CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)

Chapter Twenty-six

Poor, good Castelnuovo! But at least he was not present to witness the mutilation of his toccata in Cleveland. I was worse off, punishing myself. Even then, the episode taught me a lesson. Working on his concerto, I learned not to trust myself until I had the music in my very blood stream.

The strenuous schedule of the 1934-35 season did not make an ideal climate for the study of a new work, even with an enforced discipline. On a busy tour there were enough distractions and irregular hours to play villainous tricks on a traveling musician. I started with concerts in Bordeaux, Lyons, Luxembourg, Lisbon, Oporto, Monte Carlo, Marseilles, and Paris. All, with a few exceptions, went fine.

In Bordeaux, the magnificent wine country, I indulged in tasting the wines in excess, and in Lyons an unexpected meeting with Jacques Thibaud and his accompanist, Tasso Janopulo, meant much laughter and little sleep after the concert. In Luxembourg the conductor began the Schumann Concerto in three-four time and when I insisted on doing it in four, as it is written, he said I was a "prima donna." In Lisbon, Pavlovsky lost every penny in a casino and in Oporto he lost half of my music. In Monte Carlo the audience was unusually small. When I came to take a bow at the end of the concert, there was only one person left in the hall, who kept applauding vigorously and made me return to the stage again and again. I even played a piece for him.

(Many years later in New York, between recording sessions for Columbia, I had lunch at the Plaza with its executive, my friend Goddard Lieberson. There he introduced me to Somerset Maugham, who said that he had heard me for the first time in Monte Carlo. It made me recall and tell them the incident of the single applauding man. "I have always wondered," I said, "who the man could be." "it was I," Maugham said.)

In Paris I happened to start the Dvorak Concerto up-bow instead of the habitual down-bow, a diversion that did not affect the performance or the audience's reaction but that sent the dozen or so fellow cellists present into an uproar. But it did not mar my pleasure, for I loved to play in Paris, and doubly so if it was with the remarkable Pierre Monteux. He said that we played music well together, but I knew that, short and round, he hated to take bows with me. He looked like an old walrus. Thirty years later he was even more remarkable a conductor, and if he still resembled a walrus, it was not an old one.

Then came Vienna, Prague, Bucharest, and Belgrade;Athens with Mitropoulos; Antwerp, two concerts in Brussels with Erich Kleiber; Bilbao, Valencia, Madrid, Barcelona with Casals; Geneva, Vevey, and Basel with Felix Weingartner, who was ancient, like a rare remnant of the history of music. I found him astonishingly rejuvenated. He had just married a charming young lady and, as if having energy to spare, he ran instead of walked whenever space and opportunity permitted. I was not sure whether to attribute his fabulous dexterity entirely to the marriage or to his profession as a conductor, which seems to resist the natural aging of a man.

I completed an International Celebrity tour in England, gave three recitals in London with Ivor Newton and a concert with orchestra with Sir Landon Ronald, and then went to Budapest for a concert with Bela Bartok. Having little time for rehearsal, he asked me to come straight from the station to his home.

I was received by a lady at the door. She spoke Hungarian, a language of which I knew only two words: gordonka, for the cello, and kapusta, for cabbage.

"How dod you do?" I said.

She said something long, smiled, and made a gesture to enter.

"Do you speak German?"

She made a series of Hungarian words, but there was no kapusta.

"Oh, French?"

She offered me a cigarette and spoke of things about which she appeared to be deeply concerned, or so it seemed, particularly so when after more heavy sentences she wiped her forchead with a handkerchief. I listened until she said everything she had to say, and we just stared at each other. To break the silence, I asked if it was the house of Bela Bartok. Her face brightened at the sound of familiar words.

