|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
I suppose all bon voyage wishes who come to see people off share the same problem, of what to do and how to say something worth while. Of course, much depends upon how long one has to wait for the final good-by. No doubt short waits are the best. For prolonged ones there is no solution. To act gay is downright tactless, and tears are reserved for mothers and lovers. The traditional course, of begging one to "drop a line" and to "take care of yourself," is tedious and not elastic enough for a longer stretch. There is seldom any choice, though, and at my departure we promised to write each other and swore to take marvelous care of our bodies and souls. I hugged a person who least expected it from me: it prompted him to start a joke that he never finished.
Finally all my friends left the boat and the last waving passengers on the deck dispersed. For a long time I watched New York waning and the North River broadening until it lost its identity and was no river any more. Often depressed at departures, I felt no trace now as I stood and looked back to the land to which I would return and to which I wanted to belong.
In the cabin I found my bulging brief case, into which I had dumped all my papers. On my bed I spread out the long-accumulated correspondence, programs, and bills. I went through the bills: 20 per cent commission to Columbia Concerts, 10 per cent to Wolf and Sachs, and, after deduction of these, 15 per cent to my personal representative. Bills for mimeographing leaflets, for photos, posters, three-sheets, press book (a true literary jewel), clipping service, window cards, and heralds. The bill for New York recital expenses was two pages long. Ironically, attached to it were glowing reviews. I had read them earlier, when they were nice and fresh. Now they were stale, so I went back to the bills. Pullman, railroad, musical magazines, ocean crossings, accompanists' fees...I took a quick glance at another pile of unpaid and paid bills and with the cheerful thought that poor Europe would soon replenish my purse I threw all these back into the brief case and went on deck to take a walk with Nathan.
I had no camera, no assortment of hats and suits, no maps, folders, guidebooks, or other equipment that marks the tourist fraternity. I kept to bare necessities and traveled with one suitcase, a brief case, and, of course, the cello; and in conspicuous contrast with the tourists I wore the same suit for the entire crossing. The busy people packed and unpacked, made reservations and arrangements, had conferences with stewatrds and headwaiters and looked for a fourth for bridge. They sent cables and flowers, wrote cards and letters, and above all they dressed and undressed, trimmed and manicured before and after every event; and for physical fitness they played shuffleboard. I did my own fussing, but of a different nature. Because of the humid sea air I wrapped and unwrapped my cello in silk bags and flannels, manicured the fuzzy strings, cleaned the fingerboard with saliva, and polished the cello with a special cleansing formula. And, to protect the cello from catching cold, I would not leave it naked for long. After brief practicing I would put it back in its case, swathe it in blankets on my bed, and only after covering it with cushions and posting a note for the steward not to touch it would I leave the cabin.
Nathan Milstein, on this trip, as on many other crossings to come, was on deck at all hours of day and night. He supervised the passage and stood on watch, ready to save his life should the opportunity arise. He believed that all modes of transportation were precarious, yet curiously the same precautious Nathan was completely relaxed when I chauffered him as my first passenger on my first solo drive.
The weather was beautiful, but on this trip I had to sacrifice playing bridge with Nathan and even promenading with an attractive Italian lady for the morbid company of music by Schonberg and Schnabel, the scores of which were in my cabin. Schonberg had given me his concerto based on music by Monn, asking if I would play it. There was nothing I wanted more. I had worked on it already, but unlike his other, more challenging works, this one puzzled me and forced me to come back to it again and again. I hoped that perhaps after this trip I would understand better what made a master of Schonberg's magnitude turn to Monn.
Things did not work smoothly either with the sonata for solo cello by Schnabel, which also had been given to me by the composer. Schnabel had consulted me when he wrote it, but its bizarre music fascinated me only when accompanied by Schnabel;'s verbal obbligato. He spoke of his musical ideas magnificently, but here, in the middle of the ocean, without his formidable rhetoric, gestures, and demonstrations at the piano, it was much less convincing. I did not spare any effort, but I am afraid that Schonberg and Schnabel, both deeply admired musicians and friends, were disappointed by my noncommittal attitude, or rather by my admission of what I hoped was only a temporary lack of progressiveness.
I was glad that my tour brought me to Italy, and, judging from the sound of my cello, it was happy to be in its native country again. I loved Italy, its people, and its art. I did not want to miss anything, and the modest fees did not stop me from asking my manager, Clara Camus, to let me play even in the smallest of places. Vincento Vitali, the fiery young accompanist from Naples, cared still less for money. Although quite poor, he wanted to pay for all our meals and only by force accepted his hard-earned fees for concerts. He beamed with joy when I praised his playing and was ready to cry at the slightest critical remark.
