|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
In the soothing company of Shutkin my recovery progressed rapidly, and although my fingers still had sores and were swollen, I practiced the cello and thought of looking for a job. Shutkin would not hear of it. "Study-that is what you should think of-not of being a burden to someone or of earning money." He went toward the closet and returned with a folded paper in his hand. "Read this. I found it at the conservatory when I went there to explain you absence."
It was a message from Leonid saying that everyone except Nadja and Dmitri was leaving for Ekaterinoslav, and they were all glad that I was all right.
"I sent word to your folks,"Shutkin said guiltily.
I recommenced music lessons and attended the high-school classes attached to the conservatory. There on a bench to my left sat a mustached singer of about thirty, and on my right a boy violinist of six. With me in the middle, our grades wer equally poor.
Professor von Glehn was not very demanding, and he did not seem to mind hearing me play the same etude by Duport, lesson after lesson. I knew, of course, that I could do better, for when alone I played a great many pieces, composed cadenzas to concertos, and wrote a difficult caprice for unaccompanied cello. The goodhearted professor, unable to hurt anyone's feelings, never scolded me or demanded explanations. he also could not refuse when I asked permission to appear in one of the student recitals. He shook his head sadly and said, "If you want. I hope you find something to play."
At these concerts it was customary for the least interesting student to open the program. The more advanced ones followed, and the program always closed with the best. I was placed first. The piece I chose was the vulgar but flashy Souvenir de Spa, by Servais. The excitement created by my performance came as an enormous surprise, not only to me, but also to my perplexed professor. At my next lesson the classroom was crowded with students wanting to hear me. When I began to play the old Duport etude in my old indifferent fashion, the professor stopped me.
"Please go home," he said. "I can't understand you."
It is strange that a person who ennobles with his mere presence and who inspires respect should be addressed simply as "Shutkin" and not "Gospodin Shutkin" or, more customarily, by his and his father's first names. In Russian shutka means "joke." He liked it, as he liked the absurd store that he had had for a long time. He made fun of his wares, but no one dared to insinuate that he was selling junk. The store was the seat of a sage, and I was his chosen disciple. "The music you play here would not be different in a cathedral," he said.
Business was poor and for the last few months our meals had consisted of only bread, kasha, and milk. I had to find work. Shutkin finally consented. "You are a stubborn fellow. I'd better agree with you right here and now, before you run away." He thought for a minute. "There is a place I know. Let's go there"
"Here it is." We saw a signboard, "TRAKTIR-Third Class." We walked in. "I used to come here regularly," said Shutkin. "A filthy place. One shouldn't eat here, but the tea is good." We listened to an accordionist. The tea was good. Shutkin spoke to the owner, and after a short conference with the accordionist I had a job. "You are such a skinny giant, no one will believer you are only twelve. You had better have proof before you are drafted," said Shutkin.
The World War, which had been raging for over a year, left its mark everywhere. No one spoke of victories or defeats. No one with crutches looked like a hero. People in the streets were gloomy, and only a few watched the new recruits marching. It is odd that the world's turmoil and misery left no mark on me, and that cartoons of the Kaiser and pictures of the battles did not seem terrifying or real.
Shutkin came nightly to the traktir and waited to walk home with me. With my job, our household improved considerably. Shutkin enjoyed his new bed, and his couch replaced my table. The job did not interfere too much with my studies, and Shutkin and I were content-that is to say, until the accordionist quarreled with the owner and was fired. The cello by itself was an insufficient attraction in those noisy surroundings, and I had to quit too. But I was not idle for long. The accordionist, who kept in touch with me, found a new job for us both. Shutkin hated the new establishment. "It's a den of dregs, nothing but bad women and drunkards."
