|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
"WHAT is it? A menage a trois? Bigamy? A harem?" laughed a friend, looking at a snapshot of me tenderly embracing two cellos. He knew that the cello in Russian is a "she." But where the cello is concerned linguistic definitions mean little. For instance, although in English the cello is an "it," when Beatrice Harrison, the English cellist, spoke to me about her instrument, she cried out, "I love him."
For many people the cello signifies many different things. "Not often does the world mistake a cello for a cathedral. But I have," wrote J.B. Priestley, describing the playing of one cellist. The cello can also be a perfect breath of death, as in the concluding notes of Richard Strauss's Don Quixote. Of Hindemith's Variations on "A Frog He Went A-courting," a critic said that the cello had no trouble whatever in turnign into a bullfrog. Napoleon, listening to the famous cellist Duport, is supposed to have said, "You have made an ox sound like a nightingale." The cello's gift of metaphor and personification ranges from Jesus Christ (in an incompleted work of Roy Harris) to swan, clown, king, horse, or courtesan. As for me, the violoncello is a part of all things, and a central substance of this universe.
Though the purpose of any musical instrument is to produce sound, it is conceivable for even the deaf to admire the cello as they would a piece of sculpture. The great luthiers considered ornaments-such as the scroll, purfling, and f-holes-of enough aesthetic value as to give much of their creative efforts to them, despite their having little or no effect on the sound itself. In fact, if only the sound mattered, I could not have fallen so desperately in love with just the scroll of a cello as to pruchase it before even hearing its sound. It belonged to the "Aylesford" Stradivari, mad in 1696. Though a very impressive instrument, the beauty, power, and grace of its crowning scroll were what I could not resist. Only after the "Aylesford" had been repaired did I finally play on it. But although I found its sound admirable, its very large size (a characteristic of all Stradivari cellos made before 1700) put a strain on my fingers and I was forced, reluctantly, to part with it after a year or so. I don't know who its owner is now, but I still think of my brief romance with it and occasionally dream of the gorgeous scroll.
Once, a good many years before my affair with the "Aylesford," while in London to play, I met my friend Ernest B. Dane, a banker whom I knew from Boston.
"You look worried. Are you feeling well?" he asked.
"I'm all right," I said. "It's my cello. It has a cancer." I spoke of the sound-post crack on the back and of hours spent at Hill's the eminent violin experts in London. "But even they can't do a thing about the crack. No one can."
Mr. Dane said he had always wanted to visit the famous Hill shop. The next mornign we met there, and I introduced him to Alfred Hill.
"Here is something for you to try-a superb Montagnana which has not been played for close to a century." I was handed a cello as Mr. Hill went to show the shop to Mr. Dane. Voluptuous and richly covered with a gold-orange varnish, it was in a striking state of preservation. It was hard to believe that it had been made in 1739. Beautiful as it was, it had barely a sound at all. No wonder! Silent for so long, it had lost its capacity for speech. Puzzled and eager, I struggled to bring life into it. I don't know how long I tried or how long Mr. Dane and Mr. Hill stood listening.
"How do you like it?" I was suddenly interrupted.
"Fascinating," I said, not stopping playing, and continuing as they left the room. I looked at it again and again and played as if possessed, until Alfred Hill returned once more, this time alone.
"Mr. Dane," he said, "did not want to interrupt you. He had to catch his boat back to the United States. This Montagnana is his gift to you."
Stunned by the news, I carried the cello to my hotel. There, still in a haze, I locked myself in the room and spent the rest of the day and, with a mute on, the better part of the night playing and studying my new companion. The next day and for months to come, I desperately tried to awaken my "sleeping beauty," and when I began to succeed, I felt a joy akin to that of the price in the fairy tale.
We were inseparable for many years, traveling and playing uncounted concerts together-perhaps too many for both of us to endure. But the brave Montagnana, though badly in need of a rest, abused and exposed to all climates and acoustics, stood by me, giving its best. It was I who, though physically fit, tried to lessen my demands upon the cello by accepting fewer engagements and even leaving out of my programs some of the contemporary works which I thought were too brutal and percussive for my Montagnana to bear.
Though I knew I had to have two cellos, it was inconceivable for me even to look at another one, much less hope to find a replacement as relief. I spoke of my problem to Alfred Hill, a man for whose views concerning fine instruments I had great respect. It was a shock. "Sooner or later," he said, "you will part with the Montagnana, no matter how fine an example of a great master it is. Only a Stradivari is the nu plus ultra." He had a particular one in mind for me and furthermore an exact copy of it , made by Vuillaume.
About two years later my friend Rembert Wurlitzer, the renowned violin dealer of New York, called me in Philadelphia. He was brief. "It is here. Just arrived from London. Hurry." Sensing what to expect, I dashed to New York. There, facing the "Baudiot" Stradivari, and after striking only a few notes on it, once more I gave free reign to my enthusiastic impulses and bought the cello on the spot. As at first encounter one feels an immediate rapport with some people, so it was the "Baudiot." There was no need to get better acquainted-no work, no study required-and I played on it from the first day with joy and complete confidence.
In 1725 Stradivari made only two cellos, but how different they are! One, in the possession of my old friend Gerald Warburg, known as "La Belle Blonde," is light and elegant; while the "Baudiot," in contrast, is red, dark, and ruggedly masculine. Its head (scroll) is classical and proud. Its f-holes are sharp and its prufling uneven, as if impatiently but determinedly cut by the then eighty-one-year-old master. Judging from its appearance and its extraordinary quality and richness of sound, one would expect a dramatic history and heroic stories of its past. But I have not run across anything of particular interest except a curious account of an incident I read about in France.
