|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
"You are seven today. It's your birthday. Come on, hurry! There is something waiting for you," my father said as he awoke me. I followed him into the living room, where the entire family was assembled. I saw a cello. "It's real, not a quarter of half size as for children." I stood awe-struck, not daring to touch it. It was my first cello, and even before I could pluck the strings it was next to me at all meals and at my bedside at night.
My first teacher was Father, who, although a violinist, thought he could teach me. "They all are one big family," he said. But once, when trying to demonstrate something on the cello and producing a series of squeaks and scratches, he conceded that sometimes relatives are incompatible and he had better find a good cello teacher for me. I started lessons with Mr. Yampolsky, working with furious enthusiasm and making fast progress. I liked my teacher and his beautiful cello. It was golden red and shiny, while mine had a muddy varnish and ungraceful shape. Soon I began to criticize it openly, and asked for a better one. "By making you wait longer, you will feel more deserving of it later," said Father. I certainly waited a longtime for it, in the meantime developing a contempt for the bulky monster I had to live with. Finally one day Father brought me to a violin shop to see two instruments. Without hesitation, even before playing, I pointed toward the nicer-looking one, which was darker
"One does not judge by looks," said Father.
"The other has a fat belly like Uncle Leo," I protested.
"What! What is this, a joke?" screamed Father.
Needless to say, I brought home the cello my father chose. As though he had just bought a pair of shoes for me, he explained, "You will see that this cello will prove most wear-resistant."
Mr. Yampolsky had to leave town, and I became a student at the conservatory of music and, dressed proudly in its uniform, entered the class of Mr. Gubarioff. My new teacher, who was also director of the conservatory, had a well-groomed mustache. He had an enormouse stomach that separated his cello from him and made it appear as if it stood by itself. I was impressed by everything: his melodious voice and the smell of mint emanating from his mouth. He had a large supply of mint drops that he offered me during lessons.
Father supervised my practicing. One day he walked into my room and saw a big pillow on my stomach, holding the cello. "What's that?"
"I am trying to play like my teacher," I said, my mouth full of mint. "Doesn't it smell divine?" I puffed into Father's face. I did not stay long with Gubarioff.
During the summer season there were open-air symphony concerts. Many members of the orchestra came from various parts of Russia. The visiting first cellist, Mr. Kinkulkin, a pupil of the famous Professor Klengel, consented to listen to me.
While I played, Mr. Kinkulkin tapped his tiny fingers on a table and cleaned his nails with a toothpick. He remained silent until I had put my cello away. "Listen carefully, my boy. Tell your father that I strongly advise you to choose a profession that will suit you. Keep away from the cello. You have no talent whatsoever."
I repeated to Father what Mr. Kinkulkin had said. He looked at me, surprised, but said nothing. At first I felt happy to be able to join my playmates in their soccer games, but after a week or so I began to look uneasily at the corner where the cello stood. It was increasingly difficult ot ignore it.
"What bothers you?" asked Father. I pointed at the cello.
The sound of the cello filled the house again. I thought nothing of getting up at four in the morning while the family still slept and practicing with the soundless system I devised-my fingers on the fingerboard and the bow in the air.
Father was not an ordinary man, and though he never achieved anything substaintial, he made important mistakes. Grandfather wanted him in his bookstore and opposed Father's ever-shifting search for a career-as a theologian, philosopher, sportsman, and biologist. But above all, he opposed Father's mightiest ambition-to be a concert violinist. Grandfather threatened to stop his financial support should Father disobey. When Father left to study with professor Auer in St. Petersburg, he did not believe that the threat would be carried out, but it was. Soon after his departure, I was elected to ask Grandfather for help. My ambassadorship was a disaster.
"I won't give a penny. I predicted that this would happen," said Grandfather. His face was hard.
Early the next morning I left the house with my cello to look for work. But each day brought disillusionment, until my hopes vanished and I was ready to ask for any help. Returning home one day, I saw people carrying musical instruments, going in and out of a building. I too went in. There was a large hall and I saw groups of people. Some had long hair, some were crippled, many were old, and none looked prosperous. There were no chairs except one occupied by a man at a desk.
"What do you want?" he called to me, looking at my cello. "Come on, son. This is a hiring hall. Do you want a job?"
"But you're just a kid. How old are you?"
"And your parents want you to work?"
"They sent me here."
"Have you played anywhere?"
"AT home-quartets, with my father and brother."
"But that makes only three of you."
"I usually sing the part of the viola."
"Also a singer, eh? But we don't need quartets here. Do you know any gypsy music? He offered me his chair, settled himself on the desk, and I played Marussja Poisoned Herself and my own variations on Dark Eyes.
"There's a job in a night club," he said, puzzled, and as if speaking to himself.
"I would like it very much," I said.
