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

Chapter Eighteen

NERVOUSNESS experienced on facing an audience has many names. In German it is Lampenfieber, in Russian volnenie, trac in French, and in English stage fright. I hear people speak of butterflies in the stomach, of ants crawling on the skin, and of having the heart in the mouth. Every language and every individual has a different definition of this state, but where I am concerned the word "torture" explains the feeling I would have before a concert. I knew there was an empty chair standing and waiting for me on the stage that would be transformed into an electric chair, and that despite all agonizing fear I would stride toward it and appear composed and ready for public execution. I know it sounds dramatic, anyway too dramatic for someone who has been executed thousands of times and is still here to speak about it.

None of my colleagues' reactions resembled mine, and since they were seldom willing to discuss it at all, I had to rely on my own observations as to the degree of their afflictions, if any, and their methods of helping themselves. So many denied the existence of stage fright that at times I suspected I was its only victim. It's true that there were colleagues whose last action before stepping on-stage had been to vomit, and that Chaliapin had imagined having lost his voice. Yet most of my friends, while admitting their nervousness, thought that it was to their artistic advantage. Kreisler laughed when I spoke of my anxieties, and assured me that he was ignorant of such things. There are colleagues who devour steaks before concerts, and there are some who act as if they were going to a picnic in full dress. When I asked Iturbi, he looked at me thoughtfully and laid his hand on his heart. "It goes 'killee, killee, killee,'" he emitted shrilly, and walked away. His description was as good as any.

Nervousness can be contagious. Maestro Toscanini, one night before we appeared together, paced the dressing room in which I practiced, warming up for the concert. His quick steps, his grunting and swearing to himself did little for my morale. I tried not to pay attention to him and to concentrate on my fingers and cello, but who could ignore Maestro? For a moment I stopped playing. Toscanini stopped too. He looked at me and said, "You are no good; I am no good," took a deep breath, and began pacing again. I practiced, repeating passages frantically, and wished that I had died as a baby. After a while there was his terrible verdict again.

"Please, Maestro," I begged. "I will be a complete wreck." He was called to begin the concert and after the short overture he said to me in the wings just before we walked on-stage, "We are no good, but the others are worse. Come on, caro, let's go."

Although I could not put my finger on exact reasons for my stage fright, there was an awareness of multiple hazards connected with public performance. Fear of a memory slip; introduction of a new work or a first performance of an old one; concern about bad acoustics or an unpredictable audience; fear of appearing in "important" cities in which one had not appeared before or in which the last concert had been especially successful or not successful at all; anxiety that the instrument was not in order or the weather was too humid or too dry, or, worse, that one was not adequately prepared, and the fear of self-punishment for it. The dread of insulting reviews, varieties of superstition. or even worry about one single passage or note could cause distress. I felt the impact of nervousness at rehearsals, and even when playing alone at home, and the duty of practicing and being well prepared was not a cure for ever-present concern before the performance.

No one can foresee the imponderables that lurk at the concert to catch a musician off guard. Even a simple thing like putting a new pair of cuff links in a full dress shirt cannot be done without caution. In Prague a Japanese gentleman, returning his compliments after I had signed a record of mine for him, presented me with silver cuff links. They were connected by a chain, and on each side were engraved Japanese characters.

"What do they mean?" I asked.

"Something very good-very. Please take them." I wore them at my next concert. They looked good on my cuffs. The concert went well, too, until I came to the softest dolcissino passage, which was spoiled by the tinny clinking of the coff links. It was the vibrato that caused it. I stopped it, and the sound became unexpressive and dead. I vibrated again, and again there was that clinking to ruin the music. "Never again," I said after the concert.

But a year later, in London, having left my regular ones at home and having no choice, equipped with the Japanese cuff links, I entered Queen's Hall to play the Elgar concerto. During a passage when in a swift movement of the left hand I was about to reach a high note, the cuff links got stuck on the shoulder of the cello, preventing me from getting there.

With the sharp edge of the very same links I cut my finger in Stockholm. I threw them in the wastepaper basket, but found them back home in the mail. I still have them. They are unlosable, and there is no one I dislike enough to give them to as a present.

Even healthy pleasures before a concert can have disastrous consequences. On a cold day in Amsterdam, when all canals were frozen and the entire population of Holland was ice skating, I mournfully went to rehearsal. Not even Pierre Monteux and the magnificent Concertgebouw Orchestra could completely take the ice skating off my mind.

I had lunch with friends who had a beautiful daughter who loved to skate. It was not difficult for her to persuade me to go with her after lunch. With rented skates on my feet I dashed off smartly, but after a few figure executions I bumped into someone or something and crashed down. With a sharp pain in my hand and thinking of the concert that evening, I reproached myself bitterly, but too late.

