|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
IN the years between 1927 and 1929, whirling from one concert hall to another, allured by the demand and fast-increasing fees, I kept accepting solo engagements until there was very little time for the orchestra and none at all for teaching. The orchestra co-operated by limiting my obligations to ten pairs of Furtwangler concerts in Berlin and spring tours to foreign countries.
Those tours, although taxing, were exciting. The arrival of the orchestra in Paris or London had something of the spirit of conquest, with Furtwangler, the poet of conductors, leading his army to victory. We spent most of our time on the train. In each new city there would be very short rehearsals, mostly for trying acoustics and seating arrangements. We called them Sitzproben. Evenings without concerts were very rare. Whenever I had time I took walks, and the less familiar the language and city, the more interested I was. Strange was my fascination for paintings. Without any background or ability to draw, I could not explain it. I roamed in France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries in search of paintings. I spent more time and more money than I could afford in acquiring them. And when I met an artist whose work I admired, there was no limit to my delight.
Passing a small frame shop in Paris, I saw a painting in the window depicting a chicken hooked on a chain. Slain, and yet alive. I was struck by its colors and its torment, and it was as if in agony painter and chicken alike were bleeding, both unable to escape. Breathless, I walked in and for a small sum bought the picture. Were it portrait of landscape, I always knew this master at sight, and even later, when introduced to him, I knew at once that this frightened man could only be Soutine.
In Germany, Kirchner, Jawlensky, Nolde, and Marc all differently but equally appealed to my taste. Among the painters I met, Spiro, Kandinsky, Gluckmann, and Klee loved music. But none of them could have appreciated it as much as I admired their art.
On one of our visits to Paris, Furtwangler, glad to take leave of conducting, and I of playing in the orchestra, settled ourselves to perform sonatas and variations by Beethoven at a reception in the German Embassy. Furtwangler's qualities as a pianist were of particular value in chamber music. Like Gabrilowitsch, while giving the fullness of music, at no time did he overpower his string-playing partner, who had no advantages of a pedal or open lid.
After the performance, many guests expressed their appreciation and some their views on music. Not particularly fond of such discourses, I felt almost glad at not knowing French. some of the more sensitive people left me quickly, but one individual, wiry and slightly built, was very persistent. I did not know what he was speaking about, but, looking at his expressive face, I was curious to know what he was saying. Monsieur Painleve, member of the French Cabinet, whom I knew and who spoke German, joined us. The thin man continued talking, and after his last sentence, which sounded like a question, shook my hand and abruptly disappeared.
"Who was it? What did he say?"
"From what I heard," said Painleve, "Maurice Ravel liked your playing."
"Ravel!" I exclaimed.
"Yes, our great composer."
"What was his question? Didn't he ask something before he left?" I was eager to know.
"Yes, it was a question," said Painleve, smiling. "Ravel asked why you waste your talent on such abominable music as you played tonight."
"Abominable? It was Beethoven!"
Disturbed, I pondered how Ravel could say this. Yet, had he worshiped Beethoven, could he compose like Ravel? Didn't the same question apply to other composers? Didn't they have special ears, as artists have special eyes not necessarily resembling ours? In protest to Tolstoy's declaration that Beethoven was without talent, Tchaikovsky wrote indignantly, "To reduce to one's own imcomprehension a genius acknowledged by all is a characteristic of limited people." Almost in the same breath Tchaikovsky said, "I play Bach gladly, but I do not recognize in him, as some do, a great genius." And he writes in his diary: "Handel has, for me, an entirely fourth-rate significance." Or, as Soutine once cried to a group of friends, "I must paint roses! I want roses." He got them. Days later there were still roses, but wilted in a vase. On canvas were gladioli. Strange world of art! When asked, "Why do your cow fly?" Chagall said, "I don't know." Or when a group of young violinists approached Frita Kreisler, asking, "Should one play that passage in the fourth position?" he answered, "I don't know where the fourth position is." So the creative and the performing artist had this in common. Furtwangler, after pleading with the orchestra, "Gentlemen, this phrase must be-it must-it must-you know what I mean-please try it again-please," said to me at the intermission, "You see how important it is for a conductor to convey his wishes clearly?" Strangely, the orchestra knew what he wanted.
Scientists' perception of matter and time can be equally puzzling. Albert Eistein, whose ardent love of music often brought him into contact with musicians, once asked me to dinner. As I arrived at his apartment at haberlandstrasse in Berlin he asked me, "Did you ever see a Japanese violin?"
I said, "No."
"A Japanese student at the university made one. Would you like to see it?"
I said, "Yes."
