|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
CARANS FUR SIERRE, a little Swiss resort that had been chosen by Sascha for our summer vacation, had no huge mountains with snow and forbidding peaks. The hotels and little houses spread over a lovely valley that was surrounded by gentle mountains on all sides as far as I could see. It was a joy to my eyes, and I knew it would be a wonderful summer.
But after only a few days Sascha started reminding us of the next season's tours. His asking for programs and speaking of travel schedules gave me a feeeling of urgency, unpreparedness, and lack of time.
I counted eight-three concerts on my itinerary. I looked forward to those with symphony orchestras and one of chamber music with Bela Bartok, but I dreaded the thought of the recital programs, which comprised the bulk of my tour. I had to get used to my fairly new role as a virtuoso, and I had to learn to live up to what was expected of me. "Ungrateful" works had to be avoided. And while my daily work on legitimate music persisted as always, I was compelled to enter a territory, little known to me, of "effective" short pieces, fast ones that had to sound still faster, and all kinds of transcriptions for encores. To enter into the spirit, I acquired a fine collection of bugs: Bee by Schubert, Mosquitos by Fairchild, Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakoff, Butterfly by Faure, and a lot of tarantellas.
As much as in my student days all acrobatics on the cello had meant fun, today they were an embarrassment. Not one, of course, forced me to include unwanted pieces in my repertoire. It was I who did not want to retreat in protest, but rather to compromise and meet the challenge. The battle, without conviction, would not be won. But how to find incentive for my tarantellas?
To my rescue came recollections of the remarkable juggler Rasstelli, whom I saw in Berlin. Young and elegant, he threw balls in the air, making them, as if alive, perform miracles. With enchantment and disbelief I watched them in all combinations and rhythm fly and freeze after they fell on the tip of his nose, or travel as if driven by some unseen force around his unmoving, graceful body. When he did move, he was like the finest of classical dancers. Exhibiting his incredible skill, he did not tell profound stories. Perhaps he would not have wanted to if he could. Yet he was heard to remark, "Those balls are my Stradivari, my painter's brush, and the pen of the writer." Thinking of him, I taught my "bugs" to fly and zoom, and I demonstrated one of the "tarantulas" for my friends.
Nathan said, "It's a handy little thing, but what would your friend Schnabel say?"
"Yes, what would he say?" laughed Volodja.
"He once told me, 'I like bingo and I like cathedrals, but I hate bingo in cathedrals."
"That's good," Volodja said, giggling. "I too said something clever to Schnabel at Grisha's concert with him. I asked if he played Chopin and Liszt. 'No, I don't,' he replied, 'but after I have played all of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms, perhaps I will.' You know what I said? I said, 'I am doing exactly vice versa.'"
Although with a tremendous concert schedule ahead of him, Nathan, unlike Volodja and me, had no trace of restlessness. He was self-sufficient, unperturbed, and always neat; his friends, his surroundings, his violin, his exquisite cashmere sweaters, all existed to augment his pleasure. He was s sympathetic listener, and if at times I got out of hand with my outbursts and fiery speeches, he playfully encouraged, "Come on, Grisha, some more passion!"
Merovitch's cumbersome dissertations on the downfall of human morality and the labyrinth of the Russian soul met an equally merry end, after Nathan congratulated him on his light touch and brevity.
Nathan and I lived in a hotel, but Volodja had a house in which we spent much time. We played together and had many discussions about the programs, which we all found extremely difficult to compose. Those consultations did not end until the very deadline. Sascha assumed an authoritative role in all matters. We listened to his advice, and when alone we secretly scrutinized and criticized his suggestions, only to accept them in the end.
A keen interest in Volodja's and Nathan's work often distracted me from my own. Nathan's door was always open to me, and I only rarely found him without the violin in his hands. As long as he had his violin, no one could disturb him. Quite the contrary: such visitors were a stimulus for new ideas which would pop up spontaneously, to his delight. I never caught him practicing scales or any other exercises. In fact, he did not give an impression of practicing at all. He just played on the fiddle and with the fiddle. Occasionally he imitated other violinists, but when I asked him to impersonate one he particularly admired, he said, "It's dangerous, for if I succeed in playing like him, I would not want to play like myself ever again."
