|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
IT was misty and cold on that November day in 1923, and my coat was no match for the piercing dampness in the streets. It penetrated my bones. As I turned with surprising briskness toward the Zoo Station and reached the famous clock, I had a feeling of satisfaction, as if I had accomplished something of importance.
"I beg your pardon," a man said to me. He was tall, clean-shaven, and smiling. "Are you Mr. Piatigorsky, by any chance?"
"Wunderbar! What luck! Boris Kroyt certainly described you well. Gott sei Dank, I found you," he said, beaming. "Paul Bose is my name. I am the flutist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra."
"Very glad to meet you," I responded.
"I hope you are glad; not even the police could locate you. Where do you live?"
"Out of town...I mean during my vacation," I said, wondering what he wanted from me.
He stopped smiling. "Well, it does not matter now." He looked at his watch. "The main thing is that I have found you." He smiled again. "It is good you brought your cello to town with you. You may need it."
"Do you know Arnold Schonberg's music?"
"Verklarte Nacht," I said.
"Do you know Pierrot Lunaire?"
"No, but why do you ask?"
"I will get right ot the point," he said. "In about three weeks from now, there will be the first performance of Pierrot Lunaire. We have started rehearsing with the cellist Evel Stegmann, but he is not sure if he wants to have twenty more rehearsals without pay. Anyway, he got sick and we-I mean Artur Schnabel, Fritz Stiedry, Kroyt, and the others-want you to replace him. The question is, would you like to do it?"
"But you don't know me?" I said.
"Never mind. I know about you. Musicians live on gossip, so to speak, and an exceptional performer can't remain unknown for long, even if he wants to. Besides, a virtuoso's passion for obscurity is as nonexistent as nightingale's milk. Artur Schnabel has heard of you too. Can you be at his place tomorrow afternoon?"
I said yes. He wrote down Schnabel's address, adn warned me to be there at two o'clock puncto. "We scheduled a rehearsal without the cello tomorrow. Gott im Himmel, will they be surprised!" waving both hands to his right as though he were playing the flute, he left.
It began to rain. In Moscow it probably is snowing now, I thought absently, making for the shelter of the Zoo Station. Though it was only a short distance away, I was soaked when I reached it. i went into the men's room and took the cover off my cello to see if the rain had damaged it.
"I always thought this place needed music," said someone, and there was laughter.
The cello was dry. I put it back in its cover and headed dully for the waiting room. It was crowded with people waiting for the rain to stop. I joined them with that familiar feeling of loneliness one has when one is hungry, cold, and wet.
It was almost dark outside. Soon the rain stopped and I was in the street again. I imagined the moon rising behind the tall trees of the Tiergarten and thought of Pierrot Lunaire. Was it program music, like the "Serenade" of the Debussy Cello Sonata? There, too, was a Pierrot. He played a mandolin to an angry moon. After all these years, I still wonder why Debussy wanted him to play the mandolin and not the cello. Has anyone ever seen a Pierrot with the cello?! It is an instrument fit for a knight, like Don Quixote-or a king, like Solomon-not for clowns.
Suddenly I was overcome by great fatique. The cello seemed to weigh tons. I had to lean on it. If only I could listen to music! The mere thought was a breath of life. There must be a concert tonight-maybe they will let me in. I headed toward the Philharmonic.
It was easy to sneak in through the backstage door. My cello was as good as a ticket. I saw a group of late-comers rushing into the hall, but I could not join them with the cello in my hands. I walked upstairs into the musicians' quarters, where I thought I could deposit it among other instruments. Near the entrance to the orchestra dressing room stood a man in his underwear, holding a trombone in one hand and his pants in the other. He did not see me as I placed my cello in the corner and disappeared quietly.
I did not succeed in entering the hall before the conclusion of the first piece, but I did find a seat just before Busoni began the Eighth Symphony of Beethoven. What an extraordinary-looking man he was! I listened in a rapture, refusing to let his insanely fast tempi spoil my joy.
After the concert I took my cello without being questioned by anyone. As I was about to step out of the building, the icy wind stopped me and I turned back. My shirt and socks were damp and I was miserably cold. Passing the drafty corridor, I walked toward the lobby. The last people were leaving. A little later the doors were locked and there was complete darkness.
The silence and emptiness of the huge building were ghastly. For a long time I stood still, my heart pounding. I felt trapped and wanted to cry for help. I knew that no one could hear me, and yet I dared not take a breath as I groped deeper into the dark. After every few steps I stopped to feel my way and to let my eyes accustom themselves. I had to move slowly until I detected a streak of light, mysterious and faint, that seemed to accentuate the enormous space of the hall.
