|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
ENTERTAINMENT-seeking Russian emigrants in Berlin knew Mary Bran. An energetic free-lance manager, she was often more colorful than the artists she represented. We did not work together, but we knew each other and were good friends.
"Grisha, beloved darling," was her customary approach. "I have an urgent matter to discuss with you." I listened. "Are there othere managers who would have risked their lives to save your cello-you remember?" She enjoyed reminiscing about my pre-Philharmonic days, when we both stayed at the Pension Pragerplatz.
"It's a fire-open up, quick!" she said as she banged on my door one night. The instant I opened the door, she stormed into my room. I watched her snatch my cello and rush out with it. "Follow me!" she screamed. "The fire escape is on your right." I caught up with her and as we stood in front of the building, facing each other in the deserted street, she said disappointedly, "A false alarm, I guess, thought I swear there was smoke."
"It was a nice run, anyway," I laughed.
Now, a few years later, we laughed again. "Listen, beloved darling," she said seriously. "It is the turning point of your career. Discher and Discher are here." Obviously she expected me to be impressed, and I did the best I could.
"Really?" I said, not knowing who Discher and Discher were.
"Yes, they are here-both of them. It was a stroke of luck that I met them right upon their arrival from the United States. They are leading American impresarios. Everyone knows that. In short, we can't waste time. You are going to play a concert with Furtwangler. I have to have two tickets for them. Please try to get three, with a seat for me between them." I promised her three tickets.
Backstage in the Philharmonic after the concert she introduced me to two dignified, gray-haired gentlemen in their fifties. They wore thick-rimmed glasses and didn't say a word.
"I will call you later." Maryy gave me a significant look and followed Discher and Discher out.
For several days Mary rushed to the Dischers and back to me to report progress in the contract negotiations. "It's already too marvelous for words, but I am still working." She was fire and flame.
The great day finally arrived and the contract was before me. It called for thirty appearances in the United States at a considerable fee and with all expenses paid. "The Dischers have invited us for a celebration," Mary said.
We all met for dinner in the lobby of the Esplanade and were led to a festively bedecked table. The two gentlemen looked official and equally festive. They wore dinner jackes, and their solemn bearing added still more to the importance of the occasion. No one spoke of the contract and the technicalities connected with the forthcoming tour. It was only after a few glasses of champagne that I asked what my programs would be and with what orchestras I was to appear.
"This should not be your worry," said the older Mr. Discher.
"Aren't the programs important?"
"A personality-that is important," he said, "and you have plenty of it."
"A toast to your triumph," offered the younger Mr. Discher.
"Shouldn't you have my repertoire?" I persisted. "Is there an interest in contemparary music?"
The Dischers exchanged smiles. "Whatever you play is okay. You will be a sensation, not a bit less than the great Magno was."
"Magno? Who is he?"
"You are a European, I see," answered Mr. Discher, smiling, "but never mind. Magno was stupendous, and something different."
"Yes, different," the other Discher agreed. Both gentlemen were in animated enthusiasm. "With your personality to work with, it's a cinch. You will be the greatest damned box-office attraction in United States show business."
"Show business?" my voice cracked.
"We will promote Piatigorsky, build him to a still-mightier Magno."
"What did you do?" I asked, refusing the dessert. "Tell me."
"Just as you, Magno was new to America, but as with you, we believed in him at sight. Signing him up, we promoted and sold him in Dischers' proverbial campaign. His first night in New York is now history-unbelievable and unforgettable."
"Have a cigar? No? Well, the packed house waited in suspense. Slowly the curtains parted, but the brightly lit stage revealed-nothing! It was bare. Mind you, completely bare. A large transparent aquarium magically rose from under the stage, flanked on either side by two mermaids and a Neptune. The lights went out, illuminating a magnificent display of sea life, fish of all colors and shapes, sea stars and all. The suspense in the audience reached an incredible pitch, as a spot-light followed Magno, a giant of your size and magnitude, approaching the aquarium. He stood in front of it and said-nothing! His magnificent face expressed-nothing! He just stood there, like a statue of a demon or like a god of the sea, as he was described in the vaudeville paper. The four assistants slowly lifted the aquarium, and the audience gasped as the fish and water began to flow into Magno's throat. They heard the stones rattle and saw the vegetation swallowed by the gigantic man. By the time the tank was empty, the house was in an uproar. Many fainted. The crowd-"
I choked. "I feel sick," I said, and hurried out.
