Pre-war Bucharest and Its Noises


When dealing with the soundscape of Bucharest, it should be remembered that both before 1940 and after 1948, the city was growing and changing very quickly. In the 1930s, a couple of skyscrapers became a symbol, and these changes often amazed the inhabitants themselves. Many inhabitants had recently relocated to Bucharest, arriving from the countryside and creating semi-urbanized environments. A city that at the turn of the twentieth century was approaching 300,000 inhabitants was home to 639,000 people by 1930 (exceeding one million in 1948 and reaching 1.2 million in 1956). 


Among the various images of Bucharest recorded in interwar sources, two basic, diametrically contradictory but complementary, images can be found. On the one hand, Bucharest was the “city of the future” – i.e., a metropolis undergoing rapid changes, growing unrestrainedly and gazing at new things, a noisy and nerve-wracking but inspiring place, a capital of seekers of happiness and adventure, an open and absorbent city. On the other hand, it was a “city of the past,” patriarchal, unmodern, a city where interpersonal relations were close, a sincere and true city. The city of the future could be associated with aggressive American culture but also with optimism, youth, and abundance. The city of the past was an image of the permanence of local culture, the antithesis of shallow social relations in metropolises, a place imbued with religious spirituality, the importance of which was emphasized in nationalist political messages. But the city of the past also appeared as an “oriental” place, a “marketplace” not suited to the challenges of the twentieth century.[5] It was a space threatened by modernization, devoured by the city of the future. The city’s pulsation and changeability evoked delight or lamentations over car noise, mechanization, jazz, and neuroses, while its invariability – associated mainly with vast suburbs (mahalale) – was associated with the sounds of animals, the marketplace, noisy calls, and inn music (Brzostek 2015: 192-200). In the novel Oraş patriarhal (A patriarchal city, 1932), Cesar Petrescu portrayed a town to which the protagonist departs to from the capital, where the rhythm of life is determined by telephones, dances, and parties – movement, noise, and living in the moment as opposed to stillness, silence, and eternity – exposing through his writing a tension especially strong in a country that was poorly urbanized, peasant, and whose capital seemed to break with the social background or “the spirit of the nation” (Brzostek 2015: 147-159).


“A Negro voice howls from the gramophone, somewhere far away. And yet it annoys me. I would like to be in a village where there would be no sound of gramophone, no radio, no regular tram noise, no guttural car horns ... which annoy me, annoy me, annoy me,” 18-year-old Jeni Acterian noted in her diary in the summer of 1934 (Acterian 2008: 71-72). In the interwar narratives (reportage, press columns, private journals, or fiction), the contrast of urban landscapes was accompanied by the contrast of sound images, set in opposition between natural/civilization, manual/mechanical, and organic/artificial. These oppositions were part of the pan-European tensions between modernism and traditionalism (or “autochthonism”). Romania occupied a special place here because of the enormous strength of tensions between these elements, expressed in political struggle and cultural life (Laignel-Lavastine 2002). Bucharest seemed to focus on these problems, and its daily press was full of criticism of phenomena perceived by the elite as reflecting a lack of urbanity, such as the loud calls of itinerant traders or the sounds of street music. On the other hand, in the accounts of visitors from the West, it is precisely these phenomena that embodied Romania’s charm, at least in the ears of visitors full of nostalgia and skeptical of modernity.


English writer and literary critic Sacheverell Sitwell was one of those newcomers in the 1930s seduced by rustic and folk Romania – so different from the everyday life in most Western countries – and especially its music, with which he fell deeply in love (Sitwell 2011: 21). He paid attention to festive and wedding customs, orthodox church singing, and orchestras in the restaurant gardens of Bucharest. He considered dinner with music the ultimate pleasure of this city. American orchestras in expensive restaurants, he wrote, are as good as those in Paris and London and are playing the latest hits. Viennese music is also played. Romanian songs, on the other hand, are the most enjoyable, as it is the music of the city taverns and gardens, not influenced by American patterns. He claimed that after spending a few days in this city, it was the music that conquered the visitor’s subconscious, becoming an element of nostalgia due to its sentimental character, associated with a hot summer’s night (Sitwell 2011: 135-142).


It seems that there was a certain symmetry between the “internal” (native) and “external” (foreign) testimonies. Features of the Romanian soundscape, which were often criticized (as backwardness) in native testimonies, were in the eyes of newcomers the most attractive (as being authentic). It was the building material for generic, superficial stories about the reality of the country of the kind created by the Polish writer Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna, who presented Romania in 1937 as a country of “musically tuned” people, created for a light and pleasant life (Iłłakowiczówna 1997: 102). From this perspective, the “Europeanization” of Bucharest (another important word in the dictionary of local elites) and especially its “Americanization” appeared in opposition to its rustic heritage and threatened its identity. The noise of cars, advertising, and jazz drowned out the melancholic, soft sounds of the old city.


In this interpretation of sounds, the key factor seems to be a sense of profound change, evoking fears or hopes, as reflected in the city soundscape. This shift is gradual (like Americanization) or brutal. As in most European countries, World War II invalidated the previous reactions and descriptions of Romanian reality, and although Romania was not one of the most heavily devastated countries, the sounds of the bombings of Bucharest (both Allied and German in 1944) became a record of social trauma. However, shortly after the end of the war, the violent process of “Sovietization” began, which shattered the existing social elite. The record of these experiences can be imagined as a seismogram (which seems appropriate in the case of earthquake-hit Bucharest), a graph representing economic shocks, social stress, panic, and sounds.