|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
IN NEW YORK again, one morning I faced the great orchestra and Mengelberg. Carnegie Hall, the conductor, and the New Youk Philharmonic, with the exception of my friends and colleagues Alfred Wallenstein and Mischel Piastro, were new to me. The rehearsal commenced without the customary introduction to the orchestra. Mengelberg, a heavy-set man with an enormous head, boomed his instructions to the orchestra, which played too loudly to hear his voice. Taking the tempo much slower than was indicated in the score, he stopped, recommenced, stopped again, and the orchestra played louder and slower as it proceeded. I waited for an opportunity to communicate with the conductor. Finally, taking advantage of a short respite, I discreetly asked him to take a faster tempo.
He responded loudly, "I studied this concerto with the composer himself, and the tempo I am taking is the right one."
His nagging voice, mingled with the orchestra, went endlessly on. I stood up at least to be seen by him and perhaps to induce him to listen, but he gave me a sign to sit down and asked the orchestra to play once more from the beginning. He tapped with his stick, sang, and spoke, and the tempo became still slower. In such a predicament, when my entrance came at last after a long tutti, in protest I played faster than I generally would. He stopped. "You play too fast."
"No, you are too slow."
"It must be played as I conduct."
I walked out. The men in the orchestra applauded. I felt terrible. As if from nowhere, Judson appeared. "It doesn't look as if we could come to an understanding," I said. Judson, quite unimpressed, explained that it was Mengelberg's last season with the Philharmonca and that his life had not been easy. He also said smilingly that Mengelberg's musical information came semidirect, from a grand-grandnephew of Beethoven, or grandaunt of a grand-grandson of Bach. "You see, he has made it clear that while all others seek guidance from printed scores alone, he, having known Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Dvorak, and others in person, has weightier shoulders of authority to lean on."
I don't know what Judson said to Mengelberg, but we agreed to try once more. This time I met on the stage a new man, considerate and willing, and a fine conductor at the same time. The concert in the evening and the next day's performance went very well. But a few minutes before the third concert Judson announced that Mengelberg was sick, and Hans Lange, the orchestra's second concertmaster, would substitute.
"Without a rehearsal?"
"Don't worry," said Judson with confidence. This concert was the best of the three.
(I met Mengelberg again, on his own ground and with his Concertgebouw Orchestra in Holland. We played in Amsterdam, The Hague, and Haarlem in perfect accord, and made jokes about our bad tempers in New York.)
From coast to coast, in every major orchestra were Russians. Usually they were from the string section, the woodwinds being predominantly French and the brass German. Russian voluptuousness, French elegance, and German power, combined here and there with other nationalities different in schooling and culture, made the American orchestra a unit of unique quality. Playing with them, I played for them, and the degree of my satisfaction with the performance depended on their reaction to it. At the rehearsals I occasionallay turned my back to the empty hall and faced the orchestra. I wanted to see whom I was "speaking" to, and I thought that seeing each other would accelerate our personal and musical acquaintance. This procedure was not always without hazard. At times my eyes would catch an expression of such boredom on someone's face that I wished that I was facing the hall. I knew that most orchestras had at least one member allergic to music. It was locating him that was unpleasant.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic seemed not to have such people. The conductor was Artur Rodzinski, and although our rehearsal proceeded smoothly and almost businesslike, I was baffled at what could have provoked such an extraordinary reaction. Stamping, shouting, and applauding, the orchestra would not leave the stage. Surrounded by musicians, I played for them during the intermission and, after the rehersal was over, until late in the afternoon. Beforoe I reached my hotel, to my astonishment I found a front-page account of this rehearsal.
The concert, only a few hours later, culminated the unusual day. Its most interesting aspect was that, after the Don Quixote and the Dvorak Concerto, Mr. Clark, a wealthy patron who apparently sintglehandedly supported the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, brought my cello on-stage, insisting that I respond to the demands for encores. Movement after movement from various Bach suties followed, and the last orchestral piece on the program was not played at all.
"Have you had such success everywhere?" asked Rodzinski.
"Once is puzzling enough."
I knew Rodzinski from the time I had come to Warsaw. I was pleased to see him again and to know that he had grown to an important conductor.
I visited movie studios in Hollywood and met several screen stars. Watching Clark Gable act in a violent scene, I asked him what it was about. He did not know. He told me that in a previous take he had kissed a woman and tomorrow he would burn a ship, but only when the picture was put together would he find out why. So impressed was I with Joan Crawford that I left the studio late, almost missing the train for San Francisco. Enchanted with California and regretting the brevity of my visit, I started back toward the East to fulfill more engegements.
