CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)

Chapter Eleven

THERE was to be a reunion of Klengel's former students. "The big boys are coming from all over. We will have Dortmunder beer and when their minds are clouded, I want you to show them how one plays the cello in modern times," said Klengel with a familiar tinge of irony.

They were "big boys" all right. Many had gray hair and some no hair at all. The last to be introduced to us was Mr. Kinkulkin. I did not recognize the stumpy man with insect-like eyes, but the word "Kinkulkin" had a staggering sound, reaching back through the long distance to my childhood. His old verdict in Ekaterinoslav, once erased or faded, came alive again: "Keep away from the cello. You have no talent whatsoever."

As the evening progressed, Klengel went to the piano and said that as a punishment for his old students' past sins they would hear a Klengel concerto. He gave me a sign.

They heard not one but two concerti of his, and we completed the Klengel festival with his Variations and Scherzo. Smoking a newly lit cigar, he smiled happily.

"It is a privilege to meet you," Kinkulkin said to me.

"We have met before-in Ekaterinoslav. I played for you when I was very young." There was a light of recognition in his eyes.

Surrounded by students, the visitors reminisced about their days in the "cello paradise," and we did not part until Klengel ran out of Dortmunder beer.

A "cello paradise" indeed. Day in, day out, an orgy of scales and exercises. Cello everywhere, everyone a cellist. Schneider, Benar Heifetz, Auber, Jascha Bernstein, Honegger, Baldauf, and more-all a beehive on the verge of drowning in its own honey, the honey of music by Volkmann, Lindner, Romberg, Popper, Davidov, Duport, Klengel, and Grutzmacher. A relentless drill, a tedium of overhauling and overcoming one weakness, only to have others creep in, to multiply themselves like microbes and form new diseases. I fought them with determination and when in the process I tasted some progress or stumbled on a new idea I gained new courage.

Herbert Baldauf was the only one among us uprooted immigrants who was in touch with the place where he was born, and who looked forward to the approaching summer when he could return to his mountains, his family, and his deer hunting. When he asked me to spend the vacation with him in the Italian Tyrol, I was overjoyed.

The Baldaufs' summer house was in Drei Kirchen, a short train ride from Bolzano. Arriving at the tiny station, we loaded our luggage and cellos on the back of a horse, which walked ahead of us up the mountain. We gained altitude steadily. The road, in spots, became steep and narrow, but the horse, unperturbed, kept his pace with the two cellos insecurely balanced on his back.

I wanted to rest, but Herbert said that would only make it harder to climb. he suggested that I hold onto the tail of the horse. We passed three little churches, huts and farms on the slopes, and many crucifixes by the path. Herbert pointed out the houses of his relatives. He had thirteen or fifteen aunts, a grandmather and an uncle, each of whom had many children. His grandmother reigned over all.

After hours of climbing we reached the top. The mighty panorama unfolding below was of incredible beauty. Such impressions must be earned. My effort of climbing made me almost deserve it.

Herbert's family awaited us. Mrs. Baldauf greeted me warmly. "This is my baby brother Hans, and this is Assunta, my sister," said Herbert. "I never mentioned her to you. Thought she might have scared you out of coming here." She blushed.

I met Herbert's father. He scarcely said a word during the entire evening. An embittered man, like many Austrians in the Tyrol upon whom Italian citizenship had been forced after World War I, he resented everything Italian.

The days on the beautiful mountain passed with incredible speed. I loved everything there, even the hunting trips with Herbert, which would start at the break of day. But mostly I loved the long walks with Assunta.

There was an inn, the place that occupied Herbert's particular attention. He was the first to survey the new arrivals, and if among them was a young and unattached female, we saw very little of him. Herbert was a man of nature, of few words, strong and good-looking, his instinct unerring. A hunter of beasts by day and of women by night, he knew that both would fall easy prey.

He wanted me to accompany him to Oberbozen, on the other side of the mountain. "I know a beautiful lonesome lady there. I promised to visit her. Exceptional redhead. Fancy she should study archaeology."

A few days later we came to Oberbozen. "There is your friend Professor Becker's house," Herbert said, pointing. "He spends his summers here. And over there is a restaurant in case you want to eat. I will meet you there in a couple of hours."

I was surprised to learn that Becker lived here; he was the last man I expected to meet. But, curious to see his house, I peered over the tall hedges that surrounded it and caught a glimpse of a tennis court and gardens. As I tried to get a better view, my face and hands scratched by bushes and nettle, I came face to face with Becker himself.

"Hey, who are you?" he screamed. "Hm, of all people! Are you not Pi-Pi-Pi-asi-ma-fovsky?"

I said, "How do you do?"

"That is beside the point. What are you doing here?"

"My friend came to see an archaeologist. I accompanied him."

"What nonsense!"

"I am telling the truth."

"Oh, you speak German now."

"Yes, a little. I would like to apoligize for saying, 'Gott sei Dank.'"

"It is I who thank God that you left."

"I did not leave. I was invited to leave."

His face twitched. "Now that you can understand, I will ask you. Is it your bolshevik system to run form teacher to teacher."

"I have a fine cello teacher."

"I know, I know. Good enough for you to come all the way here to me. What made you think I want you?" He turned to leave.

"It was nice to see you," I said as he disappeared.

I waited for Herbert. When he came, he looked at my scratches and said, "I see. You were visiting Becker." He did not utter another word until after he had finished his meal. He ate unhurriedly, like a lion after a kill.

My encounter with Becker saddened me, but Drei Kirchen was not a place where hurt could last for long. It was not even a village, so small was it, but for me it became a special world of far-reaching meanings. This first summer was followed by others. Each visit was an experience of joy and tenderness, but after the tragic deaths of Hans in an avalanche and shortly after of Assunta in an automobile accident, I had no heart to return.

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