"That's fine. Just wait a minute." Einstein disappeared. Alone in the apartment and hungry, I waited almost two hours for his return. At last he rushed in, out of breath. Not taking his coat off, he handed me the violin. The coarsely constructed violin was unattractive. While I thought of what to tell him, I felt that his interest in the violin and my opinion of it suddenly disappeared. Relieved, I suggested having dinner at a good restaurant nearby. He ate heartily, spoke of music, and asked me questions, and I, of course, did not attempt to touch his field.
Before saying auf wiedersehen he asked how I had liked his playing the violin the week before at the home of friends. I remembered too well, but hesitated to answer. "How did I play?" he repeated.
I said, "Eh, relatively well!"
My great wish was to hear Pablo Casals. One day my desire was almost fulfilled and I met him. But ironically, it was I who had to play. It was in the home of the Von Mendelssohns, a house filled with El Grecos, Rembrandts, and Stradivaris. Francesco von Mendelssohn, the son of the banker, who was a talented cellist, telephoned and asked if he could call for me; they had a guest in the house who would like to hear me play.
"Mr. Casals," I was introduced to a little bald man with a pipe. He said that he was pleased to meet young musicians such as Serkin and me. Rudolf Serkin, who stood stiffly next to me, seemed, like myself, to be fighting his diffidence. Rudi had played before my arrival, and Casals now wanted to hear us together. Beethoven's D-Major Sonata was on the piano. "Why don't you play it?" asked Casals. Both nervous and barely knowing each other, we gave a poor performance that terminated somewhere in the middle.
"Bravo! Bravo! Wonderful!" Casals applauded. Francesco brought the Schumann Cello Concerto, which Casals wanted to hear. I never played worse. Casals asked for Bach. Exasperated, I obliged with a performance matching the Beethoven and Schumann.
"Splendid! Magnifique!" said Casals embracing me.
Bewildered, I left the house. I knew how badly I had played, but why did he, the master, have to praise and embrace me? This apparent insincerity pained me more than anything else.
The greater was my shame and delight when, a few years later, I met Casals in Paris. We had dinner together and played duets for two cellos, and I palyed for him until late at night. Spurred by his great warmth, and happy, I confessed what I had thought of his praising me in Berlin. He reacted with sudden anger. He rushed to the cello. "Listen!" He played a phrase from the Beethoven sonata. "Didn't you play this fingering? Ah, you did! It was novel to me...it was good... and here, didn't you attack that passage with up-bow, like this?" He demonstrated. He went through Schumann and Bach, always emphasizing all he liked that I had done. "And for the rest," he said passionately, "leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge by counting only the faults. I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one note, one wonderful phrase." I left with the feeling of having been with a great artist and a friend.
I was the possessor of a so-called Nansen passport, established by the League of Nations for people who lost their own country of birth and were wanted nowhere else. The strange document attached to me gave no indication as to my nationality, and the place and date of my birth were so illegible that each time I entered a new country the officials argued if I had been born at all. Landing in New York, Oscar Wilde, when asked what race he was, wrote, "Human." A man with a Nansen could not be that witty when crossing borders. I just tried to impress upon the border police that I was harmless and that I would quit the country immediately after my concerts, and only after signing papers to that effect would I be reluctantly admitted. The main objective of a Nansen passport was to provide the right to stay in a country, but it gave no right to work. Once a Nansen individual had been let in, there was no place where he could be deported, and so that country was stuck with him. To obtain visas for my engagements was the nightmare of all the concert organizations and managers. But I respected my mile-long document, filled with innumberable visas, stamps, stipulations, and warnings. In fact, I was quite fond of my Nansen, an emblem of honesty and truth. Honesty, because no crook, no spy would choose such a credential for his operation; and truth, because I really had no country and existed on a strictly temporary basis only where my services as a musician were needed, at the time they were needed. To travel with a Nanse, one had to be endowed with patience
and tolerance and no little sense of humor. With years of training I think I qualified.
Being met by the police upon arriving in a city, marching through the streets with them to headquarters, and seeing one's name on posters plastered on the walls became a habit.
To be a fugitive in the morning and the government's guest of honor that night after the concert made the procedure amusing.
It was a dream of several Nansen colleagues of mine to graduate to some more convenient passports for travel. One of them had such a stroke of luck. Fishing one beautiful day in a lake on the outskirts of Berlin, my friend Karpilowsky, a member of the Guarneri String Quartet, lamented his illegitimacy to a kind old Chinese who was also fishing. He happened to belong to the Chinese Embassy. The fish were biting, and a good meal by the campfire sealed the friendship between them. Some more fishing trips together, some more mutual understanding, and upon my friend was bestowed a Chinese passport. Caressingly he showed the beautiful document. "My troubles are over," he said. He learned to slant his eyes when needed and to pronounce Kar-pi-low-sky in nasal syllaables, a sound he believed was Chinese.