Concerts followed one after the other. Often I arrived and left a town without glancing at it by daylight. I wish that it had been so in a college town (I think, Madison, Wisconsin) where I stayed overnight and, lured by the magnificent sight of a lake, postponed my departure until late in the afternoon. The lake was solidly frozen, and one of the students invited me for a ride in a "sail sled." Pavlovsky gave a suspicious look at it and said that it was too cold and too windy, and that he would rather have a second breakfast with a coed than deal with this crazy contraption. I had not even heard of the existence of such a thing before, but, curious, I could not wait to know how it worked.
The moment I climbed on it a big jolt threw me flat on my stomach. I clung with both hands onto something as the sled whirled, jerked, and lunged forward and sideways all at once with dizzying rapidity. The wind pierced my ears and knifed my face and my body. The incredible speed with which we took off developed into a mad ride of gigantic jumps. With my eyes closed I had the sensation that I was in the air flying to my doom on the back of a witch.
Happily, there is an end to every nightmare, as there was an end to this ride. Exhausted, I could not utter a word or judge the duration of the ordeal, or recall what my pilot-student looked like or what he said. Taking an inventory of damages, I left the town with a slight limp, several bruises, a stiff neck, and a disclored nose.
I played recitals in a few towns, and by the time I reached Chicago all visible marks of Madison had disappeared. I looked forward to meeting Dr. Frederick Stock and to playing under his direction with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We became friends at once. Such a rapport between two musicians is not as much instantanious as it is an old bond that has been nurtured for years by a similar approach to music. This relationship as musicians and friends remained constant throughout the years to come, during which we never missed a season without making music together in Chicago. In addition to the majority of the known works, we played his own concerto and Hindemith Concerto, which was new to Chicago.
Chicago, with all its infamous reputation for gangsterism at the time, for me became a place of gentle friendships and cordiality. The house of Dr. Maurice Cottle, eminent nose-and-throat specialist and amateur violinist, and his wife, the remarkable pianist Gita Gradova, was the home of all "wandering" musicians passing through the city or traveling long distances just to spend an evening with them. One could never know for sure whom one would meet there-Toscanini, Elman, Rubinstein, Prokofieff, Heifetz, Horowitz-but one could be certain of having enough colleagues for a feast of chamber music. And if a cold needed to be cured, or an operation had to be performed, Dr. Cottle would see to it splendidly and, above all, gratis.
"Piatigorsky, who crossed the Dnieper River on his cello, will appear in our city," I saw often in the press. The absurd "saga." created by publicitgy, needed some explanation. "What did you use as oars? Your bow? Doesn't the cello have holes?" some reporters wanted to know. As I laughed off the absurd story, new ones were created.
In one town I found photographers waiting in my room. "It's late, I barely have time to change for the concert."
"We just want a picture with your cello. It will take a second." I quickly took my cello out of the case. "Is that the one you crossed the river on?"
"Hm-well-" Not wasting time in taking a normal pose, I put the cello under my chin.
This picture greeted me in many places and I had to make explanations to some worried mothers who complained of their children's strain in trying to hold the cello in the position they saw me illustrate in the paper.
Miss Dorle Jarmel, head of the publicity department at Columbia Concerts and an exceptionally intelligent person with whom I became fast friends, knew my feelings about the reprinting of "superlative" excerpts from reviews, particularly those bestowing royal rank, as "The King of the Cello" or "The Prince," but she said that this great democracy would not part with its temporary monarchs, its elected Tomato Queens, Sugar Tzars, and others.
Ready to leave a hall after one concert, I saw a group of young people conferring. Tired, I wished I could sign the programs quickly. Their leader advanced. "Is it true that you are the greatest cellist in the world?"
"No," I said.
"He's not. He said it himself," announced the leader, and they hurried out.
The ease with which people made friends I found unusual. "Call me Bill," proposed a man of whose existence I was unaware a few minutes before; his wife called me "darling"; and another citizen whom I never met at all insisted that I was a peach of a fellow. I rather enjoyed the friendly familiarity and the directness of people.The Old World often mistook this simplicity for a lack of refinement and traditional culture, on which Europe assumed that it held the patent. Europe's reproach of America was one toward an infant who had grown to a giant. Busy outgrowing his garments, he tended to appear awkward to those for whom he had never lost his reverence, but whose long-worn garb he had to patch.
My diet of people's company was quite unbalanced. On days of a concert I saw too many. On free days and on the train I was mostly alone. I practiced only spasmodically, as do all musicians on tour, and I read, explored new territory, or, fighting boredom, wrote limericks that never seemed to rhyme. And of course, whenever I could, I made new friends and saw old ones, like Mischakoff, who had not changed, except that he addressed me now in English.
In Buffalo I met a man who said that he had heard me in Warsaw. "You played the Boccherini Concerto in B Flat," he said.