At last Bartok appeared. What a relief and pleasure it was to see him. He asked about my journey and my tour and wanted to know if I would like to rehearse first and rest later. He spoke of Hungarian folk music and of a composition he was working on, and played a few excerpts on the piano from the manuscript. His soft hands made music as strong as his face, as penetrating as his eyes, and yet as delicate as his frail body. We rehearsed, and during lunch we agreed that we had really not rehearsed at all but just played, and when we repeated anything it was merely to give us the pleasure of playing once more. In the afternoon we went through the program, which consisted of the E-Minor Brahms Sonata, Beethoven's Sonata in C Major, the D-Major Cello Suite by Bach, the Sonata by Debussy, and the Rhapsody by Bartok. It was wonderful to play and to be with him, and I hated to have to dash to Scandinavia and Italy to fulfill other engagements, which would last until I boarded the ship for the United States.

I looked forward to the crossing, not only because I needed rest, but because it would give me an opportunity to practice. But, as luck would have it, a crippling cold and fever, crowned by seasickness, put me into bed and kept me there with the manuscript of the Castelnuove-Tedesco Concerto throughout the long voyage.

Still shaky, the instant I entered my hotel room in New York I received a telephone call from Maestro Toscanini. "What have you been doing all this time?" he said impatiently. "Your boat landed hours ago. Hurry, I am waiting for you." Soon I faced Maestro at the Astor Hotel, where he lived. Rosy-cheeked, he hurried me to take the cello out of the case and to start rehearsing. He spoke with agitation of the stupidity of conductors and soloists and their habit of playing everything in a wrong tempo. This was his favorite topic and I did not expect him to stop so abruptly. He moved toward me, closer and closer, until his face almost touched mine. He stared at me scrutinizingly with his near-blind eyes, as if I were a terrible misprint in a score. He twisted his mustache, shook his head, and said, "Bad, very bad. Hemorrhoids again? Didn't you try the medicine I gave you in Milano? It helped Puccini. Your face is green," he concluded gravely.

Maestro at the piano, we began the concerto. Glancing at his score, I noticed that the cello part was virtually covered with penciled fingerings and bowings. No cellist except me had seen the concerto. Surprised, I asked who had made the markings.

"I did," said Maestro.

"Why?"

"Did you forget I was a cellist?" he said, smiling. "One does hear fingerings and bowings, and I wanted to know if yours would be the same as mine."

Maestro banged on the piano in a true Kapellmeister manner. He spoke and he sang, and his spontaneity and vigor carried me away. By the end of our long and exhilarating session I had miraculously regained my strength, and I returned to the hotel in an exuberant frame of mind.

There I found a telegram from Koussevitzky. "It's a question of life and death that you give with me in Boston the world premiere of the concerto Lyrico by Berezowsky. All arrangements for the performance, which is in two weeks, have been confirmed by your managers."

I knew Nicolai Berezowsky from Moscow, as I knew Koussevitzky from my youth, but I did not know the concerto. Before I could call Boston to decline the engagement, the telephone rang and there was the voice of Koussevitzky.

"Say yes-promise-I love you-say yes." I listened for a long time. His irresistible pleading weakened me, and my arguing that I couldn't learn the concerto in such a short time was of no avail. "You will like the concerto. It's not a bit difficult for you. Please promise."

"Do you recall what you said about promises?" I asked.

"What was it?"

"You said that you are weak enough to make promises, but strong enough not to keep them."

"Grisha, it's no time for jokes," After a heavy silence I heard myself: "I will."