I saw a door leading to a loge, which I later came to know as the Landecker Loge. I went in. It was large and deep; against the wall stood a couch. I felt its softness with my hand. It was wide and twice my length. My previous anxiety disappeared and soon I was undressed and settled for the night.
How warm and comfortable it is here, and what an improvement over the bench in the Tiergarten, I marveled. I was ready to fall asleep, but perhaps I enjoyed my new comfort too much to let slumber take it away from me.
A sudden irresistible urge to play seized me. I got up, grabbed my cello, and, naked as I was, moved toward the stage. I could not find the door or the stairs leading to it, so I climbed onto it from the hall. Impatient, I reached for a chair and began to play. The sound of the cello, eerie yet humanly full-throated, came back to me from the dark immensity of the hall. Held fast by this unique experience, I played to the limits of my endurance. Exhausted but elated, I finally returned to the loge.
In the morning I was awakened by the orchestra playing a Schumann symphony. I thought it was rather nice to rest on the couch there, unseen, and enjoy fine music in the morning. During the intermission it was quite easy to get dressed unnoticed behind the drapery and to slip out of the loge.
In the men's room I found soap and a clean towel, and in the pocket of my cello case a toothbrush, toothpaste, and razor. With petronian solemnity I completed the morning with a thorough attendance to my external self. The orchestra was still rehearsing when I walked out of the building.
"Bravo!" Herr Bose greeted me in front of Artur Schnabel's house. "I like that-always puncto, on time!"
"Those orchestra rehearsals," complained Bose, climbing the stairs. "No one in there ever asks a fellow for his opinion of anything. I am tired of spitting into my flute, as if greasing a screw in a machine. Here I will say a word or two. That's the beauty of chamber music," he said, and rang the doorbell.
"I am Therese Schnabel," said a very tall lady. "Artur is in the music room," I liked her at once. I liked her saying "Artur," her simplicity, and her warm handshake.
Schnabel too greeted me with great friendliness. "The others will be here soon," he said with the score in his hand. "You remember this sixteenth note we spoke about?" he asked as he approached Bose.
Bose took a look at the score. "You mean this little one?"
"Yes," said Schnabel." After a long debate with Stiedry, we came to the conclusion that this sixteenth note is utterly impersonal, an example of an objective thought thrown rather carelessly into a heap of strongly emotionalized-I would dare even say-nerve centers, in which the seeming asymmetry represents its basic order."
I listened to Schnabel's deep voice with fascination. Glancing at Bose, I thought he grasped as little as I did of what Schnabel said. Though Bose's dumfounded expression must have been apparent, Schnabel went on to unfold his further thoughts. He mentioned something about "monkey bridges" and the relationship between "Schopenhauer and Wagner," but he was interrupted by the entrance of Stiedry and Kroyt.
I was glad to see Boris Kroyt, whom I had first met at the Cafe Ruscho. He was really responsible for my being here now. He was a very friendly and engaging young man, and he impressed me as a remarkable violinist as well as violist.
We took our places, and since the cello part was missing I played from a score. With it I could get acquainted with the composition more fully than if I had the cello part alone. The half-spoken, half-sung voice indicated in the score was partly filled by Stiedry. I wondered what his function would be at the concert. Would he conduct or recite? He was a conductor, but did this piece need one? It was very intricate music for a small group, to be sure, but so are many sonatas, trios, and other chamber music works.
How would it be to prevent a virtuoso from playing unaccompanied music too freely by giving him a conductor, I thought. Imagine two people on the stage, one playing a Bach suite or Chopin polonaise and the other conducting! I laughed.
"Is it that funny?" Schnabel stopped me short.
All looked at me. "I thought of something," I said. "I am sorry."
"Let's continue," said Schnabel.
I was soon completely absorbed in the music. Its originality delighted me, and despite the hunger that gnawed at me mercilessly I think I played well. Everyone seemed pleased, most of all Schnabel.
"Shall we rest a while? Tea is served in the other room."
No one except me was in a hurry to have tea. I waited, listening with the others to Schnabel discoursing on Pierrot Lunaire, communism, and other interesting topics. However, sensing a rather prolonged dissertation, I slowly moved into the other room. There I saw sandwiches and a variety of cakes displayed on a table. I was alone.
