|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
THE official ceremonies-shaking hands in receiving lines, audiences with royalty or heads of government-are not the everyday life of an artist. In 1930 I was invited to play at the White House for President Hoover. The pianist Emanuel Bey and I arrived in Washington. On the day of the concert I had a visitor from the White House, who came to brief me on the exact procedure of the concert and the supper afterward. Since my English was weak, I referred him to Mr. Bey, and soon, curious about what the gentleman wanted, I went to Bey's room. I found him shaving. "Did you see the man?"
"Yes," said Bey phlegmatically.
"What did he want?"
Stretching his lip full of lather, he said, "Nothing much."
"There must be something. I understood it was urgent."
"Ridiculous. He wanted to be sure we knew how to behave."
"What did you say?"
"I said that we come from good families and that we know how to behave. You know something? I would not be surprised if they put us musicians somewhere near the kitchen, like in the good old days."
In due time a limousine brought us to the White House. We were led through many passages and halls and entered a corridor. Bey stopped, sniffed, and said, "Do you smell what I smell?" We settled in a small room assigned to us and listened melancholically to the clatter of dishes in the kitchen pantry nearby. The time passed slowly and we decided that, instead of waiting for someone to lead us to the stage, we would explore under our own power. After losing our way in a labyrinth of corridors and antechambers we finally emerged in a large foyer in which we saw a small orchestra in uniformed jackets playing the Minuet by Boccherini. It sounded so nice, so inviting, that I could not resist following the music, with my arms around the cello, in a slow and graceful minuetto step. Bey joined me with equal elegence. It was not until I heard Bey's voice that I felt alarmed. "For heaven's sake," he said, "stop dancing. Look behind you." I saw the President, Mrs. Hoover, all the dignitaries and guests following us in a procession. We could not turn back. There were no exits and we had to enter the hall. Standing close to the stage, which was too high for us to climb onto, and not able to follow or understand the frantic signals of a man whom I recognized as my visitor in the hotel, we had to wait until everyone entered the hall before we could be led backstage.
After the concert there was an informal supper with the President and guests. It began rather stiffly, but some English errors on my side dispelled the strained atmosphere. Perhaps thinking of Germany, where every wife carries the title of her husband, as "Frau Doktor" or "Frau Konzertmeister," I started my little address in answer to the President's welcome: "Mrs. President and Mr. Hoover." I did not need to say more, and even the gentleman whose instructions I had not followed laughed as merrily as everyone else. A few days later I received a large photograph of the President, and, putting it in my suitcase, went off to Canada.
Knowing only vaguely about Prohibition, I had promised to bring whiskey for some friends. On my way back I was asked to open my suticase at the American border. On top, covered with Mr. Hoover, lay three bottles of scotch. The customs inspectors looked disbelievingly at the bottles and at me, read the inscription on the picture and my name on the passport, and ordered me to close my suticase. I kept the President's picture, but I have not used it for smuggling purposes again.
My next visit to the White House, again with Mr. Bey, came a few years later, when I played for President Roosevelt. This time with much-improved English I could fully enjoy the conversation with the President and Mrs. Roosevelt. The hostess was extremely gracious and the concert was warmly received.
During the intermission I told Mr. Bey how much I was looking forward to supper with the President after the performance. Bey's reactioncame as a surprise.
"I am going to eat at the drugstore. Mrs. Roosevelt serves macaroni and tepid coffee. I have it from reliable sources," he said. "Please tell the President I am an expectant father, or I have to have my tonsils removed, or something."
I spent a delightful hour with Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt and their few guests, and, eating the macaroni and drinking the coffee, I could not help thinking of Mr. Bey, the drugstore, and how accurate his information had been.
The next time I had to make excuses for my pianist was in Surabaya. But instead of for Mr. Bey, it was for Mr. Pavlovsky; and instead of President Roosevelt, it was the governor of the Dutch East Indies. We were on our way to Japan, and after the last concert before our departure the governor had a reception for us.
Pavlovsky, who was always on the lookout for attractive page turners, had refused to start the concert before finding one. She was young and beautiful and the manner in which Pavlovsky taught her the art of turning pages I thought quite unusual. They sat in the darkest corner of backstage, holding the music close to their faces while he whispered instructions and kissed her hands.
The beginning of the concert he took as a rude intrusion. At the intermission, seemingly delighted with the progress she was making, Pavlovsky gave her some more advanced instruction. And by the end of the concert he declared that he didn't feel well and asked me to convey his apologies for not being able to come to the reception.
When I came back from the party, he was not in his hotel bungalow. The next morning half an hour before departure he was still not in his room. A car waited to take us to the railroad station. In desperation I packed his suitcase. Suddenly I caught sight of him in the distance, pedaling furiously on a bicycle, and I drove toward him. He was out of breath and looked disheveled and wild. He threw the bicycle aside on the road and jumped into the car. We just made the train.
In the compartment he sat in complete exhaustion. He asked if I was very angry. I said yes. It saddened him visibly. "What can I do to be forgiven?" he said.
