|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
MISCHAKOFF had joined his brothers in the United States. I wanted to go with him, but Mr. Held thought I needed more study, urging that after the season ended I go to Berlin. He offered to pay all expenses and put no time limit on my studies.
I spent the day of departure from Warsaw with my colleagues from the Philharmonic. We drank and made speeches and drank again until time to go to the station. There we tried again to be gay, but the effort, spurred by alcohol, evaporated prematurely. The jokes sounded senseless and forced as we waited for the train that would take me to Berlin.
In Berlin I was met by Alexdander Zakin, a fine pianist and a nephew of the conductor Fitelberg, and another man who was to act in the Helds' behalf. He had a furnished room for me and had made arrangements with a teacher of German. Mr. Held's oroders, he said, were to give me all I needed. At nineteen it was my first opportunity to sudy without worrying about money.
The name of my teacher of German was Herr Bruchenweiser. He had enormous feet, a square neck, and black teeth. He smelled of sauerkraut and beer. He taught me to pronounce words in true Berlin fashion. He made me look deep into his throat and repeat, "Ooobaahhrr-Beeeaaahhrr," words that meant "Waiter, beer." I practived them on a waiter in a restaurant, but he did not know what I meant.
Without an introduction or making an appointment, I went to the Hochschule to see the eminent cello professor Hugo Becker. When I entered his large classroom, filled with students, Professor Becker stood up. Impeccably dressed, gray-haired, tall, and straight, he was a remarkable-looking man. He asked what I wanted. I said in Russian, "To have lessons." One of the strudents interpreted for me.
"It's too late in the term to enter the Hochschule."
"Then why did you come here?"
"I wanted to speak to you."
Everyone laughed. "The professor said it's a strange idea for someone who can't speak."
"I want lessons."
"The professor asked if you would play something now."
"I will play Improvisations by Goedicke."
"What animal is that? Can't you play something civilized?"
"Goedicke is a great msician," I said.
"The professor wants you to play the Boccherini Concerto."
One of the students lent me a cello and Becker went to the piano. After a few bars he interrupted me and spoke to the students with a serious face, but he must have said something funny, because there was laughter again.
"The professor wnats you to the play the Schumann Concerto."
Again I was interrupted by more laughter. I continued to play bits of many other pieces until I could not stand the merriment, and stopped. "Please ask the professor, will he teach me or not?" I said, irritated.
The next week I had my first lessor. Becker was the first and only teacher I had to pay for lessons. He charged a great deal, but the student could choose the length of the lesson-an hour or a half hour. I wanted to go easy on Mr. Held's purse and chose the half-hour one.
A servant led me to the study of the professor's luxurious home. Becker and Ochi Albi, the student who had previously translated for us, were waiting for me.
"The professor wants you to forget you ever played cello before."
"You must start from the very beginning."
"Your right arm is your tongue; your left, your thoughts."
"You have no thoughts whatsoever. Even if you have, you must learn to speak first."
Professor Becker showed me how to hold the bow. He seemed pleased. He let me strike an open string. "Professor is encouraged," said Ochi Albi. "He thinks you are gifted." Becker glanced at his watch. He stood up. The lesson was over.
Ochi Albi accompanied me home. He spoke with great admiration of his teacher. "It took the professor more than twenty years to solve the problems of the right arm," he said. "His method is perfect. He is a great man-a scientist and a true artist. I have been with him only two years, but my right arm is improving already."
My German progressed very slowly and my practicing of holding the bow was boring. My second, third, and fourth lessons were quite uneventful except at the end, when I would make a bow and say, "Gott sei Dank." Each time it seemed to throw him into a rage. What did I do wrong? I wondered, wishing that Ochi Albi had been present.
At the fifth lesson the professor was unusually friendly and I was glad to see Ochi Albi again. He told me how highly the professor thought of me and how rapid my progress was. "You learned to hold the bow in four lessons. Some can't master it in years. Your bow arm is in almost perfect position on all four strings. The professor has decided to make a great exception and begin to work with you right now on the finest music for our instrument."
Becker spoke again and Ochi Albi translated. "The situation is now drastically changed. You are not a pupil any more. You are ready to work on great music and therefore you and I are equals."
"We have to be frank, and I expect you to express your opinions freely." He took his cello and said, "I will play the beginning of the Dvorak Concerto-only the beginning. After I have played, you will do the same. Then we will discuss the merit of each performance."
He began. I saw a gust of resin fly, rise and fall in all directions. Ripping off the hair, his bow knocked on the sides of his cello. The stick hit the strings. After some noisy thumping on the fingerboard with his left hand, he stopped. I did not dare look at him. He asked something. His voice sounded happy. I looked at his face and saw that he was happy.
"Herr Professor asked how you liked it," said Ochi Albi.
"It was terrible," I said. Ochi Albi was silent.
"What? What?" Becker asked.
Ochi Albi pleaded, "The professor wants to know. What shall I tell him?"
I hesitated. "Tell him it was just fine." I don't know what Ochi Albi told him. Becker's face was red. He looked at his watch and said the lesson was over. I bowed and said,"Gott sei Dank."
"Heraus!" Becker screamed. "Out of here, you conceited, ignorant mujik!"
On the street a few minutes later, Ochi Albi reproached me. "You shouldn't have said, 'Gott sei Dank.' It means 'Thank God.'"
I regretted our misunderstanding and , disillusioned with the lessons so grotesquely interrupted, I seriously considered returning to Moscow.
I went to Leipzig instead. Professor Klengel's students carried his fame throughout the world. I was impressed to be in the city where Bach and Mendelssohn had lived and where the Gewandhaus stood.
Julius Klengel was short and old. His beard was stained around his mouth from smoking cigars. He smoked one when I met him. His eyes laughed. He did not ask what I would like to play; he just went to the piano and began the Haydn Concerto. We went through the entire work and he was pleased to hear me play his cadenzas. Klengel seemed to be able to guess all I was trying to say, and the remarkable thing was that suddenly I could understand German.
I moved into the Hartung boardinghouse, where many of Klengel's students stayed. It was inexpensive and the landlady, Frau Hartung, didn't mind our practicing at all hours of the day. Even those students who lived elsewhere came often to Hartung's. They did so on the advice of Klengel, who wants us to learn from each other. His system was simple. He would remark, "Schneider's vibrato is marvelous." Everyone would come to "spy" on Schneider's vibrato. To Schneider he would say, "Auber's trill is the best." It worked. The students, though jealous, learned from each other and made progress. I marveled at Klengel's art of teaching by really not teaching. At lessons one seldom heard suggestions or discourses on music from him. He let a student play a piece to the end and said, "Fine" or in a severe case, "Watch your left arm, young man."
On holidays the boardinghouse was filled with cellists, and for those not acquainted with the habits and jargon of our clan such gatherings must have been puzzling. Everyone had to respect our instrument. Were the visitor violinist, pianist, or composer, he had better watch his remards concerning the cello.
The majority of the students were foreigners like myself, and seldom, if ever, were they invited to a family dinner-any family, any dinner. Their social life was nil. They said they tried to solve this problem one way or another. On days of prosperity they patronized the Blue Monkey, but more frequently a more modest bordello that had no name. There they did not need an invitation. Even at meals at Hartung's they freely discussed Halina, Trude, Berta, and Madame herself. Trude had said something funny and Berta looked tired, or Madame was nervous on Sundays and the piano in the salon needed tuning. Hearing often of these people, their names becoming familiar to me, I visualized them as though I knew them.
One Saturday afternoon I joined my friends,. They introduced me to Madame as "Herr Doktor." We ordered beer. There were two strangers in the salon. One wore high shoes and had a thick chain hanging across his vest. The other had long hair and was thin and unshaven. Both were around sixty, and they sat waiting as if they were in a barbershop. There were no girls in the room.
"Crazy days," said Madame. "Last Saturday we sat here idle, playing cards, as if all the men in town were castrated. Today the girls hardly had time for a meal. Ah, someone is coming," she said.
It was Trude. Her smile sparkled with gold fillings. She looked at the two men as if asking whose turn it was. The unshaven man stood up and went upstairs with her.
"Let's go have something to eat," I said.
"But you haven't seen Halina and Bertra yet. Wait until you see Halina. She is firm, like an apple. Good to bite into. How are your teeth?"
"There is the bouncer, the pimp," I was informed as a husky man appeared. He gave uws an appraising look.
One of the students who had been known to practice the cello as much as eight hours a day said, "The bridge on my cello is too high." He was worried. "You want to see?" He swiftly took off the cover of his cello and showed us the bridge. "Grisha, please try it." I played. When I finished, I was introduced to Berta and Halina, who were among the listeners. They did not speak, and I saw the rouge run on Halina's checks.
"Stop it," said Madame. "Go upstairs and put your billboard in order." Halina obeyed and Madame said, "For a whore, she's too sensitive. Boys, how about drinks?" More beer was brought in. The pimp gulped down a glassful, belched, and left.
My visit became frequent. A certain morbid attraction drew me back. Alone or in company, Herr Doktor was welcomed, and the Madame asked me what I thought of converting her piano to a pianola.
Halina was mostly silent, but when no one was in the salon she spike to me of her parents and their farm in Poland. I liked to listen to her, and I liked her childish laugh when she spoke of her comical and deaf Uncle Jan. Once, quite unexpectedly, she said, "I liked you the first time I saw you."
The bell rang and a man entered. This brought Madame and her brood into the room. The visitor walked around stiffly and pointed at Halina. She did not respond. He pointed again. Halina moved closer to me. Trude rushed into the man's arms and caressed his head. He pushed her away and shouted, "I want her." Madame looked at Halina. "It's the third time I have come to this goddam place for nothing," he yelled. "Must I send her flowers first, or something?"
Madame spoke to him and made a sign to me. "Will you come some other time, Herr Doktor?" And to Halina, "Attend to the gentleman!" I walked out.
The next day at Hartung's one of the students spoke of the row at the bordello. "Madame got mad at Halina for refusing a client and the bouncer threw her down the stairs with all her belongings. She has been taken to the hospital."
I went to see her. She was bruised and pale. She said that she had no money and when she left the hospital with her yellow prostitution card she would be picked up by the police. I spoke to Professor Klengel about the problem. it was not easy, but he understood. "Dear Don Quixote! Let's rescue your Dulcinea," he said. He consulted his friend, the chief of police, who was willing to help with papers for Halina, providing someone guaranteed that she would leave for Poland immediately. I went to see him and he accepted my assurances. After tedious hours at the police department and the Polish consulate, Halina was ready to dapart. I brought her a farewell gift and a railroad ticket.
She asked me to write some music on a piece of paper. I wrote down a Russian folk song, "In a Field Stood a Birch Tree," and sang it to her.
"Your voice is funny," she said through her tears.
I heard from her later. She was glad to be home. She wrote of her friends and her parents, and she said the crop was good and that her Uncle Jan had died.