Vladimir Horowitz and Nathan Milstein had an equally marvelous opportunity, on the strength of their contributions to the charities of Haiti, to become recipients of passports as honorary citizens of that country. They needed no visas, and their comfort was almost complete. "Almost" because of the puzzlement of the officials over the slight discrepancy of color and name with the natives of their land.
I don't know how and when Karpilowsky parted with his Chinese passport, but Milstein, upon his arrival in New York, needed to answer only two questions-"Where were you born?" "In Odessa." "Have you ever been in Haiti?" "No"-to land on Ellis Island. His alarmed managers went to his rescue. Horowitz was expected with the same credentials on the next boat, but the immigration authorities, well prepared, treated him kindly.
My accompanists in Europe had to be regular citizens, no matter of what country, in order to travel with me. Mr. Benzinoff, who had just arrived from Leningrad, was highly recommended for my concerts in Spain. With a Soviet passport he had no difficulties getting visas. He was a fine fellow, and very hungry. After rehearsals we went off on the tour. We changed trains in Paris, and in the taxi to the other station I said to Benzinoff, "I am sorry not to have time to see my manager here, who is a prince, and his assistant, a colonel, both Russian emigrants." Benzinoff, in his pure Russian, responded, "A prince and a colonel-but no general?"
"I am a general," said the taxi driver, in equally good Russian. "My milkman is an admiral, I buy tobacco from a banker, and my laundryman is a duke."
"In Russia," whispered Benzinoff , "we thought they all were dead."
Benzinoff did not speak any language but Russian. In the dining car he had no need to speak, for we were automatically served a fixed menu. Benzinoff finished his soup with prodigious speed and, extending his plate to the waiter, said, "Soup." The waiter obliged and after each course he brought second helpings at once. Benzinoff, completing his two meals, aited contentedly while I paid the bill for three dinners. Back in our compartment, he took a nap that lasted until we reached the Spanish border.
Our first concerts were in Algeciras and Malaga, followed by Gibraltar, a place not particularly known as a musical Mecca. The hall where the concert took place was sort of a club, half filled with smoking, coughing people who, I assumed, belonged to the garrison of the fortress. They were all men. The most remarkable thing about this concert was the piano. A man whom I took for a stagehand walked with us on the stage without our invitation and, taking the place next to Benzinoff, proved himself the most valuable performer of all. He lifted up the stuck-down key. He had a prodigious technique. Never, even in the fastest passages, did he miss lifting up a single key. The dedicated key lifter responded to the applause of his clamoring public and took bows with us. After the concert he showed us with pride the signatures inside the piano, which included the names of Paderewski, Cortot, and others. "I had some fine performances with them all," he said.
The concerts in Spain began at odd hours. In Malaga it was at six-ten in the afternoon. On a wall in the artists' room hung photographs of the musicians who had appeared there. Among the familiar faces was Schnabel's, dated just a few months before. I asked the president of the music society how he had enjoyed his concert.
"Enjoyed? After five Beethoven sonatas he gave the Diabelli Variations as an encore.
Just think, almost a fifty-minute encore. I thought they would kill him." It made me think of a talk Schnabel ahd with a reporter who asked, "What makes your programs so different form the other pianists?"
Schnabel replied, "My programs are also boring after the intermission."
Our next concert was in the Hotel Victoria. The clerk at the desk put questionnaires before us. I filled them in quickly. Feverish and with a sore throat, I wanted to be in my room. The clerk, who spoke only Spanish, put his finger on one unanswered question and, looking at me, asked, "Casado?"
"What's that?" wondered Benzinoff.
I said, "It's the name of a Spanish cellist, Gaspar Cassado."
The clerk repeated the question, louder: "Casado?"
"No," I said, "Piatigorsky."
"Casado?" He banged the paper with his fist.
"No," I yelled back, "Cassado is short, I am tall, must everyone with a cello be Cassado? I am Piatigorsky."
Later I discovered that in Spanish casado means "married."
I did not know Madrid and had looked forward to seeing the fabulous city. It was not my fate. I had the flu. After a miserable night I called the floor waiter for breakfast. It was not really breakfast that I wanted, just something hot to drink. Benzinoff was up early and already downstairs in the dining room.
The waiter entered. He was short and blond. He wore a soiled full dress with black tie and folded on his arm was a large red napkin.
