|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
THOUGHTS of my sister Nadja weighed heavily on me. I sent her messages but had no answers. Once I went to see her. There was the familiar log house. I walked through the gate. Everything looked vacant and run-down. I climbed the stairs and stood listening at the door of our old apartment, but something kept me from entering. I retreated noiselessly, as if afraid to be caught. No one saw me. I was glad to get away from that house and my memories of it.
I wrote her repeatedly, confessing my cowardice to face her in her surroundings and begging her to come to me. Many weeks passed before she finally came. Her deep-sunk eyes, her hollow, ashen cheeks reminded me so little of my giggling, beautiful sister. She spoke late into the night of her ill-fated marriage, her misery, and the cruelty of Dmitri and her in-laws, but mostly she spoke of her baby, which was deformed and did not live long. She showed me snapshots of her wedding and I said she looked beautiful as a bride. "Did you ever see Father cry?" she asked. "I did-I saw it. When you left, and than again at my wedding."
Early the next morning while Nadja slept I rushed to her house. Confronting Dmitri and his parents, I made them sign a confession of their mistreatment of my sister, and not until all three scribbled their names under the most crudely composed document did I leave. When later I showed it to a lawyer, he said it was a masterpiece and Nadja was as good as divorced.
Nadja recovered slowly, but what a joy it was to hear her play the same sugary pieces on the piano in the same sentimental way like at home in the old days. It was fun to find pretty dresses for her and to introduce her to my friends. She attended the theater and concerts, but though she like living with me, she wanted to see our parents, and before long she joined them in the Ukraine.
The government assigned artists to play in factories, workers' clubs, and Red Army clubs. There were sometimes as many as four such appearances in a single night. Groups of musicians and actors were loaded on sleds and driven by horses from place to place. We were instructed not to play anything too heavy for the unaccustomed audiences. If our show took place in a chocolate factory, we would receive chocolate in exchange for our services; if in a cannery, herring. Only once did I hear a complaint-when Chaliapin received a pair of baby shoes for his singing.
I was drafted, but I did not quite know my exact army status, for somehow I belonged to two regiments. My duty was to play for each one a few times a month. I did not have to wear a uniform or live in barracks, but I regularly received food rations in amounts measured according to a soldier's daily requirements. Once, caught in a roundup of deserters, I showed the two military cards, each issued from a different detachment. The military police not only promptly arrested me, but, as a special case, separated me from the bunch of mere deserters. It was sheer luck that one of the policemen let me go free after recalling having heard me at a concert.
Living alone and unequipped for cooking, I distributed my food rations among friends and families with children, who in turn invited me for meals. At one period everyone wanted to have me for dinner. Strangely, all served rabbit ragout. There was nothing else, but it tasted good and I did not mind the monotony. It was not until I noticed the total disappearance of pets and of stray cats from the streets that I realized how many of them I must have consumed.
Time moved fast. Nothing old could remain under the revolutionary banner. Old names of cities and streets had to be changed. When it came to giving new names in the field of art, I was asked with other colleagues to the meeting presided over by Minister of Art Lunocharsky. After the renaming of the important institutions it was proposed to call the quartet of which I was a member the Lenin Quartet. "Why not the Beethoven?" my adolescent voice came through the room. Someone kicked me, under the table. We became the Lenin String Quartet. Our quartet underwent other changes. Ferdinand Krish was replaced by L. Pulver, an exceptionally fine violist, and K. Mostras' place was taken by an equally exemplary musician, A. Yampolsky.
Those who had the distinction of carrying Lenin's name were invited to the Kremlin. Lenin greeted our quartet warmly. He was alone. We had tea and played one movement of the Grieg Quartet. As we were departing, Lenin accompanied us to the anteroom and helped Zeitlin with his coat. Lenin reached out his hand, said, "Thank you, Comrades," and to me, "You must stay." Scared, I whispered into Zeitlin's ear, "If I am not out of here soon, call for me, please." They left.
