|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
FOR years the Pozniak Trio periodically changed violinists and cellists, but it always remained the Pozniak Trio. Bronislaw von Pozniak built its reputation slowly and solidly in and around Breslau, the territory he guarded jealously. Clever and skillful, he was a king in his tiny kingdom.
Our first concerts in Upper Silesia took place in some towns and villages so small that they were not marked on the map. But we also gave a concert in Breslau in which we introduced a new work by Kornauth, a composer whose name I have never heard since. Breslau, like many other German cities, had its opera and symphony orchestra. It also had its local manager. His name was Hoppe. He offered to arrange a recital for me, providing I changed my name, which he claimed no normal tongue could pronounce. I agreed to his suggestion to print my name "Gregoire Piati-Gorsky."
Hoppe advertised this concert in a grand style. Though small, the audience was enthusiastic and the reviews, my very first in Germany, Von Pozniak called "sensational." But Hoppe fumed. "Look here"-he waved the clippings-"Potyporok-Sorsky, Gregoroff-Posky. Those nincompoops make it tough to know who was the artist they praised." From then on my name remained unaltered.
The understanding with Geza de Kresz and Von Pozniak was perfect and my earnings were satisfactory. I was able to buy my own dress suit. At the beginning Von Pozniak, who was shorter than I and considerably broader, loaned me his. How glad I was now to return it to him! Although the cello is a convenient instrument for hiding soiled dress shirts, badly fitted jackets, and unpressed trousers, when it came to Pozniak's tail coat I regretted not playing the double bass.
I appeared with the symphony and Mr. Hoppe engaged me for a second recital in a larger hall. On the night of the concert I saw a big crowd rushing to the building. There were mounted police in the street and a sign, "Sold Out." Excited at this unexpected turnout, I went to a nearby Kneipe and had a drink. It was the first and only drink I ever had before a concert. Instantly drunk, I had difficulty in finding the artists' room. Alarmed, I doused my head in cold water. As I did so, someone insisted on interviewing me and seeing my cello. A gentleman peering disbelievingly at my wet head posed questions and, not receiving answers, tried to take the cello out of the case. It made me furious. I asked him to get out, and, to be sure that he was going out, I followed him all the way to the street. When I came back and toughed the cello to tune I was miraculously composed and sober. Despite that and an exceptionally satisfactory concert, my behavior preceding the concert lay heavily upon me for a long time. The gentleman I so unceremoniously escorted turned out to be an important music critic in town. In spite of my rudeness he wrote with intelligence and insight, giving not the slightest hint of what had happened before the concert.
Emma, Pozniak's housekeeper, said that he was tired and that they planned a vacation after the concert season. Holding his shoes in her hand, she said, "Bronislaw needs rest." The word "Bronislaw" was said with such a secure intimacy as to make me suddenly understand why Pozniak, who enjoyed great popularity among his friends, often preferred to stay home.
The trio had a busy schedule, but the concerts in bad halls and the repetitiousness of the programs were monotonous. One of our last performances was the Triple Concerto by Beethoven with an orchestra of amateurs. That such a tiny town had an orchestra was surprising in itself. Still more puzzling was the clean performance after a disastrous rehearsal. It made me believe in miracles, for what would be impossible for a soloist is sometimes possible en masse.
The summer was approaching and I accepted an invitation to spend my vacation with people I barely knew. My prospective host, titled, erect, and wearing a monocle, spoke with a clipped voice, as if giving a command to his battalion. His wife, much younger, very blond, shy, and of Spanish descent, said she played the piano and that she hoped I would like their simple country life. I learned that I would be spending the summer in a Bavarian castle.
In a few days, with a suitcase packed by Emma, I was off for the summer. The third-class car was tightly packed with peasants. Two brightly feathered roosters in a cage tried to peck at my cello case. It amused their owner, who laughed and talked to his fine birds. I liked my fellow passengers. At my station everyone said good-by and the man with the roosters said I must come to his village any Sunday and bring my bass fiddle with me.