I trusted Koussevitzky's judgment, and I knew that Berezowsky was a fine musician. Yet there was no end to my annoyance with myself for agreeing to play a work I had never seen. I thought that such improvised extra engagements could happen in Tokyo or South America and elsewhere, but not in the United States. But rules were never dictated by a country where Sergei Alexandrovich Koussevitzky resided. The obstacles to his ideas were swept away and rendered helpless by his overwhelming will to build monuments to music, which already in his lifetime were proof and testimony of his efforts. His enthusiasm and unfailing intuition paved the road for the young, gave encouragement to old masters who were in need of it, and inflamed the masses to spur him to go on building. He not only discovered composers; he performed them and published their works. He created orchestras and publishing houses, foundations, schools, and festivals, and he fought for Americans in America, for Frenchmen in France, and for Russians in Russia. One saw him in a rage and in tenderness, in outbursts of enthusiasm, in happiness, and in tears, but no one saw him in indifference. Everything about him seemed elevated and important, and his every day was a festival. His life was a perpectually burning need to communicate. Every performance was a unique experience of supreme importance to him, and even the thought of music itself generated an excitement and eagerness that were attached to him to his very last day. His friends were the elect or his adopted sons and daughters, and everyone entering his house entered the Promised Land. He was drawn by everything "exceptional" from his childhood on, and grew exceptional himself. He demanded only the extraordinary, and no one could give him less. His praise was Immensity and in turn he received two-fold. Words like "A fine performance " after the concert would be an insult if they were not said with a choked voice of emotion or a trace of tears. There was no shortage of those voices, tears, and embraces. It's true that there were people who declined his requests, who refused their support, but this they communicated through a messenger, cable, or letter, for no one could resist when confronting him in the flesh. It was not so much the nature of his requests as the manner in which he presented them that caused such insurmountable difficulties in not giving in. I never could, and I never really wanted to. I loved him as he was, and that was not little. He had a magical gift for transforming even trifles into an event of urgency, becuase to him there were no trifles in matters of art. He was often attacked and criticized of ignorance and excessive vanity, but one saw those very critics flatter him to his face. Highly susceptible to any form of praise, he received flattery joyfully and unmarred by suspicion of a false note.

My thoughts were interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Berezowsky. Blond and youthful, he had a smile on his face and a score in his hand. He had also a suitcase.

"Are you going somewhere, Nicky?" I asked, embracing him.

"No, I came here to stay. The time is short; my concerto is long. We can't waste a minute. I was so happy to hear from Sergei Alexandrovich, while you were still on the boat, that you wanted to play the concerto. I had to make some finishing touches in a hurry."

He established himself in my room and I looked over the score and played it through. Later at night I was still playing, and he was jotting down my suggestions.

Lying in the dark, I couldn't sleep. The two concerti were running and bouncing in my head. "Oh, those giant twins-I am in labor," I groaned to the snoring Nicky. The somber colors of the beginning of the Berezowsky Concerto threateningly gathered over me like a mass of slow-moving clouds. The orchestration of bassons, bass clarinets, and low strings thickened the atmosphere as I laboriously tried to visualize the pages. But the further I advanced, the clearer and freer the music seemed to flow.

What a queer monster is a memory for music: A machine of precesion with no mechanical devices. The science of music swarms with methods, but for memorizing music no one can depend upon a textbook for help.

The next four or five days were spent with maestro and three rehearsals of the Castelnuovo-Tedesco with the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. The concerts themselves struck me as almost easy, like putting on a many-times-fitted, well-tailored coat. Maestro was magnificent. We both were happy with the performances, and the only shadow was that the composer could not be present. (He heard the concerto one year later, when I played it in Florence.)


With Heifetz and Rubenstein

The next evening was spent with Vladimir Horowitz and Jascha Heifetz in Jascha's penthouse on Park Avenue. It was a veritable orgy of chamber music, with no one else present. We played until an early hour of the morning and paused but once-to fortify ourselves with delicious little Russian chicken cutlets, of which the thin and poetic Horowitz consumed fifty-six.

At noon I was on my way to Grand Central Terminal. I confess that to leave New York and enter the old Pullman car was a relief. It felt good to unload myself from Castelnuovo-Tedesco and to leave the Berezowsky Concerto for a while at the bottom of my suitcase. There were several engagements to fulfill, and by the time I came to Boston I had learned the Concerto Lyrico and looked forward to hearing it with the orchestra. I was happy to be with the Koussevitzkys and to stay in the room they always kept ready for me in their house.

On our way to Symphony Hall, Koussevitzky said, "We will begin the rehearsal with the concerto."

I wondered if Nicky had arrived from New York, as he promised. I could not find him. Instead, there was his wife, Alice. I spotted her in the hall the moment I entered the stage.

What a morning! Mistakes in the parts and in the score seemed unsolvable. So were the tempi and the dynamics. The musical Alice, with her own score, was not too helpful a deputy. The long rehearsal was like swimming in muddy waters. I finally lost my tact and control of myself. It is painful to recall my behavior and my rage and my walking off the stage, swearing and insulting everyone. But above all, I am ashamed of having hurt Sergei Alexandrovich. This was a black morning of my career, and only Koussevitzky's forgiveness and understanding made it possible to go on with the rehearsals and concerts.