After many concerts the tour ended. Still warm from the Italian sun, I found myself trudging through rain and fog to the Gramophone Company studios in London. The recording room was crowded with gentlymen of London Philharmonic. They turned noisily, talked, and gesticulated. In Italy such agitation, an accustomed everyday occurrence, might be provoked by almost anything. Here the masters of self-restraint could be sent into a commotion only by matters of the greatest inconsequence. In fact, judging by their very excitement, there was no disaster in store. For in meeting that, an Englishman is composed. Emergency and danger do not make him move a music. It is when losing his gloves or umbredlla that he is apt to have tantrums.
The conductor, John Barbirolli, let me know that we had only forty minutes in which to rehearse and record the Schumann Concerto. The engineers from "His Master's Voice" said that there would be no breaks and that the entire concerto would have to be recorded from beginning to end without a stop. Barbirolli, who was a cellist himself and knew the concerto well, doubted that it could be done. "Indeed, it would be a miracle," said the engineer. "It will be the first experiment in recording a concerto as a whole, instead of making a break after each four-minute side."
"How will you avoid them?" I asked.
"By the time one side is completed, the next will already have been started by another machine."
There was barely any time to discuss tempi or anything else, and no time for a rehearsal at all. Barbirolli explained the unusual situation to the orchestra, and almost immediately the red stand-by signal appeared. There was a tense, apprehensive silence. The recording began. What was it? Mutual compassion, the loveliness of the music, or luck? I do not know. Perhaps no one knew as, with intense concentration, movement by movement, faultlessly the concerto reached the last chord. At this precise moment the voice of the first oboist, Leon Goossens, pierced the air: "Bravo!" Then the red signal went off. The "Bravo!" was on the record.
"I am sorry," said Goossens.
"Don't be," I said. "It's the sincerest bravo I will ever hear."
"We can't erase that voice," said the engineer. "Please try the last page again." As we did, there was the crash of a fallen bassoon, and each following repetition was interrupted by a sneeze, cough, or the scratch of my cello, until there was no time left for another try. The Gramophone Company succeeded only partly in erasing Mr. Goossens' voice on the record, leaving his "Bravo!" for me to enjoy to this very day.
I liked many things in London-its taxicabs, in which I could stretch my legs and stand my cello, its hotel valets and the illusion that they would serve out of sheer respect rather than for a tip. I liked its breakfasts and afternoon teas, its composers and conductors, who were titled or titled-to-be (there were no others), and I was fond of my friends, whose friendship was as enduring as Great Britain itself. I liked Queen's Hall and London audiences,and I read the Sunday Times. I liked to sit in the lobby of the hotel watching the debutrantes, the pretty and even less pretty ones who, as if ripened all at the same time, pranced into the ball to be plucked off by their preselected harvesters. Though I seldom succeeded in deciphering "English" English, I was grateful that it was not expected of me.
A "Continental" artist had marvelous privileges in England. The less he resembled a Britisher, the more interesting he was; the more eccentric, the more enchanting. He could even pass port in the wrong direction at the dinner table and be invited again.
Once, conversing with a lady and not knowing who she was, I confessed that I couldn't recall where and when we had met before but that her face was so familiar and I had her name on the tip of my tongue. She simply said that she was the Queen of Spain. There were other uncomfortable situations, one of which occurred when I listened to a group of men discussing the fantastic technological inventions to come which would make this world unrecognizable. Suddenly I joined in. "In comparison to Jules Verne, your conjectured future strikes me as a rather anemic fantasy."
"You are so right," they laughed. A little later I learned that among those I addressed were Aldous Huxley and H. G. Wells. It did not prevent us from becoming friends.
A more involved incident occurred when I happened to meet royalty en masse at one grand musicale during the socalled "season" in London. It was not a command performance, for which the artist as a rule does not get paid. I was asked to perforn, along with Grace Moore and Fritz Kreisler. The fee was enormous, the duties small, and it was good to see Kreisler again, whose inimitable artistry I loved. Even his slight facial tic had a special charm for me. He was in bad humor that night, but Grace Moore hummed contentedly as she looked into the mirror and examined her dress, which consisted mainly of decolletage. She had a huge powder puff, but, unable to reach some area of her back, asked for help. I obliged.