It was like leaving baby lambs with a wolf. I devoured the sandwiches one by one. I worked fast. When there were no sandwiches left I began the devastation of the sweeter and less satisfying material. These also disappeared with fabulous speed, and only when nothing edible whatever remained on the table did I rejoin the group, who still listened to Schnabel. My absence had not been noticed.
"Well, gentlemen, tea is waiting for us." All followed Schnabel.
The moment he entered the room he called the maid. "Where are the sandwiches?" he demaned indignantly. I saw her eyes widen with fear.
We had twenty more rehearsals without pay, and I had twenty afternoon teas as my only daily meals. I enjoyed enormously both rehearsals and the sandwiches. But above all I valued Schnabel's sensitivity and understanding, which made our relationship ripen into a lasting friendship.
The forthcoming first performance of Schonberg's work stimulated great interest in the music circles of Berlin, but no one was more expectant than we ourselves were on the night of the concert. We knew Pierrot Lunaire perhaps more thoroughly than any piece of the standard repertoire. Yet, because we were not certain how the composition would be received, we were anxious about the premiere.
We were greeted by a large audience, and after taking our places we waited for quiet to settle over the auditorium. But instead of silence we heard a sudden loud shriek, followed by a series of boos, and a commotion on one side of the hall punctuated by speeches and outcries.
Schnabel was equal to the occasion. With great gusto he launched into a circus polka, and Kroyt and I followed him. "Come on," he encouraged, "this is a fish market." The audience's laughter overcame the confusion, and the atmosphere of vaudeville stopped as abruptly as it had begun. In a short time we were ready to start. Our singer-speaker, Marie Gutheil-Schoder, apparently did not recover from the incident immediately, for at the beginning she appeared almost mute. But before long we caught the true spirit of the music, and despite the danger of an overrehearsed performance, which often turns pedestrian, we did not lose spontaneity.
Pierrot Lunaire had an enthusiastic reception, but the cause of the disturbance remained a mystery. Later, referring to the event in an article, Cesar Saerchinger called it "The Battle of the Singing Academy" but failed to make the matter clear for me.
With the concert past, gone were the delightful hours of rehearsals, Schnabel's speeches, the sandwiches and the tea. These days had created a feeling of almost family belonging. Alone again, I missed it.
A few weeks after the concert I received a message from Bose asking me to bring my cello to the Philharmonic. When I arrived, he explained excitedly that, although the orchestra season had started, he had spoken so much of me to his colleagues and to Furtwangler that they wanted to hear me.
Facing Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, I only vaguely realized the importance of the moment. Instead of giving thought to what I should play, I stared at the Landecker Loge, in which I had spent the night and from which I had listened to the same orchestra and the same conductor the next morning. My dreamy absent-mindedness must have been noticed, for I heard Furtwangler's voice: "What's the matter with him?" This brought me back and I played the Schumann Concerto, a movement of Dvorak, parts of Don Quixote, Bach, and passages from orchestral works. Furtwangler put his arms around me, and as we walked off the stage together, he asked me to become the first cellist of the Philharmonic.
The procedure of signing my contract was short and happy. Too impatient to begin work, I did not want to spoil such an occasion by reading it or by asking many questions. No longer beset with financial worries, properly dressed, and established comfortably-all paid from the salary that was advanced me-I could devote myself completely to my new responsibility.
Otto Muller, one of the oldest members of the orchestra and its harpist and orchestra personnel manager, gave me my first week's schedule. "You asked for it," I said to myself, reading it. There were two rehearsals and a concert daily, some of them at the Philharmonic, some at the Snging Academy, some at other places I had never heard of. I was scheduled to play in two "pops" concerts-the Volkmann Concerto in one and the Zigeunerweisen, by Sarasate, in the other. These were to be conducted by Herr Hagel. The other conductors of the week were to be Professor Schumann, Dr. Unger, and the Professor Doktor Felix Maria Gatz. I did not know them, and I had never played Zigeunerweisen before.
"Herr Muller," I asked, "can I play something else instead?"
"No," he said, "we don't reprint our programs."
"When are the rehearsals for Volkmann and Sarasate?"
"There are no rehearsals for the 'pops,'" he said calmly, and turned away. I ran after him.
"But Herr Muller-I have to have a rehearsal-I don't even have the music."
"It's not our fault that you don't know the pieces," said Muller.
"All right," I said, "but the Sarasate! It's a piece for violin!"
"Arnold Foldesy, our former first cellist, played it and the public liked it. Besides," he said, touching his hair, which looked like a wig but was not, "you'll be playing everything we have in the library anyway. You will get used to our way of life and love it. I am sure."