Nathan would drop in too when I practiced, but, impatient of listening inactively, he would appropriate my cello to illustrate his ideas. After I began to do the same to his violin on my visits, we agreed not to appear without our instruments at each other's place.
Although separated in age by only a few months from my friends-I being the eldest, Volodja next, and Nathan the youngest-I felt that I had lived very much longer. Professionally I had lived many lives, while since childhood their field and destination had been solely that of the virutoso. Without the experience of playing in orchestras, operas, operettas, chamber music, teaching, playing in restaurants, movies, and weddings, they could not be expected to understand my concern about embarking upon a strictly soloistic career. In this I was the youngest.
Nathan and Volodja arrived at the same time in my life, but they could not have been more different if they had come centuries apart. Nathan was always in full view; Volodja had to be found. I liked to watch one and to search for the other. Volodja was complex and elusive, and this searching had to depend on the light in which he wanted to be seen or to see himself. He did not make it easy.
But as an artist Volodja was a master in presenting music in its unmistakable, true dimensions. He worked tenaciously, with meticulous care to every note, every phrase, until all was fitted into one integtral form. His instinct was unerring, and his performance had a quality of spontaneity, as if it couldn't be otherwise and had just happened without intention or previous labor.
Volodja showed me manuscripts of his compositions from his youth-music for the piano, a sonata for violin, an unfinished piece for the cello, and fragments of other works. All had the mark of a true gift for composing.
The summer was ending and soon we would disperse in all directions. I was the first to leave. A long walk on my last day took me through the valley and into the rolling hills. I saw a farmer who, with a stick, spurred a calf along the path. The animal balked and tried to turn back, struggling unsteadily on its newborn legs. Only a few days old, the animal sensed it was being driven to slaughter.
Plagued by this pitiful sight, I returned to the hotel, packed, and left for the farewell lunch with my friends.
"I recommend the veal cutlet," said the waiter, "real tender."
(Strangely, the incident with the calf made me want to avoid vacationing again in Switzerland. Only once more did I do so, in Sils-Maria, and again I was with Horowitz and Milstein. That summer Horowitz became engaged to Wanda Toscanini, and it was then also that I met the Menuhin family for the first time. At that very first meeting I went for a walk with Yehudi's two little sisters. I didn't know how to strike up a conversation, and when I was just ready to make a cute remark in the best baby-talk manner, Yalta, the younger one, asked me what I thought of Schopenhauer. And before I could take a breath Hephziban demonstrated her linguistic prowess by reciting excerpts from Dostoevsky in Russian, Goethe in German, Pascal in French, and, by way of an encore, something in Hebrew. I learned that at home Yehudi and his two sisters spoke each day a different language. I loved my three young friends, who taught me, along with many other admirable things, never to make an attempt to treat even a baby like a baby.)
Harold Holt met me in London. A concert manager, he had chosen this professsion more as an exciting pastime than anything else. He knew as little of music as I of the diamond mines that were the source of his parents' fortune. Corpulent and jovial, he believed that most artists were crazy in an interesting sort of way. He had a considerable collection of tales about them. Reluctantly I felt that somehow my personality strengthened his attitude.
I was fond of him and his two unmarried sisters, Hilda and Mattie. The patriarchal dinners with his parents, the gentle father, and the lavishly bejeweled mother were always a pleasure. Harold's family for some reason was not happy about his occupation. I wondered why, beacuse Harold's position as the head of the leading concert management in England certainly spoke favorably for his chosen field.
Most of my concerts in England I played with Ivor Newton, an excellent pianist and the dearest of friends. Except for his presence, there was nothing sunny about our tour of the provinces. Abominable food at inflexible hours, humidity and cold in the hotels, having to get up every few hours during the night to put coins in a heater, the press receptions and the complications of having to weigh the cello and buy a special ticket for it before boarding a train-all this and more did not succeed in spoiling the pleasure of being in Ivor's and Harold's company.
There were concerts in many cities, but I believe it was in Bristol that while playing a suite by Bach I heard frightening noises that completely disrupted my concentration to such a degree that I was forced to walk off-stage. "I have hallucinations-I am cracking up," I thought in near panic.
"What has happened?" I saw the worried faces of Harold and Ivor.