Nicky, like many other composers, would not miss being present at the concerts to take a bow. He said that he was happy with the performance and with the reception, and, as for myself, after a successful concert I am incapable of bearing any grudges. But following the repetition of the program in New York, I never played the concerto again.

Usually, to convince other cities to present a new work after its premiere is as involved as regaining virginity once it has been lost, One hears from managers: "It's bad for the box office," or, "Our subscription audience can't stomach contemporary music." The conductors say that they are interested, but there is no time for extra rehearsals, or, if in a flattering mood, "You must play concerto we did once so magnificently together."

I am attracted by worthy contemporary music and like to introduce it, and I have little anxiety about the slow advancement of contemporary art. It is an old story, an old struggle, but a struggle that luckily does not prevent a composer from composing. Beethoven would have written the Missa Solemnis even if he had known that it would take over a century to have it performed in Philadelphia. Neither would Haydn have shied away from composing a symphony with violin and cello obbligato, the first performance of which took place in Krekfeld with Carl Flesch and me, more than a hundred years after his death. Of course it would be wonderful to find ways and means of accelerating the recognition of today's great art, and one should think that in this time of technological advances this could be achieved. On the other hand, if advertising tycoons suddenly discovered that advanced art would help sell deodorants and beer through mass media, wouldn't it be frightening to hear people in the streets whistling excerpts from Schonberg, Hindemith, or the late Beethoven quartets?

In the first stages of television in London I volunteered to perform on it without fee. I had to wear a bright jacket, as did everyone in the orchestra, and we played under such a bright and hot light that we all almost melted away. I tried to locate someone in London who had watched the performance, but no one had. No wonder-there were no television sets!

Equally unencouraging was my debut on the movie screen, this time in Paris. Jacques Thibaud and Vuillermoz, the eminent critic, spoke to me of a new enterprise. The artists to participate in these short movies were Cortot, Thibaud, Elisabeth Schumann, Brailowsky, and myself, with Benvenuti at the piano. At the tender hour of six in the morning Benvenuti and I were waiting for the cameras. After a few days of hard work I left town. For many years wherever I went this film had just been played or its showing was scheduled for after my departure. I never saw the movie, and to this day I never received a penny for my efforts. I recalled signing a contract, but I was not quite sure with whom or where the document was. I did speak to managers and colleagues, but no one seemed to know who were the responsible parties or what was the name of the enterprise. Only Brailowsky said grinningly that he had smelled something and demanded to be paid in advance.

I did not lose my distaste for reading contracts, however, and I again showed negligence in connection with taking part in a film in New York.

The producer, Boris Morros, who for years insisted on having been my first cello teacher, engaged me for the picture Carneige Hall. I did not see the script, but I was told that it would be an authentic history of the famous hall. The list of performers in the picture was formidable: Lily Pons, Bruno Walter, Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein, Jan Peerce, Stokkowski, Rodzinski, Fritz Reiner, someone impersonating Tchaikovsky inaugurating Carnegie Hall, and heaven knows who else. My query as to what I should perform was anwered, "Anything you wish." The contract signed, I asked again, but the identical answer had a slight modification: "Anything you wish, providing it's not over two minutes long."

I played The Swan. Well, it's not something unusual for a cellist to live in the company of this bird. There is nothing wrong with it: the music is fine, the bird is noble, as is the legend of its death; but there is hardly anything worth while that cannot with some effort be transformed into a travesty. In Carnegie Hall I recorded the piece with a harp. Finding the sound satisfactory, the next day I came for the shooting of the picture. To my bewilderment, instead of being photographed with the one harpist with whom I made the recoring, I found myself surrounded by half a dozen or so ladies with harps. They all were alike, wearing identical flowers, gowns, and expressions.

"Can they play the harp?" I asked Mr. Morros.

He said, "No."

"What are they doing here?"