By the time of the concert the thumb of my right hand, swollen and red, was barely capable of holding the bow. Yet I played. Desperately I tried not to let the bow fall out of my hand. I held it in my fist and so brought the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto to a conclusion.

We began the adagio. The pain was intolerable, and before the beautiful movement ended I couldn't hold back the tears running down my face. It took an unusually long time to proceed to the finale. No wonder! After such a touching performance many were crying with me. It was a "triumph," and echoes of it reached my ears long after the doctor took off the cast from my thumb.

Public reaction is a mysterious phenomenon. Did my performance deserve such a favorable reception? I would be the last to be able to judge, because it was not the music but the pain and the exasperation that had been my only preoccupation. I cannot, however, doubt that with an undamaged finger the performance would have been superior to that which I gave. Equally, I am certain that the response woudl have been less impressive.

Unlike in Amsterdam, where I was guilty of negligence by skating before a concert, in Vienna I was reasonable innocence itself. Well rested and well prepared, I looked forward to playing the Haydn Concerto under the direction of Bruno Walter. We had played often together, and the rehearsal with the Philharmonic could not have gone more smoothly. I was informed that the concert had to start exactly at seven. There would be no overture, because a Mahler symphony was to be broadcast at seven-thirty. At that, there would barely be time enough after Haydn for the chorus and vocal soloists to come on-stage. Though I thought it strange to open the program with a concerto, I complied.

In the evening we entered the stage chronometrically at seven. Walter was impatient to begin, but due to the noise of the still-arriving audience and the weak but continuing applause, he could not proceed.

"Take a bow," he said to me.

I said, "No, it's for you." The applause increased.

"Let's take the bow together," Walter urged as the applause increased. In waiting I recalled that there had been a heated debate in Vienna about who should be named director of the Staatsoper. Many favored Bruno Walter, and tonight, undoubtedly, was an expression of protest that the position had been given to Clemens Krauss.

When Walter finally faced the audience, there was an enormous ovation. After repeated bows the applause slackened enough to permit us to begin.

I cannot recall ever giving a better performance of Haydn. Even the brisker tempi (we had to!) appeared delightfully right. The very second we brought the concerto to a close, the chorus, soloists, and members of the larger orchestra for Mahler stampeded onto the stage, and before I realized what had happened the Mahler was under way and I found myself in the green room. Not a soul came to see me, and after a while I slowly walked alone back to my hotel.

I wondered which I preferred-the unanimous success after a handicapped performance in Amsterdam or a fine concert in Vienna of which I was the only enthusiast.

Accidents, the dread of performers, are often the crowd's delight. A broken string or a bow slipped from the hand and its flight into the hall will not fail to provoke enthusiasm. During a concert in Detroit my starched collar snapped open. Not having time to secure it back into its place, with both sides of the collar flapping like wings I sailed through the concerto. so enormous was the effect that I contemplated repeating the trick later by fastening my collar insecurely, but it never worked again.

Another far more serious accident happened in Hamburg. An atmosphere of earnestness preceded my performance of the D-minor solo suite by Bach. Inexplicably, my memory limited itself to only the first open D, and not one note further. I kept tuning my cello, all the while hoping the continuation would come back to me. But the more I tuned, the less I knew what followed the D. I had to start. My fingers would automatically follow, I was sure. Determinedly I struck the D, but stopped, and to an embarrassing silence pretended that my cello needed some more tuning. Realizing that I couldn't sit there forever and having no alternative, I finally began. I improvised and, my heart pounding, I tried to foresee how it would develop and end. It was a very long preludium, but I finally reached the concluding chord. Glancing at the hall, I saw Professor Jacob Sakom and his cello students staring bewilderedly at their scores. "It is amazing," said Sakom after the concert, "I don't know that edition of the preludium. Most interesting. I would love to see it."

In the morning he came for breakfast. "The critics and everyone loved your Bach," he said. I laughed and confessed that it was "my" Bach indeed.

A strange profession. One might be physically and mentally in perfect form, only to give a poor account of one's self; or be sick and under unfavorable circumstances give one's best. The climate of the traveling musician is neither mild nor steady. He is praised and insulted at the same time, often after the same concert. He might be a gold mine in Buenos Aires and financial fiasco in Chicago. It is precisely this that can make him keenly aware of money. Yet while he is capable of being shrewd in business, this gift cannot function while he is composing, practicing or performing.

At times the musician's ability in practical matters reaches extraordinary refinement.Here are two rather creative examples:

I worked with Igor Stravinsky in Paris on the cello arrangement of his Pulcinella Suite. I enjoyed our meetings so much that I felt sorry to see the work, which Stravinsky christened Italian Suite, completed. Before the manuscript was sent to print, Stravinsky came to see me in New York. He produced a paper and said, "Here is the contract for you to sign. But before you do so, I want to explain the conditions."