I was met by a coachman. It was geting dark. I held onto my cello as the coach jogged along. It was a castle indeed. The big lights went on. One servant carried my luggage and another in livery waited at the door. I followed a man up the marble stairs to my room. Albert, the valet, asked if he might unpack my suitcase and press my dinner jacket. I said, "I have no dinner jacket." I watched him spread my torn pajamas on the bed and examine the holes in my underwear and socks before putting them in the drawer. He reached for my full dress and said, "The count and guests are dressed formally for dinner at eight. I will come to show you the way."
My room was large, expensively but sparsely furnished, and hospital-clean. I opened the window and inhaled the evening air. As I was contemplating how stupid I looked in professional garb with no concert, there was a knock at the door. "All the guests and Her Highness have arrived," Albert said. Not clean-shaven but in full dress, I entered the drawing room. The hostess greeted me and I kissed her hand. "Ein Russe-Musiker," someone remarked. There were four women in lavish gowns, three men in dinner jackets, and the host, in military uniform. I moved toward a lady. She smiled encouragingly. I said, "It's a lovely country." She said,"Ja." At that moment I noticed that the trousers I had on were not mine. Emma must have packed Pozniak's old ones by mistake. They were too short and were covered with stains. I stood in full view of all. The "Dinner is served" came as a relief.
On my right sat a man of about sixty whose nervous hands had already come to my attention in the drawing room. In quick motions he touched his nose, his handkerchief, and two medals on his jacket, as though to be reassured they were still there. Unlike his agile hands, his face was immobile and stone hard. I had the impression that out of sheer principle he would not speak or answer questions. During the dinner the host addressed him reverently. "I hope this wine will please Your Excellency," but there was no reaction of approval or disapproval.
On my left sat a lady of undetermined age. Her black hair stood high. Her eyes protruded, as did her cheekbones and chin. Her nose too leaned forward, dominating everything else. Never had I been so preoccupied with a nose. Only during dessert did I part with it and make my eyes travel downward. She had gigantic breasts. I was sure they obscured the view of all things immediately beyond and below them-certainly her plate and the food on it. Everything on her seemed big and protruding and as if all parts of her wanted to escape from her body but were too solidly anchored.
The hostess acted insecure. Her husband did not once address or look at her, while she watched his every move. She also glanced at the lady on my left, as if seeking reassurance. Before the tedious dinner was over the gentleman on my right completely lost control of his hands, which now ranged over everything within reach. Once he touched my ribs. Remembering Albert's mention of the princess, I tried to guess which of the women she was. The lady on my left coughed, whcih I guessed was signal for the hostess. She looked at her husband and the woman, and after receiving their nods the dinner was brought to a conclusion.
In the morning, after breakfast, I went for a walk in the flat country through fields and pastureland. Farther away the forest came to a river, and, taking a different route, I returned to the garden and the house. Later in the day Albert came to say that the countess wanted me with my cello in the music room. While escorting me he said that his uncle played violin in the opera at Braunschweig.
I found the countess at the piano, playing the Jungfrau Maria, a piece I had not heard since it was played by my sister Nadja. "Oh, I am so glad." The countess's face flushed. "I adore the cello, and those encores you played at the concert. Oh, you must love to play them. I look forward so much to playing with you," she said. She looked pretty.
"Here is my favorite-I simply adore it." She showed me the music. "It is for the piano. do you think we could play it together?"
"Yes, of course. I will play the upper line." It was the Autumn Song, by Tchaikovsky. We played the piece until it was time to change for dinner. I will not describe our musical sessions of that afternoon and all the other afternoons, except that we never played or tried to play anything but the Autumn Song. She was madly, frantically in love with it, and in her passion she was blind to my sufferings.
My exchanges with the count never went beyond "Guten Abend." Fraulein Schruber, which was the name of the lady on my left at the first dinner, functioned as a supervisor, housekeeper, and lady in waiting, all in one. I felt that I was one more of the household objects she had to supervise. But soon I noticed little attentions that indicated a change in her attitude. On the night table in my room I would find a glass of milk, and as time advmaced there would be added biscuits, fruits, and wine, and even a little note, "Sleep well." But otherwise she remained official and impersonal.
Not so my relations with the countess. We developed an understanding through barely perceptible and secretive glances, and at times I could detect her almost inaudible sigh.
