The saxophone and Oedipus, how George Enescu used the saxophone in his only opera, OEdipe

George Enescu

George Enescu (1881-1955) is one of Romania’s best known composer. Enescu was a musical prodigy, studying music in Vienna at the age of 7 before transferring to the Paris Conservatoire in 1895. At the Conservatoire, he studied composition under Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré. He remained active in Paris as a violinist and conductor of many major symphonies in Europe and the United States. In between his musical engagements, he worked on what is considered to be his masterpiece, the opera OEdipe.

In 1910 Enescu first had the idea to set the Greek myth of Oedipus to opera. He started composing the music in 1922 and completed the orchestration in 1931. In 1936, OEdipe premiered at the Paris Opéra. This opera is a mix of German Expressionism with some impressionistic textures, similar to other interwar operas like Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle or Berg’s Wozzeck. It’s highly chromatic to the point of atonality. OEdipe has taken off in the past few decades with new staging’s at major opera houses in Europe. I am going to highlight Opéra Bastille in Paris in their 2021 production of OEdipe, now available on MediciTV.

Enescu’s use of the saxophone is unique to this work, as the alto saxophone is used to highlight the major climax in the opera. Before that climax, in Act II, OEdipus visits the Oracle of Delphi and learns that he is destined to murder his father and marry his mother. The news troubles him so he tries to run away. The saxophone acts as a calling, pushing him to escape. The solo starts at 0:13 in the video below.

saxophone solo in Act II, OEdipe

Act III contains the story of Oedipus Rex. OEdipus is married to his mother, Jacosta, and has four children with her. He learns of the truth, that his wife is his biological mother, Jacosta kills herself and OEdipus blinds himself. In the video below, OEdipus, now newly blind confesses his crimes to the public. The saxophone solo starts at 1:05 in the video below.

saxophone solo in Act III

The rest of the saxophone solo can be found in the score to OEdipe. The saxophone solo in Act III is on pages 401-411. Enescu makes the choice to introduce the sound of the saxophone during this tense moment. The saxophone call in Act II only returns here after OEdipus fulfills his fate. These are the only times Enescu uses the saxophone in the opera. The uniqueness of adding the saxophone to this scene makes it one of the most dramatic moments in the opera.

This scene really is the highlight of the opera, as seen here in a Romanian production of OEdipe recorded in 1958 for Romanian State TV. The saxophone is easily heard in this production, 1:35 in the video below.

A review of a recording of the opera in 1991 in Musical America notes, “the appearance of the saxophone at certain points bespeaks the heritage of Massenet and Ravel,” [1] Now while Enescu studied under Massenet alongside Ravel at the Paris Conservatoire, his use of the saxophone is radically different from their writings. His compositional style is closer to German expressionist, more Strauss’s Elektra than Massenet’s Werther. This makes it stand out from his contemporaries in Paris.

This is Enescu’s only opera. This is also his only work for the saxophone. To watch this opera in its entirety, you can find it at MediciTV. It is streaming until 2026.

[1]Jellinek, G. (1991, 03). Enesco’s “oedipe”. Musical America, 111, 69. Retrieved from

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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