"Conditions? But dear Igor Feodorovitch, I did not count on anything. I was happy to collaborate, and I am glad that the Italian Suite will be published."

"No, my friend, you are entitled to royalties. I insist. The question is, if you would agree to the proposition, which is fifty-fifty. To be sure, half for you, half for me."

"But really!" I protested, not wanting to hear of such a thing.

"I am not convinced you understand. May I repeat again: fifty-fifty, half for you, half for me. You see, it's like this: I am the composer of the music, of which we both are the transcribers. As a composer I get ninety per cent, and as the arrangers we divide the remaining ten per cent into equal parts. In toto, ninety-five per cent for me, five per cent for you, which makes fifty-fifty." Chuckling, I signed the contract. Since then I have shied away from fifty-fifty deals, but I continue to love Stravinsky's music and to admire his arithmetic.

No less admirable a device was unfolded when Schnabel, Hubermann, Hindemith, and I planned to commemorate Brahms's centennial with a cycle of his chamber music for piano and strings, to be given in Hamburg and Berlin. We agreed smoothly upon the programs and dates, and even the question as to how to divide the fees seemed simple, at first. There was no doubt in my mind that it would be in equal parts, but Hubermann and Schnabel wre silent. Finally Hubermann suggested that the matter of money should be left to the managers. (Undoubtedly he was certain that if this procedure were adopted he would come out best.) Irritated, Schnabel came with a winning trump.

"Gentlemen, we waste our time. The fee should be divided into thirty-five equal parts."

"Why thirty-five!" exclaimed Hubermann.

"It's simple," said Schnabel. "We will pay thirteen works for the piano and strings: three trios, three quartets, three violin sonatas, two viola sonatas, and two cello sonatas-thirty-five aprts in all. As all thirteen works are with piano, I should receive thirteen thirty-fifths of the fee. The violin will be minus two cello and two viola sonatas, and will thus get nine thirty-fifths. The cello will get eight thirty-fifths, and the viola five thirty-fifths." With months agape we all extend to counting the notes, in which case I would have come out much worse.

It is the practice of concert managers to list on the artist's schedule the hour and date of rehearsals and concerts, the fee, and composition to be played by the soloist. But other details, such as the name of the conductor and the rest of the orchestral program, are seldom mentioned at all. When I entered the stage for rehearsal in Frankfurt-am-Main and saw Richard Strauss, it was a shock. He was the last person I expected to be the conductor. I thought that it was a mistake and that I was in the wrong town, but as I was about to retreat he called for me.

"The Haydn Concerto," he said to the orchestra. After a few bars he stopped and said, "The tutti is too long. It's a concerto, not a symphony. We will make a cut." He counted the number of bars to be left out. "Let's try it." I listened to this impossible cut, but did not dare to protest. At the end of the first movement he asked me to play the entire cadenza. I did. "Who wrote it?" he asked.

I said, "It's mine." He murmured something that sounded like a compliment. After the cadenza of the second movement he asked with disgust, "Who wrote that?" This cadenza was also mine, but in my embarrassment I invented "Emil Schmorg."

"Schmorg? It's awful. I will write one for you right now. Gentlemen-intermission."

It was a long one. Strauss wrote with a pencil in my orchestra score (I still have it). When we were on the stage again he put the music in front of me, and after a few bars of the orchestra leading to the cadenza, I began to play it. There was a recitative after which, not believing my eyes, I saw the famous theme of Till Eulenspiegel. I played it. There was a roar of laughter. When it subsided, Strauss said, "I prefer the Schmorg."

Following the Haydn, everyone except me was in a fine mood for Don Quixote. I was very nervous. I had played it before, but was it the way the composer wanted it to be?

After the big solo variation in D minor there was a heavy silence. I didn't dare to look up at Strauss. "Why doesn't he go on into the next variation?" I thought anxiously. Finally he said, "I have heard my Don Quixote as I thought him to be." It was a supreme moment, which lasted even when at our concerts he looked at his watch during my long cadenzas of the Haydn Concerto.

Strauss spoke of his Don Quixote with affection. He conducted it magnificently. The reserved attitude generally associated with his conducting was replaced by pathos, humor, and passion, and his Sancho Panza was as characteristic as Cervantes had made him. Strauss's demands for the viola solo were hard to take, for instead of playing the part "beautifully" he wanted the violist to stutter and scratch.

"I have never been asked to play ugly and funny," protested the violist.

"Humor is a great art." Strauss answered.

Strauss promised me a cello concerto. His messages said that he had not forgotten, he would start soon, but years went by. The last time I saw him, in Vienna, he assured me again. Then came Hitler and the war, and the great loss to cello literature seemed of no importance any longer.

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