One evening after dinner the count took the train to Berlin. It was the first evening without him. Alone with the countess in the drawing room, she curled up on the sofa. "I was thinking," she said languidly, "maybe one day we will play Chanson triste, by Tchaikovsky. do you know it?"
"Is it very sad?"
"No, not very."
"Our garden is so beautiful in the evening," she said. She turned her head nervously toward the door and said softly, "Perhaps after she goes."
"Ach, Sie mussen ja mude sein," Fraulein Schruber said as she crossed the room straight and fast, as though she were charging. When she reached me she said intimately, "Ach, you must be looked after. So young. You need sleep and, ach, so many other things. Please go to bed early." To the countess she said, "I ordered some mint tea for you. It's good for your nerves. It will help you to sleep." I expected her to repeat, "Sleep, sleep, sleep," like a hypnotist, but she just puffed a little, arranged her hair and noisily sat down. The tea was brought in. The countess drank a little of it. When I stood up and said good night, I felt her dreamy and promising eyes on me. In my room I found champagne, fruit, and a note attached to flowers. "I don't say good night to a sleepy boy yet." I left the room. Avoiding the sitting room, I quietly walked out into the garden. The warm evening air saturated with sweet flower scents was intoxicating.
When I returned the house was quiet, and, not switching on the light, I let myself into my room.
"Darling," I heard whispered, but before I realized it was the countess the door opened softly.
"Where is the naughty, sleepy boy?" Fraulein Schruber's coy voice was in the room. Groping in the dark, she repeated, "Where is the sleepy boy?" The countess clung to me. We did not move. The light was switched on. All at once it was an operetta farce-the two women facing each other, the sound of the count's Mercedes driving up to the house, rushing servants, adn the ladies' hasty retreat.
I locked my door and started packing. I nervously paced the room, listening to the commotion in the house. Finally all was quiet and in exhaustion I dozed off in an armchair. A knock on the door awoke me in the morning. It was Albert. "The count wants to see you."
The count greeted me with feigned amiability. He closed the door and said, "Well, young man, the country air and food did you good. Also, of course, other distractions. I will come straight to the point," he said. "Here is a paper for you to sign. It's a necessary formality."
I read it. "I will not sign."
"You will if you know what's good for you."
"I can't, because it's not true."
"I have a witness."
I don't know what would have happened at this point if not for the appearance of Albert. "His Highness has arrived." The count, pale and angry, ordered me to wait there and hurried to meet his important caller. I too left the room. Albert pointed at the side door. Quickly I went out. I saw a carriage, my cello and suitcase. Albert said, "Everything ready. Bitte, schnell." The reins were in his hands, and the hourses took off.
Outside the gate Albert said, "If we're lucky you will catch the train." I did.
My unheroic escape completed, I arrived in Breslau. The house was empty. Pozniak and Emma were still on vacation. In a day or so I had a visitor, the countess's family lawyer, who said that the incident in the castle could develop into an ugly scandal. The divorce was imminent and I should go abroad, or, if I preferred, to the countess's relatives in Berlin, to avoid testifying should it come to a trial. "We are willing to pay your fare and expenses," he said.
"I have no reason to hide or run away from anyone."
"Well, from what I know, you did not mind running from the castle," said the lawyer. "But this is no time for a quarrel, and I assume you would want to help the countess." He gave me the address of her family and begged me to leave at once." To keep your wherabouts secret is imperative," he warned.
Shortly after he left, Pozniak telephoned. He knew about the incident and was upset about it. He was also sad that there didn't seem to be any trio engagements for the forth coming season. But there was also good news: Emma and he were engaged. I congratulated him.
With nothing to keep me in Breslau, I went to the countess's family in Berlin. The taxi took me to a big, old fashioned mansion. I had been expected. I was led into a room with an enormous four-poster bed and was told that His Excellency was waiting for me in the library. The library appeared empty until I heard the voice of a man hidden in a high-backed chair. I walked around and as I saw his face I was struck by surprise. It was the gentleman who sat on my right at dinner. His nervous hands beckoned me to sit down. He arranged his handkerchief, touched his nose and tie, and after short successive coughs said, "How do you do?" After a little silence he said that if I needed anything just to tell the footman. "You will have it very quiet here." He coughed some more and wished me good night.
The valet instructed me in the household schedule. "His Excellency suggests you take little walks in the fresh air on the large open balcony. Lunch will be brought at one into your room. At five, tea in the library, and at eight, dinner with His Excellency, all alone. We have visitors only at Christmas," he said. My eerie days in the big house had a routine of confinement, and my link with the outside world was mostly through newspapers that were brought with the breakfast.
I could not have utilized my time better than I did in His Excellency's house. There were days when I practiced seven and eight hours. I read voraciously, did gymnastics, and even tried yoga exercises from a book I found in teh library. Every day was like the other. I lost track of time and did not know how long I had been in the house.
One morning I had mail for the first time. It had been forwarded from Breslau. "Dear Casanova," wrote Bronislaw, "Well informed of your predicament, I know you will rejoice to learn that your summer host is with his wife on a second honeymoon in Paris, that they are very happy, and that you are innocent and free."
Jubilant over the good news, I hurried to say good-by to His Excellency. He said that my presence had been pleasant and that my cello playing had hardly disturbed him, and he hoped that I would visit him sometime, perhaps at Christmas.
Almost as soon as I found my freedom again I was less jubilant and I wished that my quiet living with His Excellency might have continued. Professor Michaelis could not accommodate me with my old room, and Mr. Skript was not at the Ruschjo any more. No one I knew seemed to be in town except Mr. Tols. He was glad to see me. He said he had heard I was successful in Breslau, but that as he looked at me something told him that I was not on top of the world. In his customary bravado he said he was all itch and desire to get someone out of the dumps. He wanted to know what he could do. I told him I needed a room. He recommended his boardinghouse in the Motzstrasse.
The street was noisy and the room I rented faced the back yard and was small and dark. But Tols was enthusiastic. He said the place was "cheap and furious" and it was not the room but the company that counted. It was the finest den of immigrants, he said, and I would agree with him when I met the inmates.
The first man to whom Tols introduced me was short and bald. His name was Hariton and he spoke Russian. Reaching out his hand, he said, "I am a pianist, and for your information a darned good one." He informed me that he was part of the "best darned two-piano team in this crummy country as well as in the entire darned Europe," that his partner was Dmitri Tiomkin, who was "the greatest darned genius in our entire miserable trade," and who was the only man to whom he would bow his bald head.
Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, he showed me a bottle. He poured a soapy liquid from it on his head and said that it smelled awful, but that it was the best darned thing to make his hair grow. His hair was essential for his career and in his predicament one did not mind the smell, he said. "I play the piano better now than when the whole tundra grew on my scalp. But where is the success?" he demanded.
Apart from Hariton, who finally succeeded in arousing my interest in the progress of the growth of his hair, there was Prince Pavel Urussoff. Though he was young, there was little that was young about him. He looked nostalgic and tired. Weak and helpless, he had no profession and no work, and he was too proud to ask for money. He spoke to me freely, and just as we were becoming good friends he suddenly disappeared. I tried in vain for many years to locate him. Though I never saw him again, I often think of the gentle and shy man and his words, "I am not an uprooted, but a badly planted, man."
Soon my purse began to grow thin, and I accepted Hariton's generous invitation to share his room. Every evening, with a flower in the lapel of his dinner jacket, Hariton sprinkled himself with an assortment of perfumes. "It's to kill the hair-lotion odor," he said before goint out. His hat smartly on a slant, he gaily bounced to demonstrate his youthful agility. He seldom returned without bringing guests, who often stayed until the early hours of morning. This and many other habits of his put a great strain on me, to say the least.
The proprietors' belligerence reached a high pitch and they threatened to call the police and tried to break into our room. Hariton barricaded the door with his piano, rubbed the elixir into his scalp, and played Chopin. "Great music is great, even in this rathole," he said.
The final blow, however, was delivered by Mr. and Mrs. Tols, who, after lowering their belongings with their old trusty rope, departed, presumably for a stroll. The proprietors held me accountable, and only after I paid all that I could of Tols's bill was I permitted to leave the premises. The cello rubbed against my side as once more I headed for the Tiergarten.