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

Chapter Nine

THE border guards arrested us and we were put in jail. In the morning we stood before the chief of police in his office. "Your documents," he demanded. Astonished, I saw Vesilovsky produce his papers. He had not thrown them away as the smugglers had ordered. Furthermore, he spoke in polish to the chief. They shook hands and with "Good-by, fellows," in our direction, he and his wife left.

The chief of police, in his broken Russian, ordered us to call him "Pan Vojevoda." He waited for our identification. "No papers,eh?"


"You say you are musicians? Not spies? prove you are musicians! Play! Mischakoff and I unpacked our instruments and played Kreisler's Schon Rosmarin. I plucked the accompaniment . When we finished, the guards applauded and we heard, "Dobje, dobje." The chief stopped them short. "Still I want papers."

"We are musicians, Pan Vojevoda."

"There are plenty of fiddling spies. We know your tricks," he said. He gave a sign to the gendarmes. "They will deliver you where you belong-straight back over the border to your comrades."

Outside, we climbed into a cart hatched to a scrawny horse that pulled us unhurriedly along the dusty road. One guard holding the reins looked back at us from time to time and smiled. "He must like music," I said. We sighted a railroad station. I had an idea. "Can we stop and play over there?" I gestured. "Just a little bit. Perhaps we can also have a drink." I tried to make myself understood. They nodded and we stopped and walked with our instruments into a small waiting room filled with peasants. The guards followed.

As we began playing, I heard the puffs of a locomotive. Plucking the accompaniment in a standing position, I started to move a few steps at a time toward the platform. Mischakoff followed. The guards did not object and did not even move when we boarded the train just as it was pulling out. We caught a glimpse of them and the peasants watching the train speed away.

Without tickets, money, or passports and afraid of being caught, we hid from the conductor until the train stopped in a big city and we got off. The name of the city was Lwow, Mischa discovered. "This is real Europe," I observed admiringly as we moved in the direction of the center of town. Mischa was at my side. Thrifty and practical, he did not waste time in conversation. "It's getting late," he said. "Soon it will be dark. We must find lodgings. We must have something to eat. I will tell you what we will do," he proposed. "You go in this direction to find food and money, and I will go, with my fiddle and your cello, to look for lodgings. We will meet right here in about two hours. Mark the place in your dreamy head, will you? We parted. There were lights announcing the beginning of the evening. I looked at the passing people. Such elegance-real Europeans! I wished I could understand their language.

Exploring the city, I saw a man with a cello. A cellist to me could never be a stranger. I followed him down the street. He turned his head and I waved. He walked faster. He went around a corner; I was behind him. He ran; I ran after him. I called, "Stop! Stop!" but I had lost him. I saw my reflection in a shopwindow. No wonder the cellist was frightened. My clothes were wrinkled and damp, my jacket torn, and my toes protruded from muddy shoes. I walked toward a brightly lit marquee, Cafe de la Paix. The doorman standing in the entrance gave me a sign to move along and said something in Polish that did not sound encouraging. I glanced at the carpeted stairs through the glass door and heard the sound of music coming through the open window upstairs. It was a piece I knew from my restaurant era. I wanted to see the musicians, and when the doorman looked away I slipped through the door.

I climbed the stairs and entered a large room filled with people at small tables, drinking coffee and listening to music. I headed straight to the stage. The doorman was after me. He gestured at me and called, "Psst, psst." I begged the cellist, "Please let me play." Perplexed, he handed me his cello and, taking his place, I saw the doorman retreat.

There were three musicians, and all spoke Russian. The cellist had heard my name and we had a few friends in common in Moscow. I told them of my escape, of Mischakoff, and of our porblems. They showed great warmth, advised me to go to Warsaw, and loaned money for the trip.

I returned, lighthearted, to meet Mischa. He was waiting for me. He too looked pleased. "It's terrific," he said. "I found a room for us on credit. Let's go. You never saw anything like it."

I never had. The room he rented was crowded with people sleeping on the floor, some of them on mattresses. But we had a bed, which stood at the farthest end of the room, a spot we could not reach in the dark without stepping on someone. "How do you like it?" asked Mischa.

"I adore it," I said.

"Of course, it's not a palace. I hid our instruments under the bed." The bed was rough and I felt bread crumbs or something on the sheet.

"Where is the bathroom?" I whispered.

"It's no palace," vexed Mischa repeated.

Very tired, we fell asleep. But not for long. We awoke scratching and picking off bugs. They crawled all over us. I took the cello and made my way out of the house. Mischa, in his underwear, with his clothes and violin in his arms, followed me to the street. "And I thought it was a bargain!" He was indignant.

While he was dressing I said, "By the way, I have all the money in the world."

"What?" Mischa almost lost his balance, one pants leg not yet on. I showed him the money. We walked to the station and waited for the early train to Warsaw.

Arriving there, we found a modest but clean hotel and in a day, in newly bought clothes, we were ready to look for work. Mischa practiced every morning. Back at the hotel from my long strolls, I always found Mischa with the violin, still practicing. "You are a lazy bum," he would greet me.

Fitelberg, with whom I had had the memorable experience of sight-reading Don Quixote in Moscow, was now in Warsaw. I was glad to see him. A Polish subject, he had had no difficulty in leaving Russia. He advised us to speak to Emil Mlynarski, the director and conductor of the Warsaw Opera House and the Philharmonic. We were received by him with great courtesy. He was a man in his fifties, with pink cheeks, blue eyes, and a big pearl in his tie. He helped us obtain identification papers and permits to live and work in Warsaw. Luckily for us, there were vacancies in the Warsaw Philharmonic and through his influence we were engaged, Mischa as concertmaster and I as assistant first cellist. We became acclimated quickly to our new surroundings, and in a short time were accepted as musicians and made friends.

The first Americans I met were Mr. and Mrs. Adolph Held. They were an elderly couple who were in Poland to head a large charitable agency. Although both led very active lives, they always seemed to have time for me. We had no language in common, but it did not hinder our understanding and my fondness for them. They often attended concerts and we had many silent meals together, and I was free to stay with them or come and practice whenever I wanted. I don't know whether it was their childlessness or parent transferral on my part, or just their goodness, but in a short time there was a devotion and reciprocal that came as naturally as if I were their son.

The most likable man in the orchestra was the first cellist, Elly Kochanski, who was many years my senior. We became the best of pals. Aside from being a fine cellist, he was witty and an accomplished ventriloquist. This particular talent he usually demonstrated during a concert, to confound the conductor and make the orchestra laugh.

As a youngster in Russia, I took part in a game in which each of the students chose for himself the name of his favorite artist. I impersonated D'Albert. I liked the sound of the name, I liked his cello concerto, and I imagined him a Hercules. Now he was coming to warsaw to play the Emperor Concerto. When I saw a tiny, mustached old man walking toward the piano, I could not believe it was D'Albert. He was small indeed, but what a titan as an artist! We spent an evening together. Elly suggested that I paly one of the Mendelssohn sonatas with him. D'Albert played extraordinarily loudly, yet he must have heard the cello-he said so, and wanted to play more.

"Please tell the master," I told Elly, "that I know his opera Tiefland and that I play his concerto." Elly translated his reply, "My music is still alive, but it will die young."

"Don't worry abaout that," Elly told me later. "D'Albert has been married and divorced uncounted times. Who knows-maybe he is just about to divorce or marry again. In intermediate periods like this he is always gloomy."

There were many visiting artists whom I heard for the first time. I was impressed with a violin concerto by Carlovicz, performed by Hubermann, and with Szigeti's playing of the Busoni concerto. Tere were charomatic passages for violin with flute which sounded like two flutes. Szigeti's palette was very rich. Both Hubemann and Szigeti represented a school little resembling the one I knew in Russia, leaning less heavily on sensuous beauty of sound and sheer brilliance, which the Russians strived to achieve.

Everyone in the orchestra had great regard for the conductor Birnbaum. As a man, too, he was referred to with respect and affection. I waited eagerly to play under him.

I wish that day had never come. It was a concert for students for which there was no rehearsal scheduled. The concert was to begin at eight o'clock with Scheherazade, by Rimsky-Korsakoff. About five minutes before eight, the orchestra not yet completely assembled, Birnbaum crossed the stage with a baton in his hand. reaching his platform and tapping his music stand, he gave a downbeat. The musicians, thinly scattered all over the stage, began to play. As Mischakoff was absent, I played the violin solo for him. Hearing the sounds, the rest of the musicians rushed onto the stage.

"You are insolent, all of you," Birnbaum screamed in a fit of insanity. He threw himself on his knees and stood up again. In tears he dropped his baton, cried, "Good-by, brothers, forever adieu," and disappeared from the stage and the town, never to be seen again. I learned later that his body was dragged out of a lake in Germany.

I appeared frequently as a soloist at our symphony concerts and had engagements with other orchestras and recitals throughout Poland. Elly said that I was a la mode. My work with the orchestra went pleasantly except for my pranks. One of them might have cost me my job.

Mr. Slevak, an old cellist, a peaceful sort of man, was the first to arrive at all concerts. He liked to go about his business slowly. He placed his cello and a cushion on his chair on the stage, then proceeded to clean his pipe, attend to his shirt front, and read his newspaper.

Knowing his habits, one evening I too arrived early. I brought with me a roll of very fine but strong cord and waited for Slevak to leave the stage. When he was through with his routine and his cello was in its usual place in the middle of the orchestra, I went swiftly to work. I fastened the cord securely around the scroll of his cello, threw the roll over a beam high above the stage, picked up the roll and brought it to the wings, where Pan Tedeus, the stagehand and my personal friend, spent most of his time during the concerts.

The concert started. The hall was filled and the orchestra played well, and if it had not been for the guest conductor's unbearable exhibitionism I might not have gone through with my plan.

As the symphony proceeded, thoughts of the cord, the cello, and Slevak ripened. I saw Pan Tedeus standing in the wings. The music went softly along. It was the adagio. I gave Tedeus a sign. He knew what to do. He began to pull the cord. At first it was as if nothing had happened, but soon, with an incredible slowness, Slevak's hands tried to follow his cello upward until it was out of reach. He stared incredulously at his instrument, which was in mid-air. In solemn silence everyone watched the cello ascend to the ceiling. A sudden roar of laughter stopped the performance.

At the conductor's insistence the concert continued-without me. I was not fired. My only punishment was the loss of one week's salary and payment of a fine for Pan Tedeus. I considered it a bargain.

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