I said, "Lemonade, very hot, please."
"Bitte?" he asked.
"Oh, you are German?" I rejoiced. Finally I would be understood.
"No, Swiss," he said. I noticed his eyes sparklel. He jumped forward, unfolded his napkin, turned sideways, stamped with his foot, and, yelling "Ole! Ole!" stormed toward the corner where my cello stood. So unexpected was it that I could not utter a word. "Here is the bull-here is the great Belmonte. Ole! Ole!" He waved the napkin. He kneeled, letting the imaginary bull sweep past, got up again, and, performing a veronica, ripped open his trousers.
Benzinoff came back. "He is crazy," I said. "Do something!"
My voice was week and hoarse. At this moment the waiter, as if he understood Russian, said quite calmly, "Lemonade? Sofort," and left the room.
"They serve a fabulous breakfast here," Benzinoff said dreamily, and soon fell asleep on the couch.
The two days before the concert were nightmarish. Benzinoff gained weight and I was practically dying. I grew so weak that Benzinoff had to shave me and help me dress for the concert. It was nice of him, and I was grateful for his carrying my cello and holding me by the arm on our way to the Teatro Zarzuela.
How I got through even the first part of the program I will never know. It was a supreme effort and I played in agony. The intermission, as was the custom there, was expected to last almost as long as the concert itself. We were summoned to the royal box. Someone gave me a pill, which tasted like burning kerosene in my mouth. I was helped through the long passageways and upstairs to the loge.
The royal family was gracious. I tried to smile, thanking them for the honor, and pretended to listen to what they were saying. My temperature must have jumped as my eyes focused on Benzinoff, just as he patted the shoulder of a lady in waiting, or was it the queen? He seemed as though in his own family circle-happy and free and quite undisturbed by the signs and whispers of the president of the concert society.
We concluded the recital and I was put to bed again. With hot lemonade on a tray the waiter said, "I liked your concert, your bull fiddle and all, but My cousin, Don Fritz, wanted more action-a stupid fellow."
I asked him to call a physician. The doctor arrived, listened to my heart, took a look at my throat, and said something in Spanish. The waiter translated, "He said you will die."
"I know, but when?" I thought he was joking. After a conference with the doctor the waiter said, "Soon." His visit was short. "No prescription," said the waiter. "It wouldn't be valid without a stamp of the Department of Health-it's closed now, also on Saturdays, and the day after tomorrow is Sunday...."
I handed Benzinoff all the money I had. "Run to the station, please. Buy tickets to Berlin, the best accommodations you can possibly get."
He certainly did. Each of us had a bedroom de luxe with a salon in the middle.
I canceled the rest of the tour. Benzinoff packed my bag and helped me to the station. Though sick, I was grateful for being on my way home.
"There is no dining car," said Benzinoff sadly. "In the hurry of departure, I ate very lettle. ARen't you hungry also?" I moaned, "No." He left the compartment but after a while came back again. "Our car is cut off from the diner." He was agitatged. "I should have bought a couple of those dinner baskets they sell at the station. They are terrific-fried chicken, cheese, fruits and wine." His tongue clicked.
Later at night, in his pajamas and bare feet, he came in to ask if I needed anything. "If I could only sleep," I said. He listened to the rhythm of the train. "You hear? It is going to sop!" He grabbed some money from the table and rushed out. I heard brakes screech and the train was brought to a stop. But almost as soon as it stopped, the train was in motion again, gaining speed rapidly.
"There goes Benzinoff's chicken," I thought. I looked at the door, expecting him to enter. I waited. "Perhaps he is in the corridor," I wondered. Almost fifteen minutes passed without a sign of him.
"Benzinoff!" I called as loud as I could. "Are you in the bathroom?" There was no answer. I tried to get up. My legs were weak. I rang the bell for the proter, but no one came. What could have happened to him? Finally I wobbled into his room and took a look at the passage. Suddenly there was a big jerk, followed by a still rougher one. It threw me on the floor. The train stopped. I made my way back to bed.
At last Benzinoff returned. His face was black, his pajamas torn, his hands clenched to a basket, and he grinned at me. "Oh boy, I made it!" he said. "There was a fellow selling dinners, but just as I snatched the basket, I heard the train move. I ran like mad and jumped on the steps of teh last car. The door was locked. I had to hang onto those steps. Was I scared!" He sat on my bed and ate as he spoke.
I don't know why-whether from watching him tearing and biting into the chicken, from laughing, maybe from seeing him safely back, or was it a few good gulps of wine from the bottle?-but I did not feel sick any more.