deep connection to opera meet the tradition of Nordic national romanticism. His models for the work may have included his mentor, Johan Svendsen, who had composed a violin concerto himself in 1870, and the popular composer P.E. Lange-Müller, who would write a violin concerto of his own a few years after Enna. Perhaps Enna aimed to challenge the perception that he sounded too foreign in his operas? One of Copenhagen’s prominent music reviewers pointed out that Enna’s music in general was ‘chemically devoid of Nordic-ness’ – harsh criticism at a time when it was regarded as fairly suspicious to align oneself too clearly against continental ideas. In the Violin Concerto, Enna succeeded in fusing his languishing operatic melodies with a pristine lyrical style. The mood is mild and dreamy in the first movement, while in the third, Enna closes in the Nordic Romantic style with pastiches of folk music.
From the recording of August Enna's Violin Concerto – Anna Agafia and the Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra in 2022 © Kike Barona
By contrast, the second movement draws back the veil from the performance, so that one sees what is hidden behind the smooth, friendly façade, namely tragedy – and opera! For his main theme in the movement, Enna uses the beginning of the well-known aria, ‘Vesti la giubba’ from Leoncavallo’s opera, Pagliacci (‘Clowns’), which had been premiered in Milan just five years earlier. In ‘Vesti la giubba’ we meet the clown whose task it is to hold the attention of an expectant audience, even though it makes him cry on the inside. Enna develops the theme in a fulsome soaring cantilena which, after an interlude in the major, draws the movement to a close in an expressive way. The quotation from Leoncavallo is so obvious that it must be regarded as something beyond mere theft; it is a kind of metamusical gesture in which Enna, the infallible entertainer, enters so strongly into another composer’s opera that he reveals himself sharing the same emotions as the crying clown Canio in Pagliacci. It is only when the third movement begins that the happy mask returns – but does it happen, just as it does in the opera, only for the sake of the public?
Symphony No. 2 in E major (1907)
Unfortunately August Enna’s Symphony in C minor, which had impressed Gade, is lost. The work was played through at an orchestral rehearsal as a friendly gesture towards the young composer, but never received a formal performance, and later the score disappeared. It’s possible that it was Enna himself who discarded the score, as he had done with the first version of Heksen – or perhaps he tossed the score into a fireplace to keep warm? Certainly, in his younger days he was often plagued by constant problems with money, and when things were at their worst, he emulated the poor artists in Puccini’s opera La bohème, burning his manuscripts when the cold became too severe.
When Enna wrote his second symphony in 1907, at the age of 48, his circumstances had changed. He had experienced international success with his operas, and had money to hand, but at the same time feared that his focus on international opera had a negative impact on his reputation at home in Denmark. In Danish musical life, there was often scepticism towards dramatic music with grand gestures, while the assessment of Enna was also marked by suspicion of fellow countrymen who had done well abroad. There were even references to Enna’s ethnicity. He was a small, short-necked man with intense, dark eyes, and his exotic appearance was something which stood out in homogeneous Denmark. ‘Hot-tempered like an Italian, mischievous like a cobbler-boy’, was undiplomatically said to him, while others were more subtle and called him ‘the European amongst Denmark’s composers’. Even though Enna’s Lolland accent revealed his Danish roots in the countryside, he looked more like an Italian, and people were convinced that his distinctive musical style was innate, and betrayed his southern blood.
With his Symphony No. 2 in E major, Enna engaged indirectly in this debate about his musical reputation by presenting a work in the most demanding and formal genre of orchestral music. His symphony is conservative for its time, as well as being extremely generous in its constant melodic flow, with an expanded orchestration which included, amongst other things, two harps.
The symphony begins with a slow, compelling introduction, from which the first movement’s optimistic main part breaks through in a dancing 6/8 time. The slow introductory material returns twice, first in the movement’s development and later in the fourth movement, where Enna creates symphonic coherence through the return of both this introduction and other themes from the foregoing movements. At the same time the symphony has an untroubled suite-like character, which creates a fine balance between the passion of the slow second movement and the third movement’s witty scherzo, switching between elegant counterpoint and a sensual waltz.
Enna’s symphony was first performed by the Danish Concert Society on 26 February 1908, led by the prominent composer and conductor Victor Bendix, and the work was well-received. The press noted that Enna’s mastery as an opera composer also benefited him as a symphonist: ‘He has, from his work in the theatre, a firm grasp of drawing out great lines, which symphonies, too, require, and an ability in making his music tangible, easily comprehensible and immediately effective in a way which can serve all kinds of monumental musical works well’, wrote one reviewer. The symphony only received a few further performances, and no more symphonies were to come from Enna’s hand; the nearest successor was his three-movement Symphonic Fantasy, composed late in his career, in 1931.
Joachim Gustafsson and the Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra during the recording of Enna's Symphony No. 2 © Kike Barona
The Danish state acknowledged Enna’s artistic calibre and supported him with an annual grant, the size of which was only exceeded by that awarded to his artistic antithesis, Carl Nielsen. Nevertheless, in his later years, Enna was a rather bitter man, not especially affluent, who felt himself sidelined as his works were increasingly criticised and gradually disappearing from the repertoire. ‘Time will tell. I will be dead before I’m acknowledged here in my country’, he said in one of his last interviews.
Time was short for Danish Romantic music: this did not just affect Enna, but many other Danish composers who were almost completely neglected for the rest of the 20th century. But since the beginning of the 21st century, more of Enna’s operas have been performed in Denmark and Germany, and the first biography about him was published in 2018. The reassessment of this natural Danish talent is under way, and in that context Enna’s orchestral music has an important role to play as we re-evaluate his legacy.