It was never pleasant to hear of that work, arranged, orchestrated, and harmonized by others than Boccherini. Many cellists, including myself, decorated it with their own cadenzas, some of which were longer than the movements themselves. The great demand for this concerto was the more incredible, considering the prodigious output of this composer which remains unknown, while the most performed and recorded one was of doubtful authenticity. Aware of this and unable to locate the original score, I gradually stopped playing it and never agreed to put it on record.
"Do you remember that concert?" the man asked. I said that I did, but mainly because of the happy faces of Artur Rubinstein and Nela, his future wife, who were in the audience that night. The man laughed. "I knew him well," he said. "On his tours, Pan Artur Rubinstein traveled with his won little audience, of which I was the only male."
My next engagement was in Detroit. It was good to see Ossip Gabrilowitsch again and to meet his wife and his daughter, Nina. A surprise to me was the presence of Alexander Glazounov, who was to conduct his symphony at the same concert in which I was the soloist, accompanied by Gabrilowitsch. Old and flabby, Glazounov had a touching affection for people that seemed even more apparent here than in Russia. Although he was an unimposing conductor, phlegmatic and vague, the orchestras in Russia, loving and respecting him, did not spare themselves. There, as now in Detroit, the musicians gave him their best, which was more than he was capable of demanding.
All three pleased with the concert, we were together until late at night. Glazounov spoke with a tired voice, switching subjects in short sentences. "Your orchestra, fine. Woodwinds and strings, good musicians. Yes, I like Paris. Nice Russian church. Russian restaurants. Yes, French people friendly, cultured. Nice little Russian conservatory. Would like to go to Finland sometime."
I listened, transferring my thoughts to long ago when at the age of ten or eleven I played in the Metropole Restaurant in Moscow. There I had seen Glazounov for the first time. He dined alone and I played his Chant du menestrel and the Serenade espagnole. He had asked me to join him, and he spoke like a father to me. Looking at him now, I wished that I could do something for him, something encouraging or tender, as one does for a helpless child.
I saw him for the last time several years later in Paris. He had married a young wife, but looked still older and as helpless as in Detroit.
Finally, after crossing the country, I was back in New York for my recital. Together again with Milstein and Horowitz, we exchanged our impressions and listened to Merovitch's plans for our future.
"You will be here next year and the next, for many years to come," he said. "We will also hold our own subscription series in all centers of the world. The life of a virtuoso should be as permanent and as fruitful as that of philharmonic societies, which outlive wars and depressions and builld traditions in their perpetual service to music. We will present the best of music in all forms, and we will invite other virtuosos of our own choice, who later, in turn, will be our successors," he predicted.
"Let's have lunch, meanwhile," suggested Nathan.
In the evening we went with Horowitz and Milstein to Rachmaninoff's. Nathan had his violin and I my cello. Volodja (Rachmaninoff called him Gorovetz) had the music of Rachmaninoff's trio with him. We had rehearsed this work for a concert in New York and we wanted to play it for the composer. Horowitz, shyly advaning many excuses, begged the composer to play it with us instead. Nathan declared that there were no critics present and no risk whatsoever involved, which made Rachmaninoff laugh, but he categorically declined. We proceeded with the performance. I think it was a good one, and the only listeners, consissting of Rachmaninoff, his wife and two daughters, reacted more than approvingly. "What pretty music!" the ladies exclaimed. "Who wrote it?"
"I," said Rachmainoff guiltily.
"Sergei Vassilievitch," Milstein began, "why don't you write anything for the vilolin?"
"Why should I, when there is the cello?" he said.
Two days later I was at Leopold Godowsky's. The lovable old man, no longer active as a pianist, lived up to his reputation as a wit, entertaining his friends and playing some of his clever and overexpanded transcriptions. His nimble fingers' appetite, as if not satisfied with the offered intricacies, hungrily snapped with lightning speed at more keys than seemed possible. Almost inaudible, it was fascinating to watch. His son-in-law, David Saperton, played something of Godowsky too-to my surprise, still faster and softer. With Godowsky, I played his Larghetto lamentoso, a singing piece I always liked. Its slow tempo came as a releif.
The clerk of my hotel developed a habit of personally delivering my mail and taking care of my comfort beyond and above his duties. He offered theater tickets, ordered my meals, and introduced me to people he thought would be interesting or useful to me. He was a nuisance, and I even played with the idea of escaping his services by moving to another hotel.
One of the characters he introduced was a basketball coach. I was surprised how much his advice to athletes could be applied to me. Fitted to the self-prescribed discipline of a cellist-early to bed, practicing, walking, eating at regular hours, and practicing again-I did all his team did; and except when I could not sleep, could not practice, could not take a walk, and was not hungry at meal hours I stuck to the routine.
I played the recital at Carnegie Hall. The journey from hell to heaven and back to earth again had been completed and after supper with friends I returned to the hotel, still in high spirits.