An hour later, Mary Bran came to see me. She almost cried. "It's a disaster. You will never know how I feel. They are vaudeville agents-no, probably they are barkers for a freak side show. I shudder! What did they plan to do with you?!" I tried to calm her. She sighed and said, "They want damages to be paid for breaking the contract." I paid, and so ended my first prospect of an American tour.
Pleased at not having traded my position in Berlin for Discher and Discher, I looked forward to my next concert at the Philharmonic. Rachmaninoff was scheduled to appear. Before his arrival Furtwangler worked with the orchestra on Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto, mostly trying to clarify the many little cuts in the score, apparently made by the composer.
On the day of the performance Rachmaninoff sat in the first row of the hall and listened to the rehearsal. His furrowed face looked tired and troubled. His long fingers rubbed his short-cropped hair and his face, as if to refresh himself or to wipe out something tormenting him. Not once did he look at the orchestra, but oftern at his watch.
He rose. Lean and very tall, he walked to the stage. Not paying attention to Furtwangler, who was rehearsing a symphony, Rachmaninoff sat at the piano, looked at his watch, and thunderously struck a few chords. Perplexed, Furtwangler stopped. He looked at Rachmaninoff, who showed his watch and said, "My rehearsal time was ten-thirty."
With no further exchange the rehearsal of the concerto commenced. After five minutes or so Rachmaninoff walked to the conductor's stand and began to conduct. The orchestra had two conductors-Furtwangler, bewildered, and Rachmaninoff, swearing in Russian. Even after he returned to the piano the tension held on until the end of the long and unpleasant rehearsal. Still at odds at the concert, the two extraordinary artists nevertheless brought forth an exciting performance of a peculiar unity.
Mrs. Louise Wolf, preparing a reception to honor the visit of Rachmaninoff, asked me to play his sonata. My friend, the painist Karol Szreter, practiced fervently. No wonder: Rachmaninoff was his idol. Well prepared and eager, we watched the musicial elite of Berlin assembling in Mrs. Wolf's house. Rachmaninoff took a seat a few paces from Szreter and me. He looked as though trapped or forced to go through an ordeal.
The sonata went well. It had a spontaneous reception. Rachmaninoff shook my hand and said a few complimentary words in his aristocratic brand of Russian (strangely, with the same guttural r as Lenin's). Szreter, completely ignored, stood at my side.
"I will be three days more in Berlin. Please come and see me," and, pointing at Szreter, "but not with him."
I did not see Rachmaninoff, but I spent many hours with Szreter to help him recover from the incident. Several years later, meeting Rachmaninoff in New York, I said with a shade of reproach that Szreter had died. Sergei Vassilievitch, as though receiving good news, said, "Good, I wish him a kingdom in heaven."
Inexplicably the word "good" did not sound cynical, and the "kingdom of heaven" had a religious note and sincerity. As I became better acquainted with his complex nature, I came to understand his forbidding austerity, suspiciousness, prejudices, and dryness on the surface as scars from hard-fought struggles deep within him. His attitude may have been caused by an unwillingness to expose his innermost self, which was reserved for music alone. I heard from others that he rarely laughed, but once after I told him a joke he burst into such violent laughter that I was frightened.
He frightened me once more in his speedboat in Lucerne, when at the steering wheel, in rain hood and phantom-like, he raced, zigzagged and transformed the peaceful lake into a churning whirlpool. As if challenging the trust of his guest, he headed straignt for the shore, avoiding it by a sharp turn at the very last moment. He had a smile on his wet face. "You are not easily scared," he said. "You should have seen some other musicians. I like you." I more than liked him. I deeply admired him and he never ceased to fascinate me. But I never took another ride in his boat.
Leaving the Philharmonic one day, I ran into Tols. He smiled broadly and was looking very prosperous in a well-tailored suit.
"It's a fine suit you are wearing," I said. "I have one exactly like it."
"You had," he said. "You also had a gray one and a brown one-for all of which you have my compliments and gratitude. I hope you don't mind... I always approved of your taste."
I did mind, but there was nothing I could do. Tols rarely gave me an opportunity to react. This time he was pressed for money and he needed a physician to attend to the rather delicate situation of a female acquaintance. But whatever his requests, nothing surprised me. Judging from the past, the best I could do was to comply. This time the result was more than I expected-I did not see Tols for a very long time, which made me hope that he had found in someone else my successor.