His prediction did not quite come true: I never did get used to playing obscure literature on two day's notice.
With already heavy duty I assumed new obligations. My colleagues and Furtwangler encouraged me to ever-greater efforts. Concert managers offered engagements and students wanted lessons. I taught between rehearsals and I often practiced after concerts at night.
The organization of the orchestra was basically a cooperative one, consisting of active members with life tenure, while some younger musicians and soloists, like myself, were engaged on a yearly basis. The active members had all the decisions to make and often held meetings that we "guests" were never invited to attend. There were ten Sunday and ten Monday subscription Philharmonic concerts. These were the foundation of the great reputation the orchestra had built up since the days of Von Bulow and Nikisch. Now the old tradition was being carried on by Furtwangler. Though he was the head of the orchestra, the co-operative ruled. I had no opportunity to know their financial status, their rules and aims, and despite my colleagues' friendship, to the "Secret Society" I remained an outsider.
For two thousand marks anyone could hire the orchestra for a concert with two rehearsals, no questions asked. Conductors, soloists, composers, and choruses booked the orchestra solidly for the entire season. The orchestra did what they were asked to do, always obeying the conductor regardless of what he might demand.
This was an important rule of discipline at the rehearsals, but did not necessarily apply to the performances themselves, for some of the conductors' demands were of such musical absurdity that the word would be passed to play the concert "as usual." At such concerts the conductor's presence was ignored, and as a matter of honor the orchestra at times actually gave fair performances.
We had conductors who could not deny themselves the luxury of giving several concerts in a season. Financially they could afford it. Two of them provided the orchestra with excellent entertainment. Both, though on the "as usual" list, had no doubts about their craft, and both had a flair for the dramatic.
"Gentlemen," one of them would greet us in the morning, "before we begin with the Beethoven Fifth, let us contemplate and muse on Beethoven's innermost impulses, of which he became-luckily for us-a captive, a giant chained to the still more giantesque and more powerful cloud we are accustomed to know as his inspiration." At this point musicians one by one would unfold their morning newspapers, reach for a sandwich, converse, or just take cat naps. After a long discourse the conductor would finally reach Beethoven's maturity, his illness, and his death. Then Herr Muller would announce, "It's time for intermission."
In the second part of the rehearsal, pressed for time, we would run through a few bars from each composition on the program. At the concert we would play "as usual."
The other "paying customer" would not waste his eloquent prose on a silent orchestra. He spoke as he conducted, walking to each section without interruption of music or speech. On his longer promenades to the timpanies or trombones I would also take a walk with my cello, but, preoccupied with his task, he never noticed my strolls.
Aside from the conductors, the parade of people renting the orchestra at times included instrumentalists who couldn't pay and singers who couldn't sing. But it didn't bother my colleagues, because they developed an amazing insensitivity through the years which helped them to survive. For me, however, it was not easy. The rehearsals tended to last an eternity, and embarrassment at certain performances did not lessen.
I had to find a remedy, and when I did it was so incredibly simple that I wondered why the others hadn't done the same. I began to study scores, and during rehearsals and concerts I imagined myself assuming responsibility for the performance. I got to know the parts of other instruments as well as my own, and in the choral works I sang with the chorus.
At one performance of the St. Matthew Passion, so engrossed was I in the singing that at the most dramatic moment my horrible voice, all alone, pierced the air one bar too early: "Barrabas!" The horrified conductor recovered from the shock, but I was never permitted to play under his direction again.
The great interest I took in my work was not always beneficial to others. Once, lost in enthusiasm after a performance of the First Brahms Symphony, I responded to the applause as though it were meant for me personally-I stood up and took a bow.
My great joy was the Furtwangler concerts. He, true leader that he was, made his orchestra give more than it had. I was young, and perhaps I idealized him somewhat, but his influence had been perhaps the most significant in my musical life. The scope of his artistry was immense, but it had some shortcomings, one of which was a rather scant knowledge of string instruments. He admitted it frankly and there was no end of his questioning about fingerings, portamentos, vibratos, and the thousand intricacies of the string-playing art.
"The greater part of the orchestra consists of strings," he said. "A conductor really must play a string instrument. It's my weakness that I don't. Don't you think it's also the weakness of Bruno Walter and Klemperer? Oh God, how glad I would be even to play a double bass! Koussevitzky, without his double bass, would never draw such a sound from his string section. Don't you think that Toscanini would never have become what he is if he hadn't been a cellist at the start?"
I said, "I only know what chaliapