Erling Blöndal Bengtsson

Erling Blöndal Bengtsson


• 1932 2013


Cellist Erling Blöndal Bengtsson was born to a musical family. His father was a Danish violinist and his mother was an Icelandic pianist. His father started him on violin lessons when the boy was three. The youngster flatly refused to hold the violin in the traditional manner under the chin; instead he attempted to play it in an upright position, like a cello. The father fitted an end-piece to a viola so that it could be played like a cello, and started him on lessons with that instrument. Later an old violin maker friend of the family made the boy a genuine mini-cello, probably the smallest one ever built.

The boy made a public debut at the age of four and a half playing The Swan by Saint-Saëns. Within a year he had added some pieces by Popper, Nolck, and Beethoven to his repertoire. He was sent to Fritz Dietzmann for lessons, principal cellist in the Royal Danish Opera Orchestra. At the age of ten Bengtsson appeared as soloist with the Tivoli Symphony Orchestra. However, most musical opportunities, including the possibility of continuing his studies, were limited by the German occupation of 1940-1945. Only through phonograph records could he be exposed to music.

After the war, he began giving concerts in Iceland, his mother's native land, which he calls his "motherland." The island nation gave financial support for him to go to the United States for study. In 1948 he started attending the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He stayed there for two years, studying with the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and then becoming Piatigorsky's assistant.

In an article he recalled that from his very first meeting with Piatigorsky, the older man stated that "we are colleagues," and their study together was in the form of playing for each other and exchanging ideas. In 1950 Piatigorsky moved to California. Bengtsson accepted an offer to teach at the Curtis Institute, where he stayed for three yeas except for the summer of 1951, which he spent in very concentrated study while staying as a guest in Piatigorsky's home in Los Angeles. In 1953 he returned to Scandinavia where 1953 he became a faculty member of the Royal Danish Conservatory. He also spent twenty years as a teacher at the Music School of the Swedish Radio in Edburg Castle in Stockholm. He has been on faculty at the University of Michigan since 1988.

He is noted for his performances of William Walton's Cello Concerto, a work written for Piatigorsky. In teaching, he strived to give his gifted students the type of individual attention he received from Piatigorsky. He cautioned all music students not to rely on recordings of their own playing too much. "It is not enough afterwards to listen to what you have been doing. You must know it while you are actually playing," he said. He played a lovely French cello made by Nicholas Lupot in Paris in 1823, which was kept in top condition throughout its existence. He recorded the Bach Suites and all of Beethoven's cello works, and was regarded as the greatest Danish cellist. It was not unusual for Bengtsson to flawlessly perform the six Bach Suites, by memory, in a single evening.