|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
"THIS here is the best honest-to-goodness springboard for you fellows in the first chairs," was the frequent remark of my colleagues in the Berlin Philharmonic. Those "first-chair fellows" almost always were non-German, like the cellists Malkin, Foldesy, myself, Graudan, and Schuster; or concertmasters Holst, Maurice van den Berg, and Tossy Spivakovsky. "Almost all of them become 'somebody,' the old-timers said. "Ganz fabelhaft! Think of our former concermaster, Eugene Ysaye!"
I had not known that Ysaye once belonged to this orchestra, and was surprised. But then, scarcely a day passed without some surprise. One morning there was a rehearsal, conducted by Wagner, of music by Wagner. Of course, it was not Richard, but his son Siegfried. Even so, it was as much a surprise as when I had met Tchaikovsky's brother in Russia. I felt I was confronting something almost prehistoric. A polit man of about fifty-five, he politely and apologetically conducted his father's and his own music. I thought his overture, entitled Little Hat or something, had charm, but I pitied him when he spoke of Richard Wagner. "My father would like a little more power here, or less diminuendo there." I expected him at any moment to refer to his "daddy."
The rigid discipline of the orchestra had something of the Nietzschean "befehlen und gehorchen," I learned to obey and keep my musical and other disagreements to myself.
Once, at the music festival in Heidelberg, during a performance of the Double Concerto by Brahms, the cello soloist had a memory slip. Furtwangler gave me a sign to play his part. I did until the soloist could resume. The same prodecure repeated itself in all three movements of the concerto. I wished that the soloist had followed the coustom of playing this concerto from music. Later, at a reception, the cellist greeted me, "You are an arrogant fellow."
By no means was it always easy to obey orders, as in the instance of a rehearsal with Klemperer.
"Don't you see it is marked mezzo forte? Try it again," he demanded. I repeated the little solo in exactly the same manner as the first time. "Mezzo forte!" he screamed. "Once more." I played. He was in a rage. "Don't you know what mezzo forte is?"
I said, "No. Do you want me to play softer of louder?" After short pause he said, "A little softer." Later, paying under his direction as a soloist, I liked to tease him by asking for a lot of mezzo fortes, but he did not catch the joke.
The arrival in Berlin of my old teacher, Professor Alfred von Glehn, brought me much joy and worry at the same time. His wife, sparing her husband, told me when we were alone of the necessity of his finding work. Soon I was lucky enough to secure a teaching position for him at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory. For over a year everything went well. Von Glehn spoke with affection of his students, planning for their future exactly as he did for his students in my youth in Moscow. Suddenly he fell ill and was unable to teach. The director stopped his salary, resuming the payments only after I volunteered to substitute for the professor.
Meeting his students was an unbelievable experience. The first to play for me was Mr. Brenner. He had only four fingers on his right hand-the small finger missing. The next student, whose name I have forgotten, was minus the right index finger; and the third, Mr. Lumme, had only three fingers on the right hand, with the two middle ones absent. Perplexed, I waited for what would be next. What a relief it was to see all five fingers on each hand of Mr. Davidoff, but my joy turned to horror when he moved to an upper position, exposing two thumbs on his left hand.
I had no courage to go on listening to the remainder of the class, and, taking a rest, I wondered if it were not an orthopedist they really needed instead of a cello teacher. As became evident during my two years at the conservatory, they needed both-perhaps also a psychologist who at times could be of service to the teacher as well.
There were challenging problems to be solved in my work. Students with strong temperament, by learning how to capitalize on their emotions, I knew could serve art well; while unimaginative and frigid ones were as unfit for their profession as, let us say, too emotional dentists are for theirs.
There was a difficult situation with a student of whom I was particularly fond. His talent captivated me. Sensitive, with good taste, and equipped with perfect build for his instrument, here, I thought, was a born virtuoso. Never did I wish more ardently to pass on to another all I knew. Believing in making my thoughts clear by examples, I played for him at the lessons, repeating passages and pieces he played. I criticized, praised, and analyzed, and I played for him-trying, and at times succeeding, to surpass myself.
The harder I tried, the less happy he seemed. At first slowly, and then increasingly from lesson to lesson, his playing worsened until all his previous qualities almost vanished. It was heartbreaking to watch such disintegration, and, unable to explain its cause, I developed a frustrating feeling of bewilderment and guilt. Why had other students, less gifted, made splendid progress, while he, given the benefit of perhaps better lessons, was being choked and retarded? I had to find the reason. One sleepless night, thinking of my failure, an idea struck me that perhaps it was precisely my overanxiety that was causing the disaster. Did my playing, by any chance, make him lose hope of matching it?
At the next lesson, my playing for him was slightly more faulty than his, and, seeing his young face light up, I knew that I was on the right track. Now the lessons were long and frequent. Deliberately I continued to play worse and worse while he gained more and more assurance. His progress was astonishing and my satisfaction as a teacher couldn't have been greater when, after his brilliant performance at graduation, he said to the other students, "Mr. Piatigorsky is certainly a fine teacher-but what a lousy cellist!"
I had not belonged to a string quartet since Moscow. I missed it. I joined in a trio with Leonid Kreutzer, pianist, and Josef Wolfsthal, violinist, both professors at the Hochschule in Berlin and splendid musicians; but despite our achievements as an ensemble, it could not replace the ideal blend of four string instruments.
One of my first solo tours outside Germany was to the Baltic countries. The invitation came from the Osteuropaisches Konzert Bureau, upon the recommendation of Fritz Kreisler.
"Business is fabulous," said Mr. Zacharin, the head of the bureau. "A real inundation. It certainly keeps our accountant busy." The accountant was still busy even after my last concert at the opera house in Riga. But I had been promised payment and an exact statement at seven o'clock the following morning, about an hour before my departure.
Breakfast for four-Mr. Zacharin, his partner, the accountant, and myself-waited for us at seven. I had it alone. Unable to reach them, I headed toward the station. In the waiting room a porter approached me. "Are you the cellist? Here. They asked me to give you this." He handed me a third class ticket to Berlin.
Through the window, as the train moved and gained speed, I saw the members of the Osteuropaisches Konzert Bureau coming out of the round men's room installed at the center of the platform, with their handkerchiefs waving and their faces smiling.
Mrs. Louise Wolf, the head of the venerable Wolf and Sachs, became my concert manager. Her knowledge of music was not above the level of other managers, but her judgment had great weight and her influence reached every corner of the globe where tickets were sold for concerts. Many feared her sharp tongue; many sought her favor; everyone admired her wit. Her remarks were quoted and jokes about her widely circulated. Her nickname, Queen Louise, stuck to her solidly, and a queen in her field she was indeed. She was in her sixties at the time I first saw her in her office. She sat majestically at her disordered desk, her massive torso wrapped in what appeared to be numerous blouses, scarves, and shawls.
There was another visitor in the room. "Don't mind Piatigorsky," she said pointing at me. "What is on your mind?" The young man hesitated. "Go ahead, I have little time," she urged.
"You did not hear me play the piano," he said, "But those who did! well, I brought these reviews for you." He handed her a thick envelope. There were dozens of newspaper clippings. She chose the longest one and began to read. I was impressed with the thorough attention she gave to each and every review. She read it all, sighed, put it back into the envelope, returned it to him, and said, "And now, show me the bad ones."
"But madame," he exclaimed, "they are all good."
"Hm, it's too bad. I am aftaid you must look for another manager. You see, young man, in my long experience I have never met a poor artist who wasn't in possession of glowing reviews, as I have yet to meet a great one who has escaped unfavorable ones."
"I will call you Piaty-all right?" she asked when the young man had gone. "Tell me, now, all about your past, present, and your future aspirations. No-no-don't tell me about your escapades. I know you are a rascal. I don't really want to hear of your past-after all, I cansee how well you have grown. Future-that interests us, nicht wahr? What is your ambition?"
"To play the cello well," I said.
"That's my boy!"
A few months later I regretted not having told her about some recordings I had made in Berlin. Under financial stress I had agreed to play some salon pieces and tangos with the popular band leader and violinist Dajos Bella. I was well paid and the recordings were released under the Dajos Bella label.
Great was my shock when I came to Hamburg to appear with Karl Muck and saw an advertisement in the symphony program:
PIATIGORSKY ON RECORDS-HEAR HIM IN
"I HUG YOU, DARLING," "ECSTASY,"
"PLEASURES OF LOVE," AND OTHERS!
After a fight with the phonograph company, they agreed to change all the labels on the records. Apparently my "repertoire" on the records did not alienate anyone, certainly not the Hamburg Philharmonic and Muck, for year after year I was invited to play with them.
My friendship with Muck had not had a very promising beginning. I looked forward eagerly to meeting a man so long important in the world of music. At the rehearsal I sat in the empty hall and watched the extraordinary sparse movements of his baton. He was old, thin, and dry, and so sounded the C-Major Symphony by Schubert on that morning. And yet there was something fascinating in his personality and his music, something definite that only very mature artists achieve.
I thought there would be an intermission before the concerto, but when the symphony ended I heard Muck: "Where is the cello scratcher?" He repeated it louder. I rushed to the green room and soon, with cello, entered the stage. He did not greet me.
"How do you know that I scratch?" I asked.
"We will find out soon enough. Sit down," he ordered, and began without further delay. Unhappy and angry, I did not look at him once. Not a word passed between us until after the adagio, but just as I was ready to continue, I felt Muck's hand on my head. "I must thank the old witch," said Muck, "for sending you here. You are the damnedest scratchless cello player, if there ever was one." The musicians laughed.
Knowing him, I came to think that anyone who could survive his crude humor would find him a lovable man. Not all could. A violinist in his orchestra approached Dr. Muck with the complaint of an unbearable pain in his arm. "What shall I do?" he asked.
"Cut it off," advised Dr. Muck, and walked away. The violinist quit his job.
Muck's scope as a conductor seldom reached beyond sober knowledge, economy, and mastery over strictly fundamental matters. His austere art had something of a "before breakfast" quality. And yet, despite or because of his lack of warmth, a musical contact with him, like a cool bath on a hot day, was refreshing.
When the great cellist Jean Gerardy, stopped concertizing, Hugo Becker replaced him in the Schnabel-Flesch-Gerardy Trio. after many successful years they had become inactive as an ensemble-until I, in turn, became Becker's successor.
I was considerably younger than my two colleagues, and they had a tendency to indoctrinate their slightly too Russian partner with Deutsche Kultur. My respect and affection for the two men made it easy for me to make a good adjustment. Nevertheless, our congenial rehearsals, at times, would break into heated discussions, which were stimulating.
Carl Flesch carried his weighty name with great dignity. His every word, every gesture, as that of Artur Schnabel, had a special significance. But unlike Schnabel, I soon discovered, he was a prankster at heart, and youthful enough to become the best of pals.
Eager to include contemporary works in our programs, we commissioned a trio from Krenek and planned to ask Hindemith and others. I wish all young musicians could have witnessed the enthusiasm with which Schnabel and Flesch reacted to the Ravel Trio, which was new to them.
"Artur, stop, let us play this phrase once more. I think I found something that will even 'over-French' Jacques Thibaud."
"Friends, listen. How do you like this pedal here?" Schnabel asked. "So clouded, yet clear." I listened to his caressing and velvety sound.
Our concert tours were organized with precision, taking care of every detail. Praised for my punctuality, I was scolded for constantly forgetting to bring my music to the concerts. "It's lucky we have your parts," they grumbled backstage. I continued to forget, and my friends became increasingly irritated.
One evening, somewhere in Holland, instead of taking time for warming up as he usually did before the concert, Flesch tuned his violin quickly, and, hurried by Schnabel, we walked on-stage. There again, without further warning, and before I was settled in my chair, they began the B-Flat Trio by Schubert. I followed suit.
On my music stand, instead of Schubert I saw the cello part to the Meistersinger overture, by Wagner, Gazing stupidly at this, I played from memory. Even after I had gained the assurance that I didn't need the music at all, the triumphant faces of my partners were still evident. "It is a plot-they want to teach me a lesson," I knew. This gave me an idea. With my eyes fastened on the music, I quickly and noisily turned the page and solemnly continued playing. The effect so produced exceeded all my expectations. The two gentlemen shook with laughter and Flesch's violin slipped from under his chin. I t evolved into the gayest performance of Schubert ever presented. Still chuckling backstage, they offered to carry not only my music but, if needed, my cello as well.
Schnabel enjoyed having listeners and occasionally would invite a guest to our rehearsals. Flesch didn't like it. "But he is not a musician," Schnabel would explain, as though only musicians were unwanted. We had jewelers, critics, artists, publishers, also Aldous Huxley, Bruno Frank, James Joyce, former and future students of Schnabel, and others. They came singly and seldom twice.
I wondered how they took the procedure of our work, or the dialogues, as follows: "Artur," Flesch would say, "please be good enough at those bars before letter C when I have the theme..."
"Theme?" Schnabel would interrupt. "Dear Carl, we are engaged here in music only."
"Fine, fine," Carl agreed. "i mean to say, when I play that-ah, ah, melody..."
"Ha, melody!" Schnabel was horrified. "Like Melody in F, by Rubinstein, perchance?"
Impatient, Flesch would say, "Who cares? Let's' call it a motif."
After giving them time to search for the correct definition of whatever Carl had to play, I would finally intervene: "I think you are perfectly right," addressing both of them. "Letter B, please," and the rehearsal would proceed.
Our joyful traveling and playing together had been stimulating at all times. Both Artur and Carl were receptive to new ideas and alert to controversial issues, were they in music, philosophy, or politics. Schnabel's love of talking and his sarcasm were amusing, and at times somewhat cruel.
"That poor fellow you cornered at the party," I said to Schnabel, "I couldn't stand seeing his sufferings, listening to you. Didn't you know you spoke above his head? He was almost in convulsion from concentration."
Schnabel said, "Oh, I just wanted to flatter him."
Flesch and I, after one incident in London, became careful in letting Schnabel make social arrangements, which proved costly to us. "Let's not accept those pompous invitations after our concert in London," said Schnabel. "I propose that we each invite our friends for supper in a restaurant and divide the bill among us. Don't you think it would be practical?"
At the supper Flesch's and my appetites vanished as we counted Schnabel's twenty-two guests and only three of ours.
My return to the orchestra from solo and trio concerts was not always a letdown. Not when Ossip Gabrilowitsch came from Detroit. His sister, Pauline, introduced me to him and we became friends at once. During his short visit in Berlin, we spent much time together. I enjoyed playing sonatas with him and listening to his musical experiences and the stories he had to tell of Mark Twain, his father-in-law.
"Don't make the same mistake I did. Change your name. My father-in-law, after I married his daughter, suddenly disappeared. We were worried, but after he showed up and was questioned about what had happened to him, he said, 'Why, I was trying to cram in the name of my son-in-law.'"
When he became a conductor, Gabrilowitsch did not abandon his original instrument, as so many conductors did. Luckily for all, despite the heavy duty with his orchestra in Detroit he continued to give superb performances on the piano until the end of his fruitful life.
It was at his concert that a drastic change took place in my life. The conductor Efrem Kurtz introduced me to a lady. I was very young, and she was beautiful. I was shy, she was eloquent, worldly, and with the experience of a previous marriage. Hr maiden name was Lyda Antik. She became my wife. Very musical and alert, she was ambitious and had great charm. My bachelorhood turned into a stormy life that, after nine childless years, ended in a peaceful divorce. Faithful to the cello, she later married the eminent French cellist Pierre Fournier.