"Congratulations. Gee, quite a reception," I was greeted by the clerk. "I put a salami sandwich and beer on ice in your room. Incidentally, you must see our Harlem. I will arrange sight-seeing for you. Do you know it? No? It is a must. Negro section. Very exciting."
I left my cello in the room, sneaked past the clerk to the street, and took a taxi for Harlem, alone. Soon I found myself in a different world, exotic and strange. I heard jazz from a bar in a cellar and walked into a dark street toward it. The place was jammed. The only white, I watched the dancing crowd. There were two woodwind instruments I had never seen before, a piano, a drum, a bass, and a fat trumpeter standing in front. The band calmly played a tune. As it progressed, the sound increased and the tune shortened, until one heard the trumpet blowing only one note. The throbbing beat of the plucking double bass encouraged the trumpet, and the short exciting cries from the dance floor made the note more intense and insistent. Like an irresistible call to a weird ritual, the fanatical band drew more heated cries form the possessed crowd. The waiters dropped their trays and joined the piercing trumpet in a wild, frenzied dance.
Unable to resist the passionate climate, I saw myself suddenly moving to the floor, and as if mesmerized I became part of the bewitched ritual. I kicked my feet and shook my body in the strangest gyrations, as if from a savage tribe. An incredible stranger to self, I was lost in my own jungles. Encircled by convulsively moving bodies and deafened by the trumpet, I danced until I found myself panting on the street. Ashamed and puzzled by my behavior, I returned exhausted to my hotel.
"Fuurtwangler should have seen me dance," I said to myself. Not knowing how to dance, Furtwangler and I had decided to take lessons. With assumed names, we entered the class. After the third lesson the teacher said that we were exceptional cases and, being unmusical, had better have the special course. We gave it up altogether.
The clerk kept offering to show me Harlem, and when I finally consented he said that he would start arrangements at once.
"All is set," he said one day. "I have made reservations in the finest joint-floor show and everything-well, you will see," he rubbed his fingers. "Don't bring cash. You will pay by check."
He and his wife, Volodja, Nathan, Sascha, and a few others met at the night club.The dark place, with electric candles on the tables, had a predominantly white clientele. Nothing there resembled my first visit to Harlem. The mediocre dinner and bad wine made waiting for the show that much longer. When it started it was as conventional as any colored show anywhere. I was not bored, but Volodja chewed on his nails and Nathan discussed with Sascha his coming tour in Europe. The wife of the clerk compared her dull life to that of the wife of an artist. She made coquettish eyes and from time to time I felt the touch of her foot against mine under the table. Catching Volodja yawning, I said to the clerk that it was late, and would he ask for the bill.
"I have paid, tipped, and all," said the clerk.
"How much was it?" I asked, taking out a blank check.
"Give it to me, I will fill it out for you. Your spelling, if you don't mind my saying so, is known to be hilarious." I signed the check, and the party dispersed.
One of the few remaining concerts was at the Schola Cantorum, a series held in large private homes in New York. Everything went wrong at this concert-the acoustics, a too long program, my own playing, the dainty applause in gloves and our rushing on-stage to give an encore. Too late: the room was empty! "It is formidable," Pavolosky said admiringly, "how fast elderly ladies can run."
Back at the hotel I met Milstein. He looked at my tails and touched the still-damp dress shirt. "Where did you play?"
"What kind of concert is it?"
"A sort of musicale-you know-society affair."
"How was it?"
"Exhausting. Imagine, after a long program in a home, playing eight encores."
Nathan was impressed. A week later, on the day of our departure, I saw Nathan in his working garb. "You had a concert? Where?" I asked.
"Never mind." He was in a bad humor, which was as rare as my ignorance of where he had played. He looked at me searchingly. "How many encores did you say you played?"
"Where? What are you talking about?"
"You know-Schola Cantorum. I just played there."
"None." I said, bursting into laughter.
"I carried my entire library of encores," said Nathan, his own self again. "Knowing from you what to expect, I did not hurry, and when I walked on-stage, there was no public, no lights, and even the chairs were already removed." He looked at his watch. "I have to pack, before you invent somthing again."
I had not packed either. I went to my room. Merovitch was there. He looked upset. "How could you do it!? It's terrible. You have written checks that were returned because of insufficient funds."
"Ridiculous! I had lots of money in the bank."
"No, you didn't. Show me your cancelled checks. What is that?" Merovitch spotted a large, four-figure check. I saw my signature. It was the one that the clerk helped fill out for me in Harlem.
The clerk adimtted his theft. Sascha threatened to put him in jail, but the clerk promised to return the money sometime. I took a chance on his repaying me eventually and in the commotion of departure I tipped him and caught myself shaking his had.
So, with no money, with debts, but marvelous impressions, my first American tour ended.