I got the job, but we kept it a secret from Father. I brought home my wages regularly and gave them to Mother. All went well, but the make-up of the ensemble puzzled me. Why were there two women among us? Neither could play the guitar or the mandolin they held. When I asked the leader, he said, "Decoration-just furniture!"
I thought Vera was beautiful. She sat next to me, permitting me to inhale the perfume she wore. Everyone loved her and many customers demanded her company, making her leave the stage sometimes for hours. Occasionally she would come back very soon, but not for long. People wanted to see Natka also, but less often. I did not blame them. Her cheeks were too red and she had angry eyes.
On one rainy night, Vera offered to bring me home in a buggy. "Why don't you come to my place?" I will give you hot chocolate. You will see how I live," she said, caressing my hand.
She lit kerosene lamp much faster than my sister Nadja could. I looked around the small room. A terrier doll sat in the middle of an enormous bed. I touched it; it was soft and perfumed. Vera said that the chocolate would be ready in a minute. "Why don't you say something, my big little boy? You haven't taken your coat off yet. I will make myself comfortable." Swiftly, she pulled her dress over her head, throwing her rich golden hair into disorder. "Won't you stay with me? It's raining outside." She played with my hair.
In the morning after breakfast, dressed in freshly pressed trousers, meticulously groomed, brilliantined, and with a touch of perfume, I returned home. I found the entire family in a state of exhaustion from a sleepless night spent in worrying and looking for me. When I said that I had spent the night with Vera, I was surprised at the effect it made.
At work again, I attended to my duties absently. Why did Vera ignore me? I wondered jealously. She even exchanged seats with Natka. I hated the men who beckoned to her. Guests began to complain, "Is this a whorehouse or a kindergarten?"
"The kid is bad for business," the manager said to the leader. It was my last night.
The Coliseum was the first movie theater in Ekaterinoslav. Moving pictures were a novelty and everyone was proud of the new building. But none was as thrilled as I, for I belonged to it. I sat with my cello in the orchestra pit and saw the pictures even before the grand opening. It was a stroke of luck that the only available cellist in town was afraid of the dark when sober, and therefore did not want the job. The owner himself was present when I tried for the position. He and all eight members of the orchestra complimented me. When I emerged from the pit, the owner, putting on his glasses, gave me a looking-over.
"I'll be darned! Say, what's your age?"
"None one can see him down there, below," the contractor said. The owner hesitated. But there was no one else to be had, and I was hired. I ran home, holding fast to my cello, impatient to tell Mother the great news.
"It's a marvelous job," I said. "They will let me choose the music for the picture! It will be such fun-really different, not only playing the cello." I spoke fast. "You know, Mother, how it's done? You must come with me-will you? I will have a watch, paper and pencil for timing every action. Every mood must be illustrated with music. For instance, when the train comes, we will play TARARAM-TARARAM-TAM-TAM-you know, Rossini. There is a scene, Mama, oh, you will like it-a beautiful girl is kissed by a man and he is all bent over. I never saw anything like that-there is a bit of music, just perfect, by Tchaikovsky."
Mother smiled. "Don't you think it's time for you to go to bed?" She kissed me good night. Alone in my room, I thought of Father. I wished he were home. I missed him, his cheerfulness, and even his anger. Now I was never sure if I had done something wrong.
My first days at the Coliseum were exciting. The orchestra, the repertoire, the picture itself I felt were a part of my own creation. Before the week passed, my enthusiasm lessened. I sat deep in the pit. Drops of water fell on my head from the new cement on the low ceiling, and even after I covered my head with a cap there was no relief. I anticipated every drop before it reached me. There was no other place for me to sit, and no one volunteered to change places with me. I developed a strange tic-like grimace that alarmed Mother. On Sundays and holidays I had to play from three in the afternoon until midnight. I became irritable. Only my friend Stolpikoff in the orchestra knew how tired I was. He offered to play my part on the trumpet, but his own was more than he could handle. Besides, his lip was constantly sore. I think it was from eating too many peanuts. There was never such a peanut fiend. He liked them roasted. His pockets were full of them and wherever he went one could track him by bits of shells. A goodhearted man, he had not much to offer except sympathy and a handful of peanuts. To me, at the time, these were great riches.
It was one Sunday that I heard Stolpikoff urging the musicians to give me some rest. "The youngester will die."
"Shut up, you peanut-head!"
I was in the middle of the solo in William Tell, but I could not continue. "Play!" hissed the concertmaster (who was also the conductor). "Play, you bastard!" He hit me with his bow. All went dark in my mind. I must have done something terrible; I do not recall. But later, on the street, Stolpikoff told me that I had broken a chair on the head of the conductor and that among other casulties were a violin and Stolpikoff's trumpet. So ended my second job.