|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
It has been said that many a profession leaves its imprint on a man's character-even his appearance. Of course the time element is of importance. A cavalryman does not become bowlegged overnight, although I once knew a professional violinist who became a farmer, and in no time at all began to look like one. To be sure, there are exceptions. A composer might look like a barber, and a barber like an interior decorator. And I saw a photo in a newspaper of a kindergarten teacher who was arrested as a prostitute. But as a rule a butcher does look like a butcher, and it needs some doing to mistake him for a poet.
A cellist too is quite unmistakable. There is a touch of nostalgia that can be recognized like a scar, left from a long battle-often a losing one-against the odds of his instrument. His melancholic disposition is particularly apparent when he has to perform something spirited and gay, often found in passages written in such awkward positions as to make them sound sad enough for tears.
Although the musical life of a cellist is not a solitary one, having company is not entirely of his own choosing. Unlike a pianist or guitarist, he is not self-sufficient, and one rarely sees a cellist on the stage alone. Walking behind him will be a man carrying music and wearing an expression, "It's not my recital, don't blame me," and who reflects the determination to go through joy and misery with a virtuoso to the bitter end. That man is the accompanist. His position in the world of music is peculiar, and although the life of a soloist is unthinkable without him, his immense importance rarely receives due recognition. Good recital programs for the bow instruments consist of ensemble music with a piano part of equal improtance-equality that the accompanist is not permitted to enjoy. His piano lid is closed. He must be discreet. He uses music, and for a scant fee plays by far more notes than the soloist. His name on the program is not prominent and in the reviews he is scarcely mentioned. It is to be expected that sooner or later, on or off the stage or most likely both, he will resent his celebrated employer. However, old professional accomapnists in time develop an extraordinary defense mechanism and in discharging their duties are as unperturbed as a fakir on a bed of nails.
Once on the subject of my piano collaborators, it is difficult to be swayed away from it. Were I to speak of Ralph Berkowitz, it would encompass more than fifteen years of activity. Thoughts of Ivor Newton and Pavlovsky bring many heart-warming episodes to mind; and images of Van der Pas, whom I saw without a cigar in his mouth only on the stage, of Otto Herz of Budapest, who practiced black magic in addition to his accompanying, Arpad Sandor, Emanuel Bey and others-all pass vividly through my mind.
One day in Paris a young man came to audition for a position as my accompanist. He was frail-looking and very eager. He palyed for hours, but, enchanted, I asked for more. Finally he asked, "Will you engage me?" His voice was anxious. My answer was "No." His color changed.
"You don't understand. You are so young. You are a master. You must not spoil the wonderful career that is awaiting you." I embraced him. It was Dinu Lipatti, a neme that speaks so fully of beautiful achievements and recalls the tragedy of his permature death.
One of the reasons that influenced me in advising Lipatti is the stigma the word "accompanist" carries, a prejudice that can hinder a solo career. This feeling is even exemplified by the refusal of a world-famous pianist to record sonatas with an equally prominent string player for fear of being thought an accompanist, and so falling down into the gutter.
There are fewer fine accompanists (how I loathe that word!) than there are virtuosos, and of those Ithink with affection. Luckily, with the poor ones I have come into contact very rarely, and only in an emergency or by accident-like the one in a Midwestern city, with a thousand miles between my last and next engagements. My accompanist had fallen ill, and my managers engaged a local pianist. As soon as I arrived in town I rushed to him for rehearsal.
What a magnificent studio! What a magnificent host! A joval man in his forties, clad in a dressing gown adorned with interesting designs set in gold and brocade, had scotch and soda and a comfortable armchair ready for me. "All yours," he said, spreading his arms as if for embrace. "You must be exhausted," he chatted lightly, "Those rattlling trains-oh, the artist's life, what a price for glory! I gave all that up." He looked moved. "Yes, I did. For real depth, a real glory of spirit I have found right here." He pointed at his heart and his head. By the time I had finished my drink, he looked to me calm enough to attend to business. I handed him the music for our concert next night. "Splendid. It's like meeting dear old friends again," he said, lovingly leafing the music. "Ha, Brahms F Major. I bet you don't take the tempo of the first movement too slowly, as most cellists do. Allegro vivace- are they blind or deaf?" he demanded accusingly. His mood changed rapidly with every new piece.
"The little Debussy sonata-adorable." He caressed the title page. "Well, well, here is the Capriccio of Hindemith. I played it when it was still a manuscript. Quite German, don't you think?" But so was Bach." He burst into laughter. "I must not forget to tell it to my master class." He refilled my glass and became very serious. "My friend," he said, "should I have been asked, instead of you, to make the program, it would be an identical one. Extraordinary! All music I know and love best. I suggest that we rest a day and that tomorrow, any time at your convenience, we run through the program-major works, bric-a-brac, and all. The other day I mentioned bric-a-brac at the academy. I said that it's nothing but encores and inferior short pieces." Delighted at the prospect of a free afternoon and evening, I agreed with everything he said.
A lucky stroke, I thought next morning after a good night's sleep, to find such an experienced pianist in this city. I enjoyed my breakfast, went for a long stroll, returned to my room, and wrote several cheerful letters. After practicing and having a light lunch I unhurriedly walked to the rehearsal. My new friend greeted me warmly and asked me to try his Turkish coffee, specially brewed for me. "No thanks, let's work."
"All right, I'm ready." I had the impression his voice trembled a little.
