Interview with Ioana Bentoiu, daughter of composer Pascal Bentoiu

Father spent his childhood in his father’s house at 2 Intrarea Amzei, which still stands. They lived there until 1949, when my grandfather was arrested and they were thrown out one night. Father was very young then. He told us many, many things about that house, how he was finally able to get it back after years of lawsuits, how he sold it right away, how he never wanted to see it again. I did go once to see it. It had been turned into a communal apartment, it was dilapidated after it had been inhabited for years by a number tenants, among them a lady, on the ground floor, who had some twenty-five cats… you can imagine what it looked like. Seeing it would have meant, for Father, the destruction of cherished memories, but for me it was different, I wanted that house to continue to exist in my mind. It was the house where Father began his musical journey, playing the violin, the piano, as a student of composition at the Conservatory, taking painting lessons (he began painting when he was 14 or 15). He went to Sfântul Sava College, then to the Bucharest Law School, but after three years he was expelled… so that was the house that shaped him.

So what did you think about the house when you went to see it?

I walked around for exactly fifteen minutes. There was no electricity, as it was during the time when it was up for sale. I just wandered along the corridors, I went into the rooms, I saw the very beautiful old stoves, which here [abroad] would sell for a fortune and which back in Romania are savagely destroyed, they were undoubtedly there since Grandfather’s time. The house was of course now empty, whereas when they got thrown out, they had to leave all the furniture behind, and part of it went to friends, acquaintances or relatives. Father went to live with an aunt on Dimitrov Street, formerly (and currently) Ferdinand, he had a room in a communal apartment together with my mother, whom he married around that time. And it was there that I was born.

He often told me about his friends on Intrarea Amzei. As it was a intrare [blind alley] and therefore a safe spot, they would play football there, everybody was friends with everybody. Grandfather’s office – he was a lawyer – was on the ground floor. The children, that is, Father and his sister, writer Marta Cozmin, lived on the upper floor. The second floor was occupied by his father and his father’s first wife (the children’s mother) and then, after he divorced, by his second wife.

When was the house sold and when did you visit it?

I visited it sometime in 2005 just before it was sold, which happened in 2006 or 2007. Father lived on Dimitrov Street for two or three years, in very cramped conditions. The house had belonged to Father’s aunt, but they had been forced to accept foreign people to live with them, so almost every room was occupied, and my parents were only allowed to keep one room for themselves. Father had to work, but he couldn’t concentrate, and at one point he managed, courtesy of the Composers’ Union, to get two rooms, in another communal apartment, in a villa at 6 Iulius Fucik (now Masaryk) Street. I don’t know whose it had been, but it was very beautiful, with superb, some four-meter-tall, cathedral-like rooms. But they were connecting rooms only divided by French doors, and there were four families using one bathroom and one kitchen… Still, it was more spacious and beautiful than the tiny room on Dimitrov Street. We lived there until 1972, when I turned 16.

When we moved there, we lived on the first floor. The artists’ cafeteria on the ground floor was later turned into an engraving studio of the Fondul Plastic [The Artistic Fund], and I still remember the nice ladies working there, I would visit them and watch them at work. But we had to leave again, after we had managed to adapt to the conditions there (we did have a beautiful terrace, though). We had to move very soon, most likely because some heavyweight wanted the house for himself. All four families had to relocate. They asked us what kind of housing we would like – quite an unexpected luxury! We wanted a place of our own, and they found a cosy 4-room flat on 36 Maria Rosetti Street. It still stands, in a round apartment building that connects the streets Logofăt Luca Stroici and Armenească. The 1977 earthquake caught us there.

Let’s go back a little to the house on Masaryk Street. You lived in that apartment – how to you remember it? 

I’m very fond of it, I even set a picture of the house as background on my tablet. I took that picture myself. You can see the window of my room and the windowpane where I used to sit and read, one Balzac novel after another. It was a splendid house. Had it belonged only to a well-to-do family, it would have been a wonderful building. But as I said I never knew whose it was, I would have liked to, and I still don’t know – neither do I know who lives there now, if it went back to its owners or not… The entrance was through some kind of passageway, there are two absolutely superb houses facing each other. Ours was redone and is currently in better condition than the other one.

