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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the December 6,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Romania’s Music Legacy
With the sure swiftness of an artist sketching a
landscape, Carmen Mateiescu pencils in the outlines of roughly 15
centuries of Romanian art music. An ethnomusicologist, she lists three
main sources for the music of her country — folklore, Byzantine
chant, and Western music.
Selecting from diverse Romanian musical roots, Mateiescu has organized
a concert for voice, violin, and piano to take place Saturday,
9, in Bristol Chapel on the campus of Westminster Choir College.
include sopranos Aurora Micu-Penna and Maria Tegzes; pianists Rebecca
Bruccoleri, Geoffrey Burleson, J.J. Penna, and Elena Panova; and
Milena Dawidowicz. The concert concludes with traditional Romanian
Christmas carols. A reception follows the music.
Mateiescu is head of the theory and music history department at the
Westminster Conservatory. She is also a lecturer at Rutgers’ Mason
Gross School of the Arts. We meet in her office on the Douglass
campus. She is slender, with shoulder-length dark hair and a sunny
presence. She stresses the richness of the Romanian musical heritage
and its ancient roots.
That a distinctive Romanian style survives is remarkable. Romanian
history for the last two millennia has been an uneven playing field.
The terrain has seen a parade of invaders with a taste for oppression
— Romans, Mongols, Turks, Germans, and Russians — march in
and supplant the domestically generated chaos.
The oldest layer of Romanian music was laid down in rural villages,
where the Celts left their legacy as they passed from east to west
in the early Middle Ages, says Mateiescu. She quotes an American
"Romania is a dinosaur in terms of traditional culture in
For an ethnomusicologist, that’s a bonanza.
The preserved village traditions originate with events in the agrarian
calendar, such as the first day of sowing, plowing, or gathering
and the winter solstice; or events in the life cycle, such as weddings
or funerals. Each village, she says, has its own array of dance and
song for particular occasions.
Despite Communist efforts to overturn tradition during a half century
of hegemony, its impact on traditional music was limited. The atheist
regime took no initiatives to work within the tradition. On the
old usages were frozen, in a manner that Rip van Winkle would have
recognized. "When I was a student the prohibition against
carols had recently been lifted," Mateiescu says. "Normally,
young unmarried men would form bands of carolers. When I went to
to collect carols, we saw groups of men around age 45 caroling. It
was the last generation that had been permitted to do so."
Where farms were collectivized, Romanian communist
wiped out long-established folk customs; traditions continued in
regions. "The peasants forced to give up their lands to collective
farms were not allowed to celebrate religious holidays," Mateiescu
says. "That altered traditions. In areas where collectivization
was not possible, the hilly regions around the Carpathians, traditions
could be preserved."
Ironically, the Communists unwittingly buttressed traditional village
musical arts by staging competitive festivals, and turning to
to help. While the Communists saw the contests as a way to undermine
old habits, ethnomusicologists used them as a means of rescuing them.
"There were competitions for singing, instrumental performance,
and dance," Mateiescu says. "The ethnomusicologists persuaded
the contestants to preserve and include tradition; they made up the
juries who awarded prizes. It was satisfying to see that young girls
would go to their home village and ask old women for songs to
"Changes under capitalism in the last 10 years had a greater
on music than the Communist changes," says Mateiescu. "I have
seen in three years the change from a conservative, traditional
with a strong musical tradition to one where you find Coca Cola and
bingo. Today kids who live in towns include rock-and-roll when they
return to their home village to be married. An important event on
a holy day that used to last from the afternoon on is now relegated
to the evening. These are steps to dissolution, say the musicologists.
But there’s such a wealth of folk material that even though it’s
out, there’s plenty left for researchers and enthusiasts."
For the second source of Romanian art music, Byzantine chant, ample
material of high quality is also available, according to Mateiescu.
"Ritual songs are preserved better in Romania than in other
she says. "People don’t change their rituals. In Bucharest
the music is as close to authentic Byzantine music as you can
The third stream from which Romanian art music developed, Western
European musical traditions, is its most recent source. A conservatory
and symphony orchestra in the Romanian capital Bucharest came soon
after Romania’s independence from Turkey in 1881. Probably the
representative of the western stream in Romania is composer George
Enescu, who lived from 1881 to 1955, and included traditional Romanian
elements in his works.
