Mihail Jora

His disciple’s memories and his own biography are unequivocal in their reflection of Mihail Jora’s artistic and human character. Together with George Enescu and Constantin Silvestri, he was first of all one of the most important figures in Romanian music in the first half of the 20th century, in fact one of the few about which can be said that they built, on a basis as solid as it was heterogenous, what is essentially modern Romanian music.

Born on August 2, 1891 in Roman, the brilliant composer and professor trained in Iaşi, in Leipzig (1912-14, under Max Reger among others) and Paris (1910-20, composition with Florent Schmidt).  Returning to Romania, he helped establish, in inter-war Bucharest, several of the city’s greatest musical institutions: the Royal Academy of Music (later the Ciprian Porumbescu Conservatory, today the National University of Music), the Romanian Radio and the Romanian Composers’ Society, whose founding member he was together with celebrated composers Alfred Alessandrescu, Dimitrie Cuclin, Ion Nonna Otescu, ethnomusicologist Constantin Brăiloiu, teacher and conductor Alfonso Castaldi. Time placed Jora among the timeless Romanian composers, a modern European recognized as such by music critics, whose music is increasingly spotlighted by many Romanian performers established abroad – conductors Cristian Măcelaru and Gabriel Bebeșelea, cellist Andrei Ioniță, soprano Angela Gheorghiu, pianists Luiza Borac, Florian Mitrea, violinists Vlad Stănculeasa and Remus Azoiței

Mihail Jora’s name remains forever tied to the first broadcast of the Romanian Radio on November 1, 1928. Thirty-nine at the time, already an established composer, pianist, music critic, and professor at the Royal Academy of Music and Drama in Bucharest, Jora is first appointed musical advisor then, effective January 1 of the following year, director of musical programs. Although his term wasn’t a long one, and was brutally terminated in 1933, it was decisive in shaping the musical profile of the Romanian Radio as we know it. Putting all his abilities to work, Jora designed quality musical programs, attractive and varied, also founding both the concert season of the Romanian Radio and the main tool that makes this season possible, the Radio Symphony Orchestra. Incidentally, that period of time was another instance testifying to Jora’s moral profile: although Romanian music was his priority, he rarely asked for his own compositions to be included in the programs, and he wouldn’t accept payment for his work as a conductor.

In 1931, Jora was appointed artistic advisor at the Romanian Opera, and ten years later he would become rector of the Bucharest Conservatory of Music. Keeping extremely busy as a conductor and pianist, he also became member of the Max-Reger-Institute in Bonn (1948) and of the Romanian Academy (1955), and was awarded the Herder Prize of the University of Vienna. As a composition and counterpoint teacher at the Bucharest Conservatory Jora trained several generations of musicians, with Paul Constantinescu, Pascal Bentoiu, Ion Dumitrescu, Octavian Nemescu among his most famous students.

Taking an interest in the choreographic art, Mihail Jora created the Romanian ballet, with folk-flavoured, when not borrowed directly the source, rhythmic patterns, local subjects, and traditional Romanian dance-inspired choreographies: La piaţă [At the Market], Demoazela Măriuţa [Miss Măriuţa], Curtea Veche [At the Old Royal Court], Când strugurii de coc [When the Grapes Ripen], Întoarcerea din adâncuri [Return from the Depth] and Hanul Dulcineea [Dulcineea Inn] were thus produced between 1928 and 1966.

An excellent lied composer, Jora wrote what he aptly called songs. On lyrics by George Bacovia, Lucian Blaga, Tudor Arghezi and Mariana Dumitrescu, they represent the perfect music-text fusion, with the words often set in the manner of the traditional Romanian vocal music (parlando-rubato and syllabic singing). As a symphonist, Jora advocated transparent, light, sophisticated textures infused with stylised folk music allusions. Just as fascinating is his chamber music, into whose balanced structure tempered lyricism, surprising harmonies and refined humour are laid. Throughout his oeuvre, Jora made the transition from a German-rooted late Romanticism to a tonal-modal, atonal-seasoned style, relying on quotations, allusions and stylistic parodies and, generally, on an ironic-playful attitude.

A classic of Romanian music, Mihail Jora remains one of the most influential composers and mentors of our cultural space in the 20th century as well as a man whose moral qualities turned him into nothing but a role model. Firm, rigorous, unyieldingly standing by his beliefs, it was this very integrity that made him dangerous for the Communist authorities, and their turbulent relationship is very well documented. Warm and welcoming with his friends, here is Jora as remembered by journalist Mircea Carp in his description of the Christmas eve that he spent in 1947 at his house:

“There were just a few of us, as always: the family, some close friends, and the children. In the living room there was a large Christmas tree decorated with baubles, garlands, candles, angels, candy, gilded nuts, fragrant dry fruits, ornaments that his wife Lily had either crafted herself or chosen with care and taste. The candles, which were made of wax back then, only waited to be lit. We gathered around the tree and our revered friend sat down at the piano to give the start for Christmas carols singing while Lily lit the candles. We first sang O Tannenbaum in German, respecting the tradition that King Carol I had brought to our country, then we sang the Romanian version, O, brad frumos. Afterwards it was O, ce veste minunată [O Wonderful Tidings], and then one carol after another followed, Mihai always on the piano. We next had the eagerly awaited moment of gift giving, larger presents for the little ones, smaller presents for the grown-ups. Each had been carefully chosen by the Joras for a particular recipient, each excited reactions of joy, each was, they all said, just what they wanted. Afterwards we went to the other room and to a nicely decorated, but not opulent, Christmas table. There were the hors d’oeuvres from Potsudeck [a famous charcuterie factory], the Moldavian-style sarmale [cabbage rolls stuffed with minced meat] and, for dessert, the cake that Ileana, the Jora’s faithful and skilled cook, had created for the occasion. Neither was the good wine, to complement the good food, lacking, and we raised our first glass to His Majesty King Michael. We then went back to the living room for some coffee, cognac or a home-made vișinată [sour cherry liqueur] and talked. It was the usual small talk at first, then we arrived at the situation in the country, we were increasingly worried, what with many things happening in a short time”.

Mihail Jora lived for over forty years at 16 Silvestru Street. In his will, he expressed his wish that the place and all that it contained – furniture, paintings, personal items and books, become the Mihail and Elena Jora House. Five decades after his death on May 10, 1971, this wish has still not been fulfilled.

Ioana Marghita