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

Chapter Three


G.P. Age 15

GRANDFATHER'S death brought my father back home. He looked defeated and haggard. It had been a fiasco in St. Petersburg.

Aunt Julia and Uncle Leo left hurriedly for the United States with the supposedly greater part of the inheritance. Father decided to use his scanty share to move to Moscow, where his children would have better opportunities for education. I was about nine when we arrived there.

Father invested in an apartment house on the outskirts of Moscow and applied for my entrance to the Moscow Conservatory of Music. I was interviewed and I played for the director, Ippolitov-Ivanov, and the cello professor, Von Glehn, and was admitted as a scholarship student.

It was a long walk back to our house. The building was of solid logs and the entrance to the house was in a courtyard behind a huge rustic gate. A bolt barred it for the night. It was like a parody of something medieval, a pitiful fortress that had nothing to protect. Surrounding it were rows of desolate and unpainted frame houses. Nearby was a shack where vodka was sold by government monopoly. There one saw men drop to the ground strewn with empty bottles, as though in a fever of typhus. On paydays women waited for their fathers and husbands. Some tried to prevent the men from getting drunk, but more often they limped home, weary and beaten by their impatient and thirsty men.

In this neighborhood there were gang fist fights of one street against another which started with children and ended with adults, a sport sometimes resulting in murder. It was a tough district. A few streets from us was a chocolate factory. Most of our tenants worked there, their days beginning in the dark of the morning.

The house had six apartments-three on each floor. Ours, upstairs, was the largest. There were a piano and books and a large table in the dining room. That table, between meals, served for writing, reading, and playing games.

The former owner had sold the building simultaneously to Father and to someone else. The legal proceedings that followed drained Father's purse. But, undiscouraged by a lost cause, he bustled with energy and spoke of the magnificence of Moscow and the new, interesting acquaintances he made.

"Great," he announced one afternoon. "Come on, boys," he called to Leonid and me. "I have news for you. We are going on a trip when school ends-the first thing this spring. A friend of mine recommended all three of us to Mr. Susow, with whom I signed a contract for a two-month tour with his grand opera company. We will go to many towns on the Volga River. I will be the first viola, Leonid, the concert-master, and Grisha, the first cellist."

On the day of departure the entire company, with the orchestra and chorus, crowded themselves into one third-class railroad car. Our section, two wooden lower and two upper benches, we shared with a very fat lady from the chorus. Soon after we left, she made herself comfortable, took off her clothes, and put on a greasy robe that she called a "peignoir." She had a remarkable assortment of cheeses, apples, and big loaf of bread. Her appetite was prodigious. The smell of one brand of her cheese, mixed with the perfume she was wearing, was suffocating. The situation worsened when she refused to let us open a window. Despite our pleas to the manager, he would not separate us.

The first meeting of the company was a rehearsal of Eugen Onegin in the theater in Samara. Walking from the railroad car, which was to be our living quarters, we saw billboards posted around town: "HISTORIC OPERA EVENT-FAMOUS STARS-100-MAN CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA-IN SENSATIONAL PRODUCTION OF 'EUGEN OREGIN.'

The orchestra consisted of seventeen men. Its most unusual feature was the conductor, who occupied the podium with his French horn. Holding the horn in both hands, his mouth shut by the mouthpiece, he was mute and gestureless. I was surrounded by four music stands, with parts for the cello, clarinet, trombone, and oboe. It was my duty to play the important spots of each part.

Mr. Susow was the entrepreneur of the company and the leading tenor as well. Irritated and nervous, he complained about many things, but his greatest annoyance was that the lady who was to sing Tatiana, the virgin maiden, had not mentioned her advanced stage of pregnancy when she signed the contract.

At the opening, Mr. Trilo, the double-bass player, stood near me with a bottle of vodka protruding from his pocket. The eager audience paid little attention to the scantily spread orchestra in the pit, but showed surprise when Mr. Jubansky walked to the conductor's podium with his horn.