Regardless of genesis, a tell-tale profile infuses Romanian music,
Mateiescu says. She labels it heart-warming, exciting, rhythmic, and
vibrant, with much dance melody. Romanian song, she says, "is
a very personal expression, at ease, deep, and emotional." The
rhythmic subdivisions of Romanian music, she says, are often five
or seven, rather than the familiar two or three familiar in the West;
these unfamiliar metric foundations furnish, for western ears, an
exotic tension. (The hypnotic appeal of Dave Brubeck’s "Take
is tied to its meter of five beats.) Romanian musical scales, rather
than having the seven steps common in the West, may consist of three
to six pitches.
Mateiescu, who came to the United States in 1986, found a detectable
Romanian presence in New Jersey. The first Romanians, she says, came
to Trenton in the early 1800s, and worked for Roebling. They
three churches in Trenton, and their descendants are among present-day
congregants. Since the fall of Communism in 1989, the Romanian
in the Princeton area has increased with the emigration of
artists, musicians, architects, and engineers. Westminster
counts five Romanian musicians among its faculty.
Born in Bucharest, Mateiescu, 47, talks proudly of its civic
The river port, which established a flourishing trade in the 15th
century, became a refuge for intellectuals, politicians, and religious
people from all over Balkans. By the early 1600s it was a publishing
center. Today, with about 2 million people, Bucharest is almost 10
times as large as the second largest Romanian city.
Mateiescu’s earliest musical experience was the singing of her mother,
a Romanian language teacher, who had studied music. She stayed home
to bring up her two children, and included an encyclopedic range of
children’s songs in her child-rearing. Mateiescu’s father was an
Music was part of the family life. There were classical music programs
on radio. Mateiescu’s brother, now a systems engineer in Bucharest,
studied violin. She studied piano. Recitals punctuated their
After attending a special high school devoted to music,
she went on to study composition, theory, and piano at Romania’s major
national conservatory in Bucharest, graduating in 1976. Her piano
teachers were all students of Florica Musicescu, the teacher of Dinu
Lipatti, whose untimely death was greatly mourned in the West. He
had mastered the ideals of piano playing that Mateiescu’s teachers
tried to impart. "They had a great concern with tone quality,
relaxed playing, and the most appropriate sound for each piece,"
she says. "They cared about beauty of sound, and a round tone.
They paid attention to both the detail and the broad outline of a
From 1981 to ’84 Mateiescu followed in the footsteps of Bela Bartok,
visiting villages to collect folk music. In 1986 she came to the U.S.
with her husband, Cezar, a builder of lutes and guitars.
Mateiescu remembers that two main surprises marked her arrival here.
Having been trained in British English, American speech sounded
to her. The second problem delayed her doctoral work. "I learned
that I had to have a Ph.D. to teach in an American university,"
she says. "But I didn’t know about American flexibility, and I
didn’t know I could attend part time."
She started at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School in 1990. "It was a
tough time," she says. "Besides my graduate work I had two
children and 50 music students." Mateiescu’s sons, Constantin
Nicoara, 15, and Matthew Pavel, 13, live with her and her husband
in West Windsor.
For her doctoral dissertation in 1997, Mateiescu she wrote an opera
and a theoretical essay based on the traditional Romanian tale,
Without Age and Life Without Death."
Her most consuming hobby at the moment is distinctly at odds with
her growing up in a Russian satellite nation. "I do a lot of
in Eastern Orthodox spirituality," she says. "I was raised
as an atheist, but I started to turn to religion after my mother’s
death, when I was 25. Western Christianity is sort of diluted and
washed out. It has lost its mysticism, deepness, true relation to
God, and connection to other religious traditions of world."
Her favorite author is St. Maximus the Confessor, the seventh-century
monk. She selects an extended passage from his "One Hundred
on Love," to epitomize his ideas. "Love for God is the main
commandment because from it stem all desirable inclinations of the
soul: peacefulness, confidence, self-control, patience, and tolerance
for the others’ passions… The one who loves God cannot help but
love also every man as himself even though he is displeased by the
passions of those who are not yet purified."
"I’m not yet very advanced," Mateiescu says. "I’m trying
to find time and peace of mind to meditate. With prayer, meditation,
and a purified life you can get into a state where you are in touch
with God’s energies. You have to persevere; it takes discipline. It
takes a whole life. I try to treat everyone with patience. My students
benefit." And so does a journalist who comes into her serenely
— Elaine Strauss
Chapel, 609-219-2001. Faculty recital arranged by Carmen Mateiescu,
$7. Saturday, December 9, 8 p.m.
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