I followed Lenin along a narrow corridor into a snall study. "Sit down." I kept the cello at my side. He looked at it. "Is it a good one?"
"The finest instruments used to be in the hands of rich amateurs. Soon they will be in the hands of professional musicians rich only in talent." He spoke with a slight burr. There was nothing of the mighty revolutionist in his appearance. His manner of speaking was simple and mild. His jacket, his shoes were like those of a neighborhood tailor. He looked like a well-meaning provincial uncle, and as he sat in a straight chair and looked at me as if encouraging me to say sonething, my uneasiness vanished.
"You are very young, but you have a responsible position. It is strange that only in music and in mathematics can the very young reach prominence. Did you ever hear of a child architect or surgeon?" he said, smiling.
"No, but I have heard of child chess players."
"Quite right. Do you play chess?" but, not waiting and as if reminiscing, "Chess has been good for the Russians-checkers too. It gives them occasion in this country to fingt-to win or lose or come out even, on equal terms and merits." He changed the subject abruptly. "Is it true that you protested at the meeting?"
"I am sorry." There was a slight stutter to my voice.
"At you age, one speaks first and thinks afterward," he said, whith no trace of sarcasm. "I am not an expert on music, but I know that there is no more befitting name for a quartet than Beethoven."
"I am so glad. So you are not angry with me?"
"No," he said, smiling again. "But I wanted to speak with you. Only what is logical remains. Time filters impurities and corrects mistakes, particularly if made at such times as these. The Lenin String Quartet will not last; the Beethoven will." He spoke in parables, not touching big topics. But whatever he said was profoundly human and was said with disarming simplicity.
Later our quartet participated in a celebration at which Lenin and Trotsky were the speakers and at which for the first time the name Lenin was not attached to the quartet. I went to see him. He was surrounded by many people, but the moment he noticed me he pointed at the line on the program which read, "The First State String Quartet." He said, "You see?" It was the last time I saw him.
I had an audience with Lunocharsky and asked him for permission to leave for France or Germany to study. It is true that I had taken several cello lessons from Anatol Brandukov, but I felt that to become a full-fledged pupil of his would have been disloyal to Professor von Glehn. It was necessary to study abroad. Lunocharsky flatly refused and said that I was needed in Moscow. I went to see him again, trying to impress upon him the need of my further development. His answer was no. "I will run away," I said frankly. He did not believe me.
In the summer of 1921 I joined the tenor Vesilovsky, the baritone Sadomov, and the violinist Mischakoff, all of the Bolshoi Theater, in a concert tour, together with manager, accompanist, and the wife of one of the singers. It was hastily arranged and we had only a vague idea as to where we were going. Sadomov, who spoke with a severe stutter, was the only one who thought this was an ordinary concert tour.
Our route took us from the larger cities like Kiev to the smaller and smaller ones, until it brought us to Volochisk, a village on the Polish border. There we met another group of artists, among whom was a well known violinist, Naoum Blinder. We joined our forces in a gala performance during which I, for the first time, heard Sadomov speak almost fluently. Pacing backstage, he protested, "This empty barn, this tour, and everything else is c-c-c-razy. I will pack and go home." After the concert Sadomov disappeared.
In the morning negotiations began with individuals who specialized in smuggling people across the border. We were told to move, one by one and without arousing attention, from the village closer to the border. The smugglers' price was outrageous and their methods dangerous, but their terms were accepted. On the first dark night we were led stealthily toward the low bridge over the Sbruch River. Reaching it, we were commanded to run.
The instant we set foot on the bridge, there were shots from both sides of the border. I jumped into the river. Mischa followed. So did Madame Vesilovskaya, who clutched at me in panic. I struggled to keep my cello above my head. The river was shallow, but I heard Gurge-like sounds close behind me that came from Mischakoff. We reached the Polish border.
"We are safe-we crossed the border," said Mischa, shivering.
"No," I replied, "we did more than cross-we burned a bridge behind us forever."