The house lights dimmed, and during the overture it was quiet in the hall, but soon after the curtain went up the restlessness of the public became noticeable. As the performers warily proceeded, the unrest of the audience mounted, reaching the crucial moment when, for some reason, Mr Susow's aria suddenly stopped. The conductor, desperately looking for a tenor, pointed at Mr. Trilo, of all people, and screamed, "Sing!"

Trilo's rasping voice, "Olga, good-by forever," came loudly from the pit as Trilo fell, crashing over his double bass in a drunken stupor. The house was in an uproar. "We want our money back!" the people shouted, moving threateningly toward the pit. We ran out into the streets. Back in our car, we listened to Mr. Susow. He promised all sorts of improvements and our pay in the next city. Shortly we were off to Saratov. There the first performance was as shabby but was completed without serious protests form the audience. Mr. Susow assured us a long stay in the city. However, at the second performance the house was almost empty, and the third never took place.

Susaw's eloquence and our lack of funds made us agree to go on to Astrakhan. Now there was more space in the car, as a considerable number of the company had dropped out in Saratov, among them the fat lady from our section. Upon our arrival in Astrakhan, Susow, unaable to pay wages, disappeared, and the company disbanded.

We decided to have a little vacation and moved into a rooming house near the amusement park. Our first days in Astrakhan were spent at the river which flows through the city into the Volga. At a food market we bought melons, grapes, and milk in terra-cotta containers. In a rowboat we went down the river toward the Volga. We located a deserted island and, exploring it, ran into an ill-smelling pool. Putting his feet into it, Father said it was a discovery-the healing spring of youth. Holding my nose, I followed his example.

We repeated our trips to the island. Father noticed that the spring had already done him much good. He was about to register the discovery officially when he learned to his embarrassment that it was the outlet for the sewers.

We counted our money. The sum remaining, after paying for lodging, would buy only two passages home. There was a problem of choosing the one who was to remain. Walking through the amusement park, Father spoke to the conductor of the outdoor symphony orchestra and found that there was an opening for a cellist. I auditioned and was hired.

Shortly after Leonid and Father left, the former cellist of the orchestra reappeared and I was told that I could remain only if I played in the second violin section. The conductor had a spare instrument for me and was quite unimpressed with my assurances that I couldn't play the violin. I hated that little thing under my chin. For the difficult passages, I had to hold it, like the cello, between my knees. At first, the switching of the position did not draw attention, but the moment I was noticed by the public it began to attract a large number of people who burst into applause each time I manipulated the violin.

"You make a circus of my concerts," said the conductor, and fired me.

At the amusement park there was a Cafe Chantant, opening late in the evening and closing early in the morning. I offered my services and was engaged.

The musicians and the conductor, protecting me from the sight of the nudes on the stage, placed me facing the wall of the orchestra pit. With the help of a rear-view mirror I was able to see the conductor.

At closing time I frequently met a girl who was the barefoot dancer. She complained that the customers always drank and talked while she danced. I felt sorry for her and looked for an idea for a new dance for her. I thought that Souvenir, by Drdla, would suit her perfectly and I spent many hours working on the choreography. I danced barefoot and sang until my creation was completed. I demonstrated the dance to her and she agreed it was just what she needed. A rehearsal was called and I got permission to watch the premiere from the hall. My heart beating, I saw her entering the stage, waving her hands, gliding, and executing all my ideas, which aroused more and more laughter as she proceeded. I rushed to her dressing room, where I found the manager firing her. Indignantly I announced my own resignation and got my week's pay.

With my suitcase and cello I was on my way to the railroad station. I bought passage as far as my money would take me. The remaining distance home, I stole rides on freight trains at night, sleeping in haystacks during the day. In one village I sold my suticase and other belongings and stuffed my pockets with bread and salami. About twelve days later I arrived home in time for school. Inventing a little here and there, I told of my adventures.

Presented by

Cello Heaven