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

Chapter Seven


P.G. at age 15

It was the Revolution. Everything was disrupted in a mighty gust of wind that changed direction chaotically and spread like wildfire. It was a hunt-a hunt for Whites and Reds, for the ghosts and for the living. The wounded with their insides out charged forward, and none believed himself dead. The cries for vengeance or freedom made calls for mercy too feeble to hear. The mice of yesterday were the tigers of today, and rabbits laughed like hyenas. Oh, what a hunting ground, what deafening noises! Cries, barking, shots filled the streets of Moscow, still wet with tears from the time of Rurik. Princes were smoked out of palaces. Grandmothers, sons, daughters, and grandchildren crawled from under Louis XIV beds like poisoned vermin. Pianos were dropped from windows and diamonds exchanged for a loaf of bread. The generals bombarded a factory of workers. All were on the run, foam dripping from their mouths. They were mad dogs-but there were no Pasteur, no laboratories, no hospitals in sight.

It was a frenzied convulsion. All was blood. A gigantic volcano had come to life, and Russia trembled. The serfdom, pogroms, and uprisings of the past were just a small show. The fury in France and its guillotines were fit only for nursery games. Now it was different. It was a great spectacle, a monster show within a show, and all were characters in it, free to unfold their genius in deadly improvisations. It was the time of awakened anger, and many had waited long for it.

I was fourteen, and I wanted to participate and be swept up in the torrent, but I held on and just listened-to the guns firing, and to the trumpeting voices proclaiming that the gods, demigods, and the centuries-old rule of the House of Romanoff had fallen.

The great uprising of the masses was terrifying, yet astonishingly many went about their daily lives. I had a room, but I could not think of study, and I had to work.

My landlady was a modiste who employed three workers. Very friendly, she often invited me for a meal and asked me not to worry about the rent. She was married and had a child whose father visited them regularly. She said that he knew many musicians.

"Do you know his friend Professor Lev Zeitlin?" she asked me one day. "He is a violinist."

I said, "Only by name."

When I met Professor Zeitlin, I immediately recognized him as the man who had helped pick up the bits of broken cello at the traktir. He remembered me, too. I was elated to see him again. He said he had thought of me often and wondered what had become of me, but that he did not even know my name. He told me that musical life in Moscow had suffered a loss at the recent death of the great young cellist Vassily Podgorny, who had been a member of his string quartet.

He said, "perhaps it is fate that we meet again." A few days later he introduced me to his colleagues, Konstantin Mostras, the violinist, and Ferdinand Krish, the violist. I played for them, and after I joined them in Beethoven, Borodin, and Tchaikovsky quartets, I was asked to join the celebrated ensemble.

I became extremely fond of my three older colleagues. Our daily rehearsals, which would begin in the morning, usually lasted until the clean-shaven face of Mr. Krish had grown whiskers. We scheduled cycles of concerts, and on Mr. Zeitlin's advice I entered the contest for the first cello chair at the Bolshoi Theater. He spoke of the great importance of such an event and told me the position was considered the finest in Russia and perhaps in the world. "Everyone will compete for it," he said.

The Bolshoi Theater had great meaning to me, as to everyone else. It was a source of national pride and a place of honor to all participating artists. Even as I entered the imposing building, I could not believe its magic doors were opening for me. I was led into a long and narrow foyer. There I saw a small army of cellists sitting along the walls and practising. I found an empty chair and joined them. The merciless noise would stop for only a second, to hear a voice calling the name of the next to appear before the jury of judges. They left and reappeared again, but the anxiety on their faces remained the same. By the time I was called, my attitude of aspiring artist had turned to that of an unwilling recruit, waiting in line to be rejected or drafted.

I confronted the judges, presided over by the venerable Vyacheslav Suk. The famous musicians consulted in whispers as I tuned my cello and waited.

"What would you like to play?" I heard finally.

"I didn't bring any music, only my cello."

Turning to the pianist, Mr. Suk asked, "What do you have there?"

"The Dvorak Concerto," he said, and as if it was all he had been waiting for, he started immediately a few bars before the cello entrance.

"Stop, stop," I shouted. "Please start the concerto from the beginning."

There was an uncomfortable silence. "It is not customary here to waste time on long piano introductions," someone remarked angrily, and the piano began where it had left off.

It was lucky that the strong attack of the cello solo corresponded so well with my mood. Still more fortunate was the power of the music over me. After the conclusion of the first movement the jury, not trying amy more to economize their time, asked me to play more for them. When I finished, everyone, including the contestants, congratulated me on my new position as first cellist of the Bolshoi Theater.

In the orchestra pit my seat was on a platform quite prominently placed. On my left stood the first-bass player, and both of us were separated from our respective sections. We shared the same music stand and played from the same old hand-copied scores, which had both parts written in and which were enormously thick and besmeared with many markings and strange signs in all colors and shapes. The first bass, Mr. Domoshevitch, was very helpful. "I will turn the pages. Follow me. Watch me, rather than the conductor. Don't pay attention to the others," he warned.

On my first night in the theater Swan Lake was given. As Mr. Arens, the conductor of the ballet, walked to the podium, Domoshevitch remarked, "He is an old snapping turtle-came here straight from Noah's ark," and, turning the pages, he quickly showed me which signs and signals in the part had to be ignored. "Those in black ink are nothing but traps; the blue and red were used years ago; only the red pencil and drawings of eyeglasses are valid." Throughout the evening Mr. Arens stared at me, and only once, after a big solo, did his face show approval.

I liked the ballet and I enjoyed playing the challenging solos, particularly for our prima ballerina, Ekaterina Gelzer, who, despite her enormous calves, danced with lightness and grace. Zhukov, Baloshova, Abramova, the frail Kengurova-all were a delight.

Although officially the soloist of the ballet, I played operas too, and if it was Wagner or Verdi under the direction of Suk, the performances were on a high level. For Russian operas I liked Golovanov. Regretfully, there were no contemporary works presented.

Each leader traditionally carried all responsibility for his group, so if, for example, the cello section did not see me enter, they would not play, letting me take the blame. My failure to enter at the right time had caused near disaster on a few occasions. I finally discovered that the cause of my mistakes was wrong indications intentionally written by someone into the score.

I soon learned why there was resistance from older members of the orchestra: Every promotion took years, and no matter how small, it was cause for an important celebration. Oboviously many were reluctant now to watch a youngster ahead of them from the start. To win their respect, I had to do something.

At one performance, having a long rest in my part, I put my bow on the music stand, leaned back in my chair, and rested. Suddenly I grabbed my bow, pretending to make an entrance. The entire section promptly came in at the wrong time, while I, not having touched a string, glared at them. After a few more no less malicious jokes on my part, wonderful relations with my colleagues were firmly established.

The Communist government was established, but the after effects of the great struggle remained, and people were weary and hungry. I was the only member of the orchestra to receive a child's ration card, and was called a "chocolate baby." For some it was funny, but I would rather have had raw fish and potato peels than my endless diet of sweets.

Despite cold and hunger, art flourished in Moscow. Artists shared each other's ideas, and musicians played for actors and in turn heard them discuss their plays. It was good to know and to play for Stanislavsky, Kochalov, Nemerovich-Danchenko, and Moskwin, all of the Art Theater. But when they spoke of music and we of the drama, our innocence of each other's field was obvious. I was attracted by the poets, particularly Majakowaky and Essenin, whom I saw at the Tabakerka, a place all revolutionary poets frequented. Secretly I wrote poetry myself, and still more secretly I thought myself a poet.

My life bustled with activity. There were recitals, new programs, quartets, and a newly founded trio with Dobrowen and Fischberg (later he changed his name to Mischakoff). I had concerts with Professors Igumnov, Goldenweiser, with Nikolai Orloff, and Madame Beckmann-Scherbina-all so differnet and yet all outstanding pianists and musicians. Madame Beckmann-Scherbina and I introduced the Improvisations by Goedicke and, as I recall, the Debussy cello sonata and the Ballada, by Prokofieff; and with Zeitlin we gave the first Russian performance of the Ravel Trio. Sometimes in my programs I included somewhat obscure old music seldom or never before performed.

The concert audiences of Moscow were extraordinarily receptive. It was as though the listeners took an active part in music, not unlike the musicians themselves. The spiritual food here was not rationed like bread and meat, and many took advantage of it.

In addition to ballet and opera, the Bolshoi Theater also had symphony concerts with guest soloists and conductors. An unusual feature of these concerts was that the orchestra sat in the pit as in opera, while the soloist was behind the orchestra, alone on the stage. It was at one of these concerts that I met Serge Koussevitzky for the first time. The soloist for this concert was Romanovsky, who played the Grieg Piano Concerto during the first part of the program. I don't know what happened, but by the end of the first movement Koussevitzky and Roomanovsky lost each other. Romanovsky ended the long struggle unexpectedly by dashing from the stage, leaving the orchestra and Koussevitzky to finish the movement alone. Koussevitzky, enraged and in full view of the perplexed audience, pointed at me as if I was the cause of the disaster. Following the hastily arrived-at intermission, I not only refused to participate in the rest of the concert but demanded an apology. It is strange that such an absurd beginning should have resulted in a lifelong friendship, but it did.

There was another incident at those concerts. The conductor Gregor Fitelberg gave the first performance in Russia of Richard Strauss's Don Quixote. He addressed the orchestra: "The improtant cello solo in this piece is very difficult," he said, looking at me. "I don't doubt that your first cellist, though very young, is a capable artist. Yet this work, in Europe, has always been performed with a guest soloist. The cello part needs long preparation, just like a concerto. Even more so. Therefore, I have invited Mr. Giskin."

A gentleman with a cello walked in. He was greeted by silence. I liked his appearance and was delighted with the prospect of listening to him. I offered him my place at once and moved over to the second chair. As Mr. Fitelberg was ready to begin, there were voices of protest.

"Our cellist can play as well as anyone! We don't care what they do in Europe. We are here in Bolshoi Theater of Moscow," someone shouted. I was embarrassed to see Mr. Giskin, with whom I had already had an agreeable exhange, walk out. Under such circumstances the rehearsal commenced.

I was too busy sight-reading to know how I played, but after the conclusion of Don Quixote, Fitelberg embraced me and the orchestra played a fanfare.

Such an unusual and triumphant start had an equally unusual ending. Immediately after the rehearsal, for no apparent reason I was sent by the Bolshoi Theater authorities to a convalescent home, and the performance took place with Victor Kubatzky as soloist.

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