What I had heard on the stage was so improbable and fantastic that I was afraid to be thought insane, but after a hesitation I said, "I heard, quite near me-I don't know where it came from-well, what would you say if I told you that I heard tigers, elephants, and lions?"
Harold burst into laughter. "I forgot to tell you. There will be an animal show here tomorrow. They put the animals under the stage tonight." Happy that there was nothing wrong with me, I continued the concert and was hardly disturbed any more by the roaring beasts.
This occurrence became one of Harold Holt's collection of amusing stories, and he used it many times. It came back to me from others, and even Harold himself, who, leaving the incident more or less intact, replaced me with some other of his artists.
Before leaving for Germany, I spent a few hours in London with Nicholas Medtner. I had admired him since my youth in Moscow, where the shy and unobtrusive man and his noble art had made him one of the most loved musicians. His brother, the violist, said to me once, "He is an eternity who thinks himself a day." In his modest apartment in London he spike hesitantly, as if he wanted to say something but couldn't. He went to the piano and played a few pages from a manuscript.
He stopped. He looked lonely and lost. "No one really wants my music," he said. He shouldn't have left Russia, I thought with heaviness, bidding good-by to the wonderful man.
Back in Germany after concerts in Dusseldorf, Koln, Essen, Dresden, and Leipzig, all with orchestra, I had a few days' rest in Berlin. I spent the time visiting old friends and going to the concerts.
One of the concerts was the guitar recital of Andres Segovia, whom I had not heard before. The exquisite artist transformed his intimate guitar into a miniature orchestra with many shades of color and timbre. Even the slides, which because of the frets made unwanted notes audible, did not mar my enjoyment. Astonished with his mastery, I stayed as long as he played for the enthusiastic audience. Just before he finished the last piece, which ended in a pianissimo, there was a loud cracking noise. Startled, Segovia looked at his guitar and hurried off.
I went to see him backstage. He looked heavier than from the stage, and his meaty hands felt too massive to have produced such delicate sounds. "My guitar, guitar," he repeated, as if it was the only word he knew.
Later Segovia told me that his friend, the maker of the guitar, had died in Madrid the very minute his guitar had split at the concert in Berlin.
It was a nice surprise to see Sascha, even if only for a few hours. He had good news for me-a contract for the United States for the 1929-30 season. He was jubilant. "The demand for you there is fantastic. Some dumbbells say we are lucky, as if you had no talent and your concerts were not planned and worked on with blood and sweat. But I must admit that there is such a thing as luck," he laughed. "Just listen to what happened to Nathan in Vienna. His introductory concert in the small hall of the Musikverein conflicted with an Adolf Busch violin recital in the big hall of the same building, the same night. But it was not conflicting, really, because Nathan was completely unknown in Vienna, while Busch's concert had been sold out."
Unhurrying, as though prolonging his pleasure, Merovitch continued. "The hall was empty, but you know Nathan. Before starting the concert, his only reaction was 'My violin sounds best in an empty hall.' At this very moment there was the sound of an oncoming crowd that noisily filled the hall. Nathan waited in astonishment for the overflow audience to settle. Every seat had been sold to the people who came to hear Busch's concert, which was canceled at the last moment. Nathan did not leave Vienna before playing several concerts for big audiences in teh big hall. Tomorrow, when you are in Vienna, you will hear about all this."
The first thing upon arrival in Vienna, I called Otto Schulhof, with whom I was to play the concert that night. He was a remarkable fellow who knew as only a few know how to blend his piano with the cello. Strictly a professional, he would play with anyone, anywhere, and anything, for his fee. But this did not reflect on his great sensitivity as an artist, which made playing with him a joy. I played with him many times in different countries and had never needed more than one rehearsal.
I was shocked to hear that Schulhof was not in town and that through some fatal misunderstanding on the part of the local manager I had no accompanist.
"I will be ruined. The concert must not be canceled," pleaded the manager.
In a few hours he called. "Here is an American, Richard Hageman. Do you know him?"
"I know his songs," I said. "He is a composer. Why?"
A short while later a tall man with glasses entered my room.
"My name is Hageman."
The tall man took his coat off, revealing a full dress. "What are we playing tonight?" he asked with an engaging smile. I handed him a brief case full of music. He looked through it. "I played the Beethoven Variations once-also the Strauss Sonata, though a very long time ago," he said, "Is there anything special you do in those works?"