I said, "Just tell me honestly what happened to you, but without missing a single detail." He happily agreed, and with every word my anger lessened. The unfolding of his exploits kept me fascinated all the way to Japan, and I am only sorry that I had to add this epic to his other adventures that I promised I would not retell.
It's a pity, but still more regrettable is that I find myself unable to describe the fascinating Dutch East Indies, the incredible beauty of that part of the world, its art, and the grace of its people. Even the finest books on Java with the best of photography do not really pay justice to the marvels of that land. I could have stayed there for years instead of a few weeks, if only to study the native instruments and their music, the rhythm of which I found more refined than in our contemporary music.
I wondered what impression my programs would have made on the native musicians, but as it was, the audiences were primarily made up of Europeans. The Kunstkring, the Dutch music society, was very particular in its choice of artists and their programs. Conservative, they took music very seriously. The critics, following suit, wrote exceptionally conscientious and scholarly reviews of the concerts. Once I was surprised to read that I had utilized the lute version of Bach's C-Minor Suite. I had, just as I had made a cut in the Rachmaninoff Sonata, which equally had been detected. Astonishing indeed that this should occur so near the deepest of jungles!
When our miserable freighter, battered by a typhoon on its long journey to Japan, at last docked in Kobe, Pavlovsky and I were joyous at the prospect of being released from the ship. We were first to present our papers to the officials, but long after the other passengers had disembarked we were still being questioned. I knew from past experience what impression my mystic passport could make, but I can't recall a confusion equal to this one. I had the same honest to goodness Nansen, I had all the necessary visas, and, as usual, I was on an official concert mission. What could have caused the grueling corss-examination? I was at a loss to explain it. They continued to scrutinize my papers, and one of the customs men, who spoke Russian, wanted to know all about my past, my forefathers, and my future plans. Was he really that much interested in me, or did he merely want to exercise his rusty Russian? I do not know.
In the meantime, Pavlovsky's personality and his credentials were accepted, to the extent of his joining the group as their trusted consultant. "We friends," he said in English. "He fine. I guarantee."
It was at this moment that, losing my patience, I declared that I would remain on the ship, that it was not my idea to come to Japan, that I was asked to come. With this I took my cello, went back into the cabin, and went to bed.
This unexpected action proved effective enough to get me a permit to enter the country. Almost immediately the officials said that there was some embarrassing misinformation and they apologized. We all walked down the gangplank together like bosom pals. As we shook hands and parted, I found myself encircled by a big crowd of people waving flags. They were representatives of various musical and educational organizations who had come to welcome us.
My concerts were put so closely together that there was barely time left to get acquainted with the country itself. I met many old friends from Russia and Germany, America and France, a few of whom made their homes in Japan and had Japanese wives. The delicate and modest femininity of Japanese women I thought captivating.
I have been told that no man can enter a Japanese house without taking his shoes off. But of all the families I visited, only once did I have to do so, and with a hole in my stocking at that-when I visited the home of a German emigrant.
The audiences were remarkably attentive and among the most receptive I have played for anywhere. I had no opportunity to come in contact with Japanese musicians, but one blind composer whose name I am ashamed to have forgotten impressed me with his mastery in playing th koto.I performed a short composition of his with the orchestra under the direction of Joseph Rosenstock.
Shortly before leaving Japan I was approached by a record club with an offer to make a recording. It made me recall a note I received from Feodor Chaliapin upon my arrival in Tokyo, which read: "Just ended my tour. Sorry to have missed you. Should you be asked to make a record, do it, with no questions asked." In the same note he gave me the name and address of a Japanese tailor, recommending that I have a suit made.
I agreed to make the recording, and, taking advantage of the first free time I had, I went to the tailor. When the tiny man saw me enter his shop, he exclaimed, "Oh no! A giant again!" He said he didn't have enough material to make suits for people like that Russian mountain and me. I calmed him down, and we agreed upon the price and the time the suit should be ready. With the help of a ladder he was able to reach me to take measurements. I still have that suit. It's not a very good one, but it is utterly indestructible. It does not seem to be inflammable or respond to any sharp instrument.
The record club wanted me to record two pieces that I had not recorded previously, each a few minutes long. They left the choice up to me. I chose Nocturne, by Lili Boulanger, and Vivace, by Tessarini, both pieces I barely knew. The studio had good acoustics, the piano was good, and after a ridiculously short session the engineer said that the recordings were good. I received an envelope, and a few hours later I was in Yokohama boarding the S.S. Asama Maru for the trip to Honolulu and San Francisco. I left my suitcase in the cabin, asking the steward to unpack, and went for a stroll on the deck. There I opened the envelope and, not trusting my eyes, I showed it to Pavlovsky. It took us some time to believe that the figure on the check was real. (Later in Paris, Chaliapin explained that the enormous fee represented the royalties for the records presold to the fantastically numerous membership of the club. I thanked Chaliapin for his good advice, and we drank vodka to the wonderful music lovers of Japan.)
The irony of this incident is that twenty-five years later, when a cellist named Gregory Bemko called me to ask where he could get the music of the Tessarini Vivace, I said that I didn't know of such a piece. He said it was impossible, and he would prove it. He brought me the Japanese record and I heard it for the very first time.