Tols had many gifts allotted to him by nature, each one in microscopic quantity. Along with the bargain went numerous tiny defects. Together, they made a colorful figure. At first, in my appreciation for his help I magnified his good qualities, and on later occasions when he stood by me I minimized his faults; and by the time I was aware that only shortcomings were left and, at that, far from microscopic, it was too late. I was imprisoned already by my own gratitude. He was a source of never-ending trouble. He had to be helped out of jail and sent to faraway countries, wired money to come back, only to be sent or deported somewhere else again. The good-looking and healthy man easily picked up diseases, but were they tropical, venereal, or gastric, their stay with him was never long. He was versatile and changed occupations in rapid succession-manager of a Chinese laundry, veterinarian, masseur, reporter, impresario, and, at one more prosperous time, a co-owner of a night club. A free guest in prisons, when out he managed to get most things for free. During the years I knew him he had passports of seven different countries, the last of which was Honduras. He had been suspected of being a spy but I couldn't imagine for what country and, in France, of trafficking in narcotics. The last time I waw him he was as cheerful as ever. He introduced a woman who he said was his fiancee. He did not say what happened to his wife. I invited him and his fiancee for lunch, but they never appeared. I never saw him again.
Much later I heard that he died, but I do not know of what cause. Probably there are not many who miss this hungry-for-life, corrupt, goodhearted, and irresponsible man. He had helped me when help was needed and often made me laugh when I could have cried. Without Tols the world is not the same. Perhaps safer, but not the same, and I miss him.
Upon my return to Berlin from a concert tour I had an attack of appendicitis and was rushed to the hospital for an operation. The first meal I was served after surgery was frankfurters with potato salad. The fact that I enjoyed eating it promised a miraculous recovery, but a few hours later I thought I would die. Next day the surgeon slapped my stomach. "That's a good soldier!" he said in praise. I did not know exactly what happened, save that I became very ill. The ensuing complications kept me in the hospital for weeks.
Following someone's advice, I left for an Anthroposophic Clinic to complete my recuperation. Not clear what anthroposophy was, but fed with anthroposophically grown vegetables and provided with anthroposophic soap, I settled myself in agreeable surroundings. There was a building that stood like a temple. It was called Gotheanum. Its symbol was Goethe, its teacher, nature, which in turn I gathered had something to learn form man. I watched patients in the Goetheanum dance. Each gesture and each movement was supposed to signify a letter or a word. One said that their legs and arms had a rich enough vocabulary to be capable of performing Goethe's Faust without uttering a word. All this was rather intriguing.
I followed my physician's orders. I read articles on anthroposophy and I dreamed of Russian food. One day I went shopping and returned with salami, herring, borsch, sauerkraut, and an assortment of smoked fish. It was dinnertime and, putting aside the anthroposophic grasses, I had my private feast. The patients cast hungry eyes toward my table. Some joined me and helped themselves to my shockingly profane food.
While at the clinic I received many letters and I myself developed into a good correspondent. I even wrote to Stefan Zweig, whom I did not know personally but whom I wanted to tell of my esteem for his writing. He answered promptly. He said that my assumption that I did not know him was incorrect, that he had attended my concert in Vienna and that we had been introduced. A correspondence ensued and we saw each other at intervals in Salzburg, London, Vienna, and elsewhere.
Completely recuperated and in Berlin again, I plunged into concert activity. I played many contemporary works, some of which sounded like Grieg. But I also played the music of Anton Webern, which only a few undestood but which I had fun playing. There were standard Bach-Beethoven-Brahms programs and some ranging from rightfully forgotten music to the neglected works of masters; and there was the Schelomo by Bloch, which I introduced with the Philharmonic.
There were unusual programs with unusual comibnations of instruments, one of which was with my dear friend Joska Szigeti. It was his idea and, as usual with him, was an invigorating and challenging one. I was fond of him and I admired the great integrity of his art, and I looked forward to the concerts with him in Berlin and Frankfurt. The program was: Duo for Violin and Cello by Kodaly, Partita for Violin Solo by Bach, the Suite for Cello alone by Max Reger, and the Sonata for Violin and Cello by Ravel. Our rehearsals were pleasant but somewhat tense because Szigeti, unaccustomed to playing from music, was troubled by fast page turning in the Ravel. I must admit that those turnings were in the most inconvenient spots, which did pose a problem. At the concert, however, he solved this difficulty in an astonishingly practical manner. The large edition of Ravel he augmented by several more copies. He placed them all on a row of music stands, and, instead of turnign the pages, he simpley "walked his way" through the work.