"Debussy," I said. It took him an unduly long time to look for the music, to find it, and to settle in his chair. "Are you sure you are comfortable?" he asked, blew his nose, and finally began. I listened, but, believing that he was joking, asked him to repeat the few bars again. This time, to my horror, I had no doubt that the man could barely play the piano. Shocked, I stared at his pale face. He got up from his chair and said, "What's the use? I confess I can't play. Yes, as simple as that. Please," he pleaded, "don't ruin my position in this community which I have so carefully built."
Unwilling to cancel the concert, I arrived at the hall. To my surprise, my collaborator, cheerful in his elegant tails, waited for me in the green room. "I have a marvelous idea," he said, as jovially as at our first meeting. "I will make an announcement that you have lost all your music on the train and that you will play works for cello alone. Oh, we will enjoy it so much to hear your Bach; and as a surprise, at the end of the concert we will play this encore together. I have practiced it for two days." He showed me a childishly easy minuet by Valensin which he must have picked from my music. His entry on the stage and the announcement were received by the full-house audience with cheers.
After an evening of two suites by Bach, one by Reger, and my own fantasy for cello alone, the "maestro" joined me with the minuetto. I followed his clumsy accompaniment as carefully as I could and he took many bows to the grateful audience with me.
There was another incident, but of a quite different order, this time with a true artist, Pierre Luboshutz. I enjoyed working at Pierre's apartment in New York, particulary after his marriage to the lovely and talented Genia. (Later they excelled as the Luboshutz-Nemenoff piano duo team.) She helped us with constructive criticism and cooked marvelous meals.
I called Pierre from Boston. "As you know," I said, "the only new piece we play in Cleveland is the toccata by Castelnuovo-Tedesco. You have the manuscript. There will be very little time for rehearsals. Please work on it."
"What do you mean?" cried Pierre. "I know the piece-do you know it?"
In New York I went to Luboshutz's without delay. We had not seen each other for a long time, and there was much to tell to bring us up to date. Eventually we began to rehearse. We worried about not having enough time to work on the new piece. But after we played the toccata through and, encouraged, were in the mood to work, Genia nnounced that dinner was ready.
The view on the table was breath-taking. One had to be a poet of considerable talent to describe what I saw. The seductive power of the herrings was almost unbearable. The sturgeon from Russia, the ham, born in Prague, spoke their own languages, of no less promise than vodka prepared by Pierre and so justly called by him the foundation of all worthwhile things. The cutlets were not visible yet, but only a hopeless amateur would not know, just from the aroma, that they would melt in one's mouth and would be the color of a fine Stradivari. All thoughts of the toccata vanished. "Our train leaves at ten-we have sleeping accommodations-arriving tomorrow early in the morning. We have nothing to do there until the concert in the evening-right?" We drank a toast to a long rehearsal in Cleveland and a successful tour.
We had lower berths at opposite ends of the car. Like an acrobat, I bent and twisted on the bed to take my clothes off and to put on pajamas. I buttoned up the curtains and fell asleep. Before long I was awakened by a baby screaming. I put my head under the pillow, but the baby was persistent and very near. I opened the curtains and saw a mother in the opposite berth trying to soothe her child. She saw me watching and asked if she might entrust her baby to me for a moment. "Of course," I said, flattered. She placed her little treasure on my lap and quickly disappeared in the direction of the ladies' room. The tiny, furious thing screamed. Its face was wet and red and its body was wet, as in no time were my pajamas. Everyone in the car was awake and people swore. I drew the curtains and lay with the baby in my bed. The change of position or the intimacy with a stranger aggravated the infant still further. I began to sing to it, but it was a wrong lullaby-for a wrong baby! My sheets were wet, and the baby was still crying. I felt like crying myself. I was desperate-I thought that its mother would never come back. Finally the curtain opened, the woman said, "Thanks," and took her baby away. My night's sleep was gone for good. The baby was quiet, but I listened to the rattle of the train and to the snoring of my neighbors until we reached Cleveland.
Pierre was in good shape and said that he had slept like a baby. "What baby?" I asked sleepily. After breakfast at the hotel I put the "Do Not Disturb" sign on my door and went to bed. I slept the entire day. In the late afternoon we had tea in my room and went through the program. I hummed the toccata and Pierre made some notes in his part.
The first half of the program went very well, and an atmosphere of great warmth awaited us for the first performance of the toccata in the United States. We began with vigor, and the first fifty bars promised a good performance, when my memory suddenly went astray. I invented as I went along, trying to stay in the style of the music. Pierre turned his pages back and forth, but, realizing that what I was playing was not in the score, he finally discarded the music and, like myself, played by heart. Meanwhile, absorbed with many interesting ideas and harmonies, I saw an opportunity for a fugato. Pierre's talent, or fear, made him match my inventions. The fugato led us gradually to the first theme, but this time, instead of energico, it was in a lyrical mood. We elaborated on it, using some new material. We nust have liked it very much, for we clung to it for a long while. It was a charming dialogue between the two instruments, and it was hard for us to part from it, but we had to. We gradually built up to a great climax that led straight back to the beginning of the piece. Oh, what a joy-after the fiftiety bar I knew exactly the continuation. But now it was Pierre who did not! There was no choice. We had to improvise. The perspiration ran down my face and dropped on the fingerboard and on my cello.
Pierre shook his head. His hair fell over his forehead and his eyes. He swayed and groaned and encouraged me to still-greater efforts. It was something of a coda now, a great lead to the triumphal conclusion. Faster, stronger, still faster we stormed, until breath-takingly the composition was brought to a finish.
Exhausted, we responded to the applause. Artur Rodzinski came to see us after the concert. He and Mr. Eyle, the concertmaster of the Cleveland Symphony, took us to the station. The toccata, they said, was very impressive.
In fairness to my dear friend Castelnuovo-Tedesco, I wanted to tell them the truth. Now, I have!