And how did the house look when you were living there?

It was still OK, because houses in Bucharest in general were in better conditions then than afterwards, it was just after they had been requisitioned by the state. The entrance was through a monumental, very beautiful wooden flight of stairs which led to the first floor, where we occupied the first rooms. But there were French doors, and there was no noise insulation, although we had hung carpets to visually divide the space. We tried to live as normal a life as possible. If they made a film, as those on communal apartment that they did in Russia, what a film it would be!

Father worked at the piano in the back room. It was the room where I slept, but from at 9 o’clock in the morning it became his study. Mother worked at her typewriter in the front room, translating, writing. As for myself, when I fell in love with opera, I listened to it loudly on the radio in the first room. Everybody was in their own world, inhabiting their own bubble. I simply don’t know how we managed! And we got along very well too, my parents never told me to turn the music down or turn the radio off. They let me do what I wanted and each of us would focus on their work in their space. It was quite an exceptional experience.

Thinking about the sonic aspect of a musician’s work, did your neighbours ever complain about this?

Of course they did! But eventually we got along. At the beginning there was Mr Simionescu, whose daughter Mirela, a year younger than me, was a violist in the Philharmonic Orchestra. We used to make music together. Mr Simionescu, who in fact worked for the Composers’ Union, was very understanding. Afterwards came a chef who owned a small restaurant by proxy. But workers of this kind were at one point thrown out. We lived this communist experience for several years.

And then you moved on Maria Rosetti Street.

Yes, in a 4-room flat. One room was Father’s office, one was mine, one was my parents’, and in the middle there was a living room. Mother loved that apartment, she thought it was beautiful. It was in an old beautiful building too. Other buildings of the same age fell down in the 1977 earthquake, I think ours narrowly missed it. We left it the evening of the earthquake, and I never returned there.

The flat was beautiful, yes, but I found it less interesting than the one on Iulius Fucikc Street, because it was smaller. Mother as I said was ecstatic now that she had her own bathroom and kitchen. As for Father, all he ever did was work, whether we lived on Dimitrov Street, on Iulius Fucik Street, on Maria Rosetti Street, he just wrote and wrote and wrote. In all these apartments they both created their aural universe and their inner worlds, working from dawn till dusk. Father never went “to work”, in an office, that is, he always worked at home.

And how about the flat on Maria Rosetti Street, what do you recall about that one?

I liked it because it was close to my school, it was a 10-minute walk to Spiru Haret College. Later, when I entered the Conservatory, I had to practice my singing at home, and a neighbour from the apartment downstairs would bang on the cast iron heater to ask for silence. And even then, Father would coolly continue to write in his room.

It was an open house and many friends came to visit, especially as we were located downtown. Back then you could ring the doorbell at 9 o’clock in the morning and say “Shall I stay for a cup of coffee?”, it was so agreeable, they just don’t do this anymore, and it’s sad.

And as bad luck would have it, this very apartment, so beautiful with its balcony looking on Popa Chițu Church, left a bad taste in my mouth. We were there on the evening of the 1977 earthquake, all three of us. We were watching Norma with a divine Montserrat Caballé, it was broadcast from the Chorégies d’Orange Festival. It was an open-air performance, I remember veils fluttering, all was bouncing, and at one point I looked up and saw that our lamp was bouncing too! “There’s something funny going on here”, I said to myself, and then the lights went off. It was 9:30 in the evening, I could have been in bed – it’s a good thing I wasn’t, because a wall fell down over my bed. When we left there the building was in a sorry state, and I think it still is. The architect in charge with the renovation, who had started off with a pretty good budget, was desperate when his funds were heavily cut, and he told Father – they were childhood friends – that he should move.

And you did?