When not playing myself, I attended the concerts of others. I went even to choral concerts and lieder recitals, performances at which it would be a rarity to see another virtuoso. If Moussorgsky had heard such German singers as Karl Erb or Maria Ivogun, to name just two, he would not have said that all German singers sing like roosters.
I eagerly awaited the recital of Heifetz. I had never heard him, but although only two years his junior, since my early childhood the name Heifetz, in Russia, was a legend. Not to miss his concert, I had to postpone mine in Hamburg. It was not easy, but well worth the effort. What supreme mastery over his instrument! It seemed that he had reached his Olympian heights-or rather, had been placed there-by forces other than human. He stood as if cut in marble, but I had to stop watching his perfect co-ordination and listen with my eyes closed to the unearthly beautiful sound of his violin.
Heifetz attended one of my concerts, and when we parted I hoped our paths would not only cross again soon but lead to a more permanent destination where we would have time to become friends and make music together.
(We not only met again, but our relationship as friends and our activity together as musicians spread over the past thirty-five years has a significance deserving of a voluminous account. Yet in favor of continuity and repressing the temptation, I will only offer something less than a skeletal sketch: We have recorded over thirty works together, we have taught, and we have made motion pictures. We have spent uncounted hours playing chamber music, Ping-pong and gin rummy [the latter without "kisses" and "around the corners," if you know what I mean.] We founded the Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts, which we continue to present. And at one time, with Artur Rubinstein, we held the dubious title "The Million Dollar Trio," bestowed upon us by Life magazine after our series of concerts in Ravinia.)
Jacques Thibaud came to town and as always brought his delightful stories for his friends. His talent for improvisation made his old and often-repeated tales new again. His visits meant late nights and chamber music at home. The music-loving world knew his exquiste art, but I wish that someone would put down for posterity his anecdotes and escapades. Witty and elegant, he would not hesitate to take a short leave form these virtues for a promising, even if slightly wicked, practical joke.
On this visit it was Thibaud who was provided with entertainment, and unwittingly at that. There was a chamber music concert that included the pianist Edwin Fischer and the corpulent double-bass player Godike, as well as myself. Thibaud came to hear it. Godike was late and we all waited with the "Trout" Quintet until finally he appeared. Even at his normal best, his Gargantuan dimensions had been a landmark of Berlin, but now, as he stood drenched and with his teeth chattering in full dress before us, he was a sight to behold. Speechless, he stared at the small pool of water collecting at his feet. "It's those two hoodlums who tried to hold me up as I crossed the bridge," he finally said. "I banged their heads against each other and threw them into the river. Then I had to drag them out to save the devils' lives." Shivering, he demanded a shot of brandy. He took three or four.
With no time to change or dry his suit he tuned his bass on the stage, and after we settled, his generous grin indicated that he was feeling fine. He appeared to feel better and better as we proceeded with the quintet until, unable to keep his happiness for himself alone, he began to talk to us and to the audience. We stopped. So did the laughter and Godike's clowning. The instantaneous silence sobered him, and as the quintet recommenced it turned into a good performance. Afterward, with tears in his eyes, Godike said, "I should have let the two bums drown rather than insult Schubert."
After a few pleasant days with Jacques he made me promise to hear Wanda Landowska. Thibaud said it was a crime that I never had. I went to hear her play the Haydn Concerto. She crossed the stage draped in something priestly, approaching her harpsichord as though it were an altar. There was the solemnity of a virgin offering and a mystic ceremony about to begin. But her performance was wonderfully simple and as exemplary as one would expect of a truly great artist.
After four seasons wiht the Berlin Philharmonic, my concert commitments had become so demanding that I was no longer able to remain with the orchestra, and we had to part. I think that my colleagues felt our separation as keenly as I, but Furtwnagler and I had many appearances scheduled together and we expected to see each other almost as much as before.
Herr Blanke, and old violinist, said with emotion how sorry he was to see me go without ever hearing me play.
"But I have seen you for years in the orchestra," I said.
"I was not listening. Since my nervous breakdown ten years ago, I stopped listening to music. The doctors forbid me to. They warned me it was my only chance to survive. At first it was hard, but I managed gradually to build a habit of not hearing what I or the others were playing, and since I made myself quite deaf to the voice of the conductor, I have had no troubles and feel Wunderbar."