The bizarre story about Charles Baudiot, a concert cellist and professor at the Paris Conservatoire in the first part of the nineteenth century, tells of his appearance as a soloist at a concert that began with a symphony by Haydn. Baudiot, next on the program, ignorant of what the orchestra was playing, was warming up on his Stradivari. Called on stage, he proceeded, of all things, with his own arrangement for cello and piano of a Haydn symphony. To his bewilderment, after the frist few bars he heard the audience laughing. Completely at a loss to explain what prompted the merriment, he struggled to give his all, without succeeding in stopping the laughter. The piece over, with tears of humiliation he demanded, "Why? Why?" The answer was simple: The symphony that the public had just heard from the orchestra happened to be the very same one Baudiot echoed in an absurd miniature on his cello.
The owners of great works of art, be they artists or collectors, carry the responsibility of a trusteeship. Though it is a burden at tiems, the pleasure and the honor of being associated with them more than compensates for the effort of preserving them for future generations.
Horace Havemeyer was one of the most admirable art collectors I have had the privilege of knowing. With a keen sense for quality, he and his lovely wife surrounded themselves in their Park Avenue apartment in New York with only the choicest examples-were it Vermeer, Stradivari, or Manet. An amateur cellist himself, he owned the two foremost cellos of Stradivari, the "Batta" and the "Duport."
At my first visit, they stood side by side, like two kings resting in their royal caskets. (My "Baudiot," too, when I am at home, is kept in a similar wooden case specially made by Hill & Sons.)
"Do you want to see them?" asked Mr. Havemeyer. So much had I heard about these legendary instruments and dreamed to see them one day in the flesh that I felt now like being invited to enter paradise. I waited, watching Mr. Havemeyer take the instruments out and carefully placing them for me to see. Dazzled and as if blinded by some mysterious light emanating from them, I had to close my eyes for a moment. When I opened them again, there was a sight to behold! A glow of colors of all shades from soft to bright transported me into a land of enchantment.
(As I was dictating these words to my secretary, she interrupted me. "Do you really mean it?" she asked. "You seem out of breath even reminiscing. Can musical instruments make such an impact, cause such a rapture? At the time her question disturbed me, but later I thought it was for the best. Afer all, no description can do justice to those masterpieces. And in trying, I may only succeed in making myself appear somewhat overmotional.)
After my first visit, whenever I was in New York I would not miss an opportunity to see the "Batta" and the "Duport." But no matter how often I was questioned on which of the two cellos I preferred, it was impossible to decide. Only after Mr. Havemeyer lent me the "Duport," with which I spent almost a year, did I know that I favored the "Batta." I think that mr. Havemeyer knew it all along, for he always handed me the "Batta" first to play, and it was the "Batta," he said, that I played last each time before departing. He also confessed one day that the reason he could not lend me the "Batta" was that it belonged to his son-in-law, Dr. Daniel Catlin. Later, it must have been my dear friend Havemeyer who intervened in my befalf and persuaded his son-in-law to sell me his "Batta." He did, and I shall not stop being grateful for it to both of them.
Conventionalities such as "out of this world" or "too good to be true" take on real meaning when applied to the "Batta," which safely can claim to be one of the finest works of art human hands have ever created. I own a letter in which Alfred Hill describes at length the touching history of this great instrument.
The "Batta" was born in Cremona in 1714, but its life during its first one hundred twenty-two years is mysteriously unknown. Not until it came to Paris in 1836 and was seen and played on by the famous Servais and then by his colleague Alexandre Batta did the cello's known history commence. Both Servais and Batta said that they had never heard such magnificent sound in their lives.
Batta fell passionately in love with it. But, having no money to acquire it, in his despair he called upon a friend who, responding to vehement pleading, generously presented the cello to him. He possessed that insturment for fifty-seven years. Cherishing his lifelong friend, he declined many offers to sell it, one of which came from a Russian nobleman who tendered a blank check to be filled in as Batta decided. Though in his old age Batta lived in retirement and played but little, yet he was loath to part with his treasure. The sole reason that prompted him to make the sacrifice was his anxiety to make some provision for an old and trusted housekeeper. The transaction concluded, he saw the last of his beloved cello when it was put into the carriage to be taken away. He bent forward, the tears running down his checks, and kissed the case.
I played the "Batta" for a long time before appearing in concert with it. In solitude, as is befitting honeymooners, we avoided interfering company until then. From that day on, when I proudly carried the "Batta" across the stage for all to greet, a new challenge entered into my life. While all other instruments I had played prior to the "Batta" differed one from the other in character and range, I knew their qualities, shortcomings, or their capriciousness enough to exploit their good capabilities to full advantage. Not so with the "Batta," whose prowess had no limitations. Bottomlesss in its resources, it spurred me on to try to reach its depths, and I have never worked harder or desired anything more fervently than to draw out of this superior instrument all it has to give. Only then will I deserve to be its equal.
I am still at it and perhaps I always will be. It keeps me striving and alert. And whenever I am downhearted, there is my marvelous "Baudiot," who stands by always ready to serve and obey, or just to be photographed with its master and his demanding concubine.