"I need them for the background." The busy producer had no time for further conversation. He was arranging the position of the group, giving orders to cameramen, and hurrying me to the make-up room. Unaccustomed to theatrical beautification, I disbelievingly watched my face undergo drastic changes. With "voluptuous" lines around my eyes and with my face coated with something like a pink stucco, I returned to Mr. Morros. "You look gorgeous," he said.

"Just gorgeous," he repeated after my sequence of Carnegie Hall had been completed.

I attended the "premiere" of the picture and stormed out of the theater after The Swan. The sight of the cellist wrapped in a bouquet of harpists was devastating, but my post-mortem cries did not last, and this experience became a souvenir not unlike one of the comical or sad snapshots one finds in an old family album.

Perple love to travel, and they envy musicians for seeing so much of the world. I generally join in praising our planet, but I avoid talking about what traveling with the cello entails.

To carry a piccolo, oboe, clarinet, or violin is no problem whatsoever. The transport of the piano, harp, timpani, doublel bass, or harpsichord is the business of movers and truckers. Everyone knows that. It's only with the cello that things are different. Because of its awkward size and shape it is never welcome on anything that moves. Cellists, who are a proud clan, don't find their instruments too heavy or too bulky to carry wherever they go, and they can't understand why transportation authorities should be so unreasonable. Take my Stradivari: It is considered absolutely perfect in its dimensions and shape by all except train conductors (mostly in England and Italy) and airline officials, who insist that it exceeds by some inches the size of an article permitted to be kept at its owner's side. I have had letters from the presidents of major airlines which instruct their personnel to treat both Stradivari and me with utmost consideration. But it is understandable that the good presidents, unaccustomed to writing a piece on the Cremonese master, failed to impress their employees. Once a pretty stewardess with whom I had been pleading to let me have the cello in the cabin said, "You cannot put a whale in a mackerel basket."

For me it is a gamble of considerable intricacy to sneak the cello into an airplane. At the terminal I hide it in a telephone booth and, to kill time, surprise people with telephone calls. As soon as the departure is announced, I pass through the gate and enter the plane, nonchalantly carrying the cello, its neck under my arm, as if it were a newspaper. Usually it works. If not, sometimes it is effective to speak Esperanto or just to grin, or anything to confuse matters until the door is shut and I am squeezed in my seat with the cello safely and uncomfortably between my knees.

But there are bleak days when no one responds to reason, when my pleading falls on deaf ears and when people have only measuring eyes for a big man and his cello. The cello is taken away by the porter and I watch it atop a heap of suitcases rolling off to the luggage compartment. To describe my emotions at such a sight would be to tear people's hearts apart. I can't do that. Besides, I can't bear tears. In fact, I regret having mentioned it at all.

Once, in Chicago, about to depart for Dallas, I was promised by Braniff Airways that I could take my cello in the cabin. It would be perfectly legal, they said, and they would be delighted to accommodate me.

Lighthearted, I approached the ticket counter at the Chicago Airport. This time I had nothing to hide. There was no need to be persuasive or put on an act or ask for favors. With my cello in full view I was a gentleman, a man who knew his rights. "You have a reservation for me," I said.

"Of course, Mr. Piatigorsky," replied the man, pronouncing my name as though he also came from Ekaterinoslav. While he was writing the ticket and weighing my suitcase I looked around me with the air of a traveler enjoying his life. "Here they are," he said, giving me two tickets. "This is for Gregor Piatigorsky, this for Miss Cello Piatigorsky-forty-seven fifty each." Stunned, I handed over the money.

The plane was quite empty. My cello occupied the seat next to me. The stewardess fastened the seat belt on it and asked me to fasten mine. She was charming, and I was furious. I insisted on having two lunches and the stewardess had to answer my questions twice and give as much attention to my cello as she would to any passenger. I overheard the word "sourpuss" in her conversation with the other stewardess. Perhaps she meant someone else-anyway, we parted friends and I had the pleasure of seeing her at my Dallas concert. "You are a doll," she said.

In Central America I flew on "economico" airplanes, which transported fresh vegetables in the back of the cabin. I was allowed to sit there with the cello, and after several such trips I was becoming fond of being among carrots, cabbages, and other products of nature until one day I found myself in a plane overcrowded with men and tomatoes. My dear colleagues, please listen to this warning: Never subject your cello to traveling on a heap of overripe tomatoes!

My cello has been transported on mules, camels, trucks, rowboats, droshkies, bicycles, gondolas, jeeps, a submarine off Italy, subways, trams, sleds, junks-and on a stretcher in Amalfi. But by far the most nerve-racking experience of all is when, in full dress, I must transport the cello in my own hands across the stage each time I have to play.

With maddening schedules on tour, I have often lost track of acturality. So, working in Salzburg on a concerto by Elgar, I forgot that I was in the town of Mozart, or, practicing Beethoven in Kalamazoo, I did not know where I was at all. Straining one's head for exact dates and places of my meetings with Prokofieff, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Martinu, or Hindemith would be useless if at that time I had been studying the music of others. And since the repeating tours in America and elsewhere, my mind, where chronological events were concerned, became steadily cloudier.

At times I imagined having first met the awkward and outspoken Prokofieff in the house of Koussevitzky in Boston, or in Paris after a sonata recital with Horowitz, but most likely it was in Berlin, when I played his early Ballada with him and urged that he write a cello concerto.

"I don't know your crazy instrument," he said.

I played for him and, demonstrating all possiblities of the cello, saw him from time to time jump from his chair.

"It is slashing! Playing it again!" He made notes in the little notebook he always carried with him.

He asked me to show him some of the typical music for cello, but when I did, he glanced through it and said, "You should not keep it in the house. It smells."

Playing bridge, he was even more blunt. Through some unfortunate circumstances a few times I happened to be his partner. Although a weak player, I was not entirely insensitive to his remarks, uttered under his breath. "Why is the idiot bidding spades?" he would say, or, "Should I let the cripple play his three no trumps?" One day it led to a clash that ended, however, with an affectionate embrace.

We corresponded about the concerto. Prokofieff's letters were astonishing. They would read, "dr gr'" (dear grisha) and so on, his signature being "sr pr" (sergei prokofieff). Proud of his consonant abbreviation system, he ignored the difficulties it presented to his correspondent. (In crass contrast Stravinsky's letters were written with painstaking exactitude, in an orthodox Russian style.)

Finally he completed the first movement. I received the music and soon we began to discuss the other movements to come. The beginning of the second, which followed shortly, appeared as excitingly promising as the first.

"Even so," said Prokofieff, "it will lead to nothing. I cannot compose away from Russia. I will go home." I thought that the decision had come to him not lightly. Soon, with his wife and two little children, he was set for departure.

When the manuscript of the concerto arrived, Prokofieff was back in Russia and communication with him concerning the concerto became extremely difficult. The first performance of it took place in Boston under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky. The many problems we faced with the composition were hardly solved by a word from Prokofieff: "Do whatever you find necessary. You have carte blanche."

The performance in Boston went well and the response of the audience was gratifying. A few days later in New York, where we repeated the work, the affair turned for me into a mild nightmare. At one point in the second movement, through some inexplicable mishap, the orchestra took a tempo four times faster than indicated. There was no time to reflect as I, as if by a jolt of lightning, attacked passages that even at the right tempo were extremely rapid. I don't know if anyone of the press or the audience noticed what happened, but how I came through it alive remains a mystery to me to this day.

In my letters, sent through the courtesy of the Soviet Embassy, I asked Prokofieff to make changes, pointing out certain weaknesses of the work. He thanked me for the suggestions and said that he would take them into consideration.

Nestyev, Prokofieff's Soviet biographer, says that this concerto was the last work of the composer's "foreign" period, "the least productive of his career, when the bourgeois Paris influences were still strong in him." After one performance "it has been shelved in the Soviet Union." But most likely it was his own dissatisfaction with the work that made him almost entirely rewrite the concerto.

Although he kept most of the old material, it has evolved into a new composition, Sinforia Concertante, Opus 125. I heard it masterfully performed by the Soviet cellist Rostropovich, and I am grateful that there are now two major works for the cello by this great composer and unforgettable man.

Presented by

Cello Heaven