We did. Father, who had some money, bought a small flat in the Drumul Taberei neighbourhood – we used to say, jokingly, that we lived there “where Bucharest ends and Romania begins”, because we were more or less in the middle of a field. An entire city has grown later in the direction of the commune of Domnești, but back then that was where Bucharest ended. It was horrible, there were no green spaces, just new ugly apartment buildings. They look sinister, even in the pictures. Now it’s really nice, there’s plenty of greenery.

As for the apartment, which I still own, there was, again, no proper sound insulation, and the four rooms were small too. It wasn’t the ideal place to work, but Father did it anyway, and so did Mother, they would just retire to their rooms and work. They managed to turn it into a lovely living space. I was there for just four years, because I left the county in 1981, but my parents lived there until they died, Mother in 2015 and Father in 2016.

And how did maestro Bentoiu write his music, did he have a work routine?

Indeed, he did. He had an extraordinary ability to concentrate. He worked nonstop from 9 o’clock in the morning until around 1, 1:30 in the afternoon, when he had lunch. Then he would again work, from 5 to 9 o’clock in the evening. And he did this all his life. When he was younger, he relied heavily on the piano, but when we moved in the house on Aleea Pârva, what with the increasing number of books and various objects and the space being ever more cramped, that piano ended up as a sort of storage place, Father wouldn’t even open it any more, it was covered in books, objects… And so he worked at the table in the living room or simply wrote on his knees, he had a hardcover folder with blank music sheets. This is how he wrote the last symphonies. He checked nothing on the piano, he did it all in his head.

What kind of music did you and your family listen to?

Classical. Jazz. Father loved jazz. French chansons – Brassens, Brel, Trenet. I listened to Italian music – Remo Germani and Claudio Villa and stuff. Opera, too, but that was me, not Father. My first musical memories at home are Stockhausen and Boulez rather than Mozart and Beethoven – I only discovered these composers later, Father was in his contemporary music phase at the time. Which may have helped in my career, in the sense that I had no difficulty in singing contemporary music myself afterwards.

We listened to the radio, too, or to some tapes which I really don’t know how they, or anybody for that matter, got their hands on. We would play them on an old Tesla. Then we had cassette players. But having records to listen to was in itself quite extraordinary, you just couldn’t find any to buy, and when you did, at Muzica, the only music store in Bucharest, it was something rather rudimentary. So each time somebody went abroad they would bring back a Supraphon or Deutsche Grammophon record. Listening to music at home was really complicated – we did go to concerts, of course. Anyway, in our house there was always something playing. Our New Year’s Eve parties ended at 6 o’clock in the morning with music listening. And we listened to all sorts of music – even to pop music, even to The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Bee Gees, I would listen to all that as a teenager. Not to ABBA though, I thought them inferior to the others.

It was just you, then, who listened to pop music?

No, no, Father would too! He liked The Beatles a lot. When I would organise some tea party – you know the sort, people gathering at a friend’s or other’s place and dancing to the music of an ad-hoc DJ – Father danced countless times on perfectly modern music. It was quite a funny sight! But we also had records of the greatest American jazz musicians. Father was an expert, he even wrote jazz music. It’s a piece that started out as incidental music for a Cluj production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream directed by Vlad Mugur, Father’s childhood friend and classmate. That play was very modern, the actors wore blue jeans. It was a big hit, they toured Italy with it, a blue jeans Shakespeare was something of a state-of-the art in the 1970s! Ah yes, Father was also close friends with jazzman Johnny Răducanu.

So the family wasn’t really into opera?

No, not really, not until Father relented – and I say “relented” because he had a personal issue with opera music. Grandfather’s second wife, Lucreția Enescu – no relation to the composer – had been an opera singer. She actually had a beautiful voice, I heard her on records, but Father just hated her. She would sing at the top of her lungs Madama Butterfly or whatnot, at home, and Father simply refused to listen to any more opera. After a while he got over it, but only, at first, because I nagged him. I was very thorough. Whenever I liked a particular singer, I would listen to all their recordings. If I got into Wagner or Puccini, I listened to all the Wagner and the Puccini I could get my hands on. And just as there was no arguing with my parents, there was no arguing with me on that, that’s how resolute I was.