"No, just as they are written," I said, trying to appear calm. Even under normal circumstances my nervousness before a concert was enormous. Now it was barely controllable. No wonder. To play a recital in Vienna with a man I had never seen before!
Whille I dressed, Hageman kept going through the music-the Boccherini and Debussy sonatas and other pieces. There were no questions, and by the time I was dressed the heavy silence was broken by the waiter bringing us tea and sandwiches.
The big concert hall was near the hotel, and we decided to walk.
"This is just what I need," said Hageman, going straight to the piano in the artists' room. "I can practice while you play the Bach. How long is the suite?"
"I don't know, but I won't omit a single repeat."
Soon I walked on the stage with a pianist with whom I had never had the slightest musical contact.
The miracle happened. From the first note it was as though we had played together for years. Such anticipation and understanding could rarely be achieved by many rehearsals and words. The great experience was unique also in another sense, for, though in years to come I had the pleasure of Richard's friendship, we never played together again.
I looked forward to going to Holland. I liked the canals there, the museums, the marvelous breakfasts, and of course the people, who were brought up to hear good music and wanted serious programs. I was also delighted to play again with Van der Pas, a fine musician and a friendly man. He accompanied many of the visiting artists and played often with Emanuel Feuermann.
"You know," he said, "Feuermann fooled me. He spoke Dutch-a strange Dutch, but Dutch. It took me a while to find it was Yiddish."
Three different programs played alternately in twelve concerts were well received. Completing the tour, I was ready to take off for France, to play in Paris, Lyons, and Marseilles. After paying my bill, I saw Anna Pavlova in the lobby of the Amstel Hotel. She had also finished her tour, and she looked tired. We spoke of the combined spiritual and physical efforts of artists, and she said, "Sometimes I wish that only the spiritual would remain." She made me promise to play The Swan for her in London. She died before I could keep my word.
In Marseilles the concert was with orchestra. I arrived punctually for the rehearsal, but found only a handful of musicians.
"It doesn't matter," said Georges Sebastian, the conductor, calmly. "They will be here sometime." I followed him on-stage. He introduced me to the few men present and said, "Concerto, please." Turningo me, he whispered, "We must pretend we are ready. They will hurry. It always works." True enough, I saw musicians rush with their instruments from all sides to their places. They greeted each other and tuned their instruments. In fifteen minutes or so a good half of the orchestra assembled.
"Concerto, please." Sebastian tapped the stand and I heard something that was supposed to be the concerto. It was so funny that I couldn't help laughing. Finally the orchestra was complete, with the concertmaster arriving last. He explained, "My barbershop was full. I couldn't refuse to attend to my steady customers." It was pitiful that those fine musicians could not earn a living exercising their profession.
That night the orchestra, as if wanting to make up for the rehearsal, played splendidly. After the performance we celebrated with bouillabaisse and good wine and we spoke of music and made ourselves believe that as long as there was music the musician's life was still the best.
After excessive consumption of bouillabaisse it was only logical for me to hurry to Vichy, but I did not go there to drink its mineral water but to play the Schumann Concerto with Sir Thomas Beecham. I had played with him on other occasions, and , appreciating his musicianship, I regretted that my shaky English hindered me in the appreciation of his famous wit.
The rehearsal went fine, and in the evening, had it not been for the hotel bellboy, I would have arrived at the concert in the best of spirits. As I was about to leave, the bellboy, catching me off guard, snatched my cello and before I could utter a word bicycled full speed with it toward the concert hall. I ran screaming after him and watched the cello swaying from side to side as the bicycle disappeared. Out of breath when I caught up with him at the stage-door entrance, he looked pleased with a job well done.
Fifteen minutes later I met Sir Thomas on-stage. He conducted with great gusto and the Schumann proceeded inspiringly. It continued so even after I noticed Sir Thomas swaying form side to side. It distracted me and brought my thoughts to the bellboy again for a moment. But I was glad that the preformance did not suffer from it.
After the concert we paid each other compliments.
Sir Thomas said, "Great playing."
I said, "Fine bicycling." He looked at me, surprised, but said nothing.