Kreisler tuned his violin. "My wife is waiting for me at the hotel," he said. "Would you mind if I start the program? It will make it nice: Grace will be in the middle, and then Grisha." Each of us had his own accompanist. Kreisler walked with his accompanist onto a specially built stage in the drawing room. Grace stopped humming, but, still at the mirror, made some touch-ups with the powder puff.
There was no printed program. The familiar Kreisler sound caressed my ears until suddenly he had a memory lapse. I was sure that, if the pianist stopped insisting on playing the music in front of him, Kreisler's improvisations would make it into a better piece, but as it was they were muddling along in search of one another. I did not see the audience, but, judging from the applause following the piece, it was an extremely small one. The second piece he played incredibly beautifully, and there was no third. "Harriet is waiting," he murmured, packing his violin.
"Won't you play some more?" I asked.
"No, no, I must go."
I did not listen to Grace, and I was hardly ready to make my own appearance as she walked angrily into the room. "It's all over. On-stage there, a polar bear can freeze to death."
"It's a bloody short program; now it's all up to us," said my pianist through his bandages. Some other artist had taken my dear Ivor Newton away on tour and it was the first time that I had to play in England without him. The substituting gentleman had talked about nothing since his arrival at the concert but the unattractive infection he had caught at the barber's
With a feeling of considerable responsibility for the success of a concert by so many artists, with so little music, and for so much money, I was determined to give all I had. I bowed and placed my chair claculated to screen the bandaged face of my pianist. Then something incredible happened, something I still can't explain. The very first note of the muted, delicate piece I played came with a shrill whistle no cello can normally produce. The rest of the piece, despite my supreme efforts, could not erase the beginning. I hoped to make it up with the next bravura display. It went well, and, though the reaction of the audience justified Grace's remark, I announced the next piece to be played. Finished with this and simply not in the mood to continue, I walked off the stage.
My gauzed pianist said something about the itch on his face, apologized, and sauntered out. I too wanted leave, but the hostess asked me to stay. She did it with a politeness that chilled me to the bone. I followed her and joined the sovereign guests. Having failed in the concert department, I had nothing to lose.
In the drawing room I was introduced to royalty, current or in exile, and to a Russian prince whom I had met before. There was another man whom I recalled seeing in Brussels. He produced champagne, which I thirstily gulped down. Immediately he offered me another glass. After the third I found everyone exceedingly friendly, and I even imagined hearing praise for the concert. I began telling stores and soon, surrounded by all, I played the cello. I saw the hostess's face beaming.
Whilel conversing with the Princess Alice. I met her husband, the Earl of Athlone, for the first time. He stood by and listened to our talk of mutual acquaintances. Suddenly he broke in, "How is your dear, dear father? Haven't seen him for a long time, old chap. Is he still yachting and playing polo?"
On my way to the hotel I thought of my father and his sudden elevation to the imperial circle, his yacht, which was never larger than a rowboat, and polo, with which he was as familiar as the Earl of Athlone was with the barbershop of my uncle in Ekaterinoslav.
I would not miss the evening at Stefan Zweig's apartment, which was a meeting place of writers and musicians from all over the globe. On this trip I met Alexis Tolstoy, the author from Russia. I found him striking and as imposing as his novel Peter the Great. I was not sure how he was related to Leo Tolstoy, but his writing was worthy of that name. The more imcomprehensible it is that I have met but few who are acquainted with his work. The topics of conversation at Zweig's were of enormous variety, and our poking fun at one another often made the room vibrate with laughter.
To the pleasant things in London also belonged my visits with Professor Whalen at his cello school. He had many students, of whom only a few were men. The female predominance I found as puzzling as their extraordinary vigor in playing compared to their male confreres. After spending one afternoon with Professor Whalen and his delightrful brood we all walked with our heavy armament into the street. But our unusual group did not attract the slightest attention of anyone. What hilarity such a cello procession would have created in Ekaterinoslav! There, as later in the outskirts of Moscow, I rarely excaped being ridiculed when carrying a cello. "Boom-boom-boom-boom," the unpleasant voices and vulgar remarks of young and old accompanied me through the streets. Their gestures and words since childhood had become to me a synonym of ignorance.
With this recollection I arrived at Albert Hall for a concert with Sir Malcolm Sargent. After the Haydn and Dvorak concerti, Malcolm and I were asked to come to the royal box. The moment we entered, Queen Mary, her hands simulating the playing of the cello, walked toward me. Her greeting made me gasp. I heard, "Boom-boom-boom-boom!"