Speaking about your musical education – when you practiced your singing at home, did maestro Bentoiu guide you in any way?

Indeed he did, I worked very closely with him. When, at the age of thirteen, I declared that I wanted to be an opera singer, he reacted badly at first. He stayed mad for about three years. I didn’t learn music, as Father wanted his piano for himself, and he thought it was just a phase. But I was already fascinated with the libretti he had written for his three operas, Amorul doctor [Dr Cupid], Jertfirea Ifigeniei [The Sacrifice of Iphigenia] and Hamlet, I would walk around the house reciting them before the music had even been written. Then I would listen to the recordings, over and over again. Father finally realised that I was about to finish college and enter the Conservatory and I didn’t know the first thing about reading music! He made a volte-face then, he sent me to singing classes, he taught me solfeggio, harmony and ear training himself, he had me copy notes so that I would have a neat writing, we analysed scores, went to concerts together, and so on and so forth. It was wonderful. But you mustn’t think that he went easy on me. He gave me daily lessons and made me work very hard. So hard, in fact, that after a year and a half I was able to sing Webern at first sight using the tuning fork as a reference – and I had begun from nothing at all (except having an ear for music, otherwise I couldn’t have done it). Father invented teaching methods just for me, very amusing, very modern ones, which he applied with unmovable exactness. Our lessons were fiery indeed – with screams, with slammed doors, with laughter too… I would go to him for my daily lesson and he would stop everything he was doing and teach me. Later I realised how astounding that readiness was, because I was in fact interrupting him from his work. But he would simply switch from working to me, give all his attention to me, and then just go back to his work. He helped more than I can say – I got the highest mark on both the admission and the graduation exam.

So I trained with Father a year and a half before the exam and a year after. Then he let me find my own path. I still asked for his advice, I would go to him with my pianist when preparing for a recital, I would sing for him and he would make comments, I would take notes and do what he said. He was great, he knew extraordinarily well how to work with musicians. And he would of course come to listen me sing.

You mentioned earlier people dropping by – were they musicians?

We had all kinds of people visiting, and many celebrities – I intend to write a book about this. One of my parents’ best friends was Alexandru George, a great writer, literary critic, and political commentator. Father’s sister, Marta Cozmin, was married to one of Father’s close friends, Alexandru Miran, who translated from Ancient Greek and was also a very good poet. We had doctors, we had musicians coming by – violinists Varujan Cozighian, Ștefan Gheorghiu, his brother Valentin, the pianist, then Father’s students (private students, he never taught at the Conservatory). Colleagues of mine came to visit too, and I even went once with one of my own students, she spoke Romanian very well – I had taught her that too –, and Father would listen to music for hours with her.

I don’t know how it happened, but all our friends loved music. I don’t think they could have been our friends if they didn’t, it just wouldn’t have worked. You know how people who loved music were back then – I think such people no longer exist, not Romania, not anywhere, you just go to work, on Sundays you walk your dog, perhaps, or see your family, it’s a horrible, fragmented life… But back then, painters, architects, doctors, writers, actors, they all loved music and wanted to share this love.

Speaking of actors, Father was close friends with Silvia Popovici, with Ion Caramitru, and he also wrote the incidental music for some thirty plays directed by Vlad Mugur, by Lucian Giurchescu, by Dinu Cernescu… Another of his good friends was George Teodorescu, who was also an opera director. We even had people from abroad coming to visit! So Mother would cook dinner and after dinner we would talk and listen to music, it was quite cosy. And, as a matter of fact, there was nothing else to do – except for the TV series on Saturday evenings or the film they showed on Wednesdays, there was nothing to watch on TV. We weren’t the sporting type, we didn’t ski, we didn’t go to the pool, and so we talked, we read, we exchanged ideas.

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