One night as Shutkin kept me company while the accordionist had his dinner, a stranger asked if I would play Bach for him. I did not believe my ears. There had been no such requests before. I played the Prelude of the C Minor Suite, but before I reached the fugue someone yelled, "Hey there, stop it!" I kept playing. "Didn't you hear? Stop tickling your cat!" A drunkard swaggered toward me and kicked my cello with his boot. There was a commotion. I saw Shutkin being pushed; he fell and was hurt. "Your cello, your cello," he gasped.
The man who requested the Bach picked up the pieces of my cello from the floor and put what was left into the cello cover. Together we helped Shutkin over the ice-covered sidewalks as we took him home. I ran for the doctor. After examining Shutkin, he called me aside and told me that the old man was very sick and must be taken to a hospital at once.
Shutkin was put in an overcrowded ward. I stayed with him. I had the impression he looked at me as though to say something, but the physician said he was unconscious. He never saw "the last scene" of his life and without regaining consciousness died two days later.
Shutkin's neighbors found new lodgings for me and I bought a cheap cello in a most unlikely place, a vegetable market in the street. It was coal black and it had wormholes and many cracks that were cemented or roughly repaired with carpenter's glue. The varnish had a smell of tar. It is surprising that with that smell I was able to get a job in a salon orchestra in one of the better restaurants of Moscow.
The musicians spoke to me about an important patron who preferred the cello to all other instruments, that his favorite piece was a melody from the ballet Fiameta, by Minkus, and that I had better prepare the piece well.
One evening a middle-aged man walked toward a table close to the orchestra. "There he is," whispered the leader.
"What is that?" He pointed at me and, not waiting, turned to depart. The leader rushed after him and a few minutes later announced, "Afanassieff will stay. Such a fool! He is used to grown-up cellists. I told him a thing or two." Slapping my shoulder, he said, "Play for him until his heart bleeds. Come on, boys, bring your ammunition. We are going to play for Afanassieff in a private room." I hesitated. I had heard of all sorts of wild private parties, where musicians galloped around a table as they played or allowed their faces to smeared with mustard for a tip.
"Come on, we are waiting," urged the leader. "He doesn't believe you can satisfy him. He is alone there, and he never drinks."
Mr. Afanassieff sat in a corner of a large room. He commanded, "Fiameta."
"Play it again," he said nostalgically as soon as I had finished. I had to repeat it again and again. He came toward me. "Stand up," said the leader.
"Buy yourself a better cello." Mr. Afanassieff pulled a bundle of money from his pocket and counted out nine thousand rubles, which he handed to me. As I stood abashed, holding the money, he gave one thousand rubles to the orchestra and walked away.
The responsibility of safekeeping so much money and finding the right instrument made me uneasy. The musicians did not share my concern. "Just stick with us. We didn't do badly, did we?" They celebrated the event and walked me home, and the cheerful group appeared to greet me in the morning.
Of the instruments that were for sale, I was impressed with a Montagnana, but my friends liked a Guarneri. It had a light yellow color and its measurements seemed faulty. But, influenced by their enthusiasm, I was swayed to buy it for the exact sum of nine thousand rubles.
Where was Mr. Afanassieff? I wanted him to hear the Guarneri and to know my gratitude. But it was not my fate ever to see him again.
My mornings and afternoons were spent at the conservatory and I practiced at home between classes. I even practiced in the restaurant when there were no guests. Our pianist liked to accompany me or just to sit and listen, while the rest of the orchestra played cards in the musicians' room. They played one game calld Frapp. Yankov, the second violinist, taught it to me, and it was to him that I lost one month's salary. Everyone lost large amounts to him, but it did not console me at all. I resented his never-failing luck and became suspicious of it. Though I did not play any more, I was always present, standing opposite Yankov and watching his every move. It disturbed him. Sonetimes his hand trembled. He began to lose.
"Why don't you go away and practice your cello?" he would say. Not to cheat must have been hard on him. One night he watched me during a game. His eyes kept darting at me as if he was waiting for an opportunity to catch me off guard. Finally, like magic, a card came from his sleeve. I saw it, yet I stood mute. After work I followed him out to the street.
"I will pay you my debt," I said. He walked faster. "They are your friends. I will not tell them. You must not cheat." He slapped my face. Long after he disappeared into one of the side streets I still heard the slap. The sound of it seemed to come from all sides, from every wall of the buildings around me. The next day was payday. The cashier, following my instructions, gave half of my salary to Yankov. For the next few weeks, undisturbed by my presence, he continued to win, until one day he was caught and beaten up. Somehow he managed to keep his job.
It was I who lost mine. The first guests to arrive one evening were a group of conservatory professors. Catching me at my usual practicing, they asked me to continue. I played several pieces and acknowledged their applause. Honored by the praise of the distinguished musicians, I hoped they would want to speak to me. Instead, pointing at me, they spoke to the waiter, whom they sent to the stage with money on a tray. "Here's your tip. Buy yourself a cigar," the waiter said. Insulted, I ran toward the guets and threw the money on their table. Before I realized what had happened, I was bodily thrown out with my cello and all in the snow.
In this ungraceful exit I lost my mittens, and, being susceptible to frostbite, my hands became swollen and red within a few days. My room was not heated, and in a chronic state of hunger I did not even try to look for a new job. Avoiding my teachers, nonetheless I hung around the conservatory because it was the only place I could go that was warm.
One day I bumped into the director, Ippolitov-Ivanov. "Someone mentioned seeing you in strange places-night clubs or something. Very distressing." He tried to appear strict. "We must maintain high standards. You will be punished. We can't keep you here-not after you have insulted our professors. How could you, Gossinka?" he said softly, coming closer to me.
He looked at my frostbitten fingers. "You must put goose grease on them." And, as though speaking to himself, "God knows why some talented fellows dig ditches under them instead of growing wings! Show me your hands again. Does it hurt?" He rubbed my hands gently. "The goose grease will help, I know, Krassic, it will. You don't really believe that we don't want you, do you?" His voice was tender. I wanted to say something but I could not.
Simple and kind, he reminded me more of a coachman or village parson than the composer of Caucasian Sketches, the only work of his I knew. His hair and his fleshy face, which seemed too large for his short body, made his eyes look very small. But I loved him almost as much as Shutkin, only I wished he wouldn't use so many diminutive names on me.
"Go home, Lirotchka, and don't worry, Prokossonchik, my boy," he said, walking me to the door. Long after I left, his words "Pussik-Dushka-Goose Grease-Grishinka" tickled my ears.
My landlady did not believe in extending credit to her boarders. My punctuality in paying had made me her favorite. At the table, I had been served before the older boarders. She would bestow smiles upon me, show her pleasure at my having had a good night's rest, and volunteer information on the weather. But the day I lost my job, her sentiments changed. She asked to be paid in advance. Rapidly running out of funds, I had to sell almost all of my belongings to a peddling Tartar. They did not bring much, but it gave me time to look for a new job. There were no jobs available. Wherever I went, I heard the same thing: that I was a troublemaker. Days passed. Waiting to be paid, the landlady ordered me not to take the cello out of the house, I asked her to accompany me to a place where I could sell my Guarneri.
A well-known violinmaker took a quick look at my cello and said, "I wonder who keeps putting new labels inside of this factory-made product. The last time I saw it, when a fellow named Yankov brought it here, it was a Stradivari. Before that, it was a Guadagnini. Now it is a Guarneri."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"This Guarneri is the darnedest fake. It has been circulating in town for a long time. My boy, it is worthless. Don't buy it, no matter how cheap. That is my advice."
"It's he who is a fake!" shrieked the landlady, shaking her finger at me. "Put it back in the cover." She snatched it. "I will salvage whatever I can," she said, slamming the door behind her.
"Is she your mother?" asked the violinmaker sympathetically.
"Heavens, no!" I said.
The sky was clear, the air crisp, the ground under my feet solid. I was free. No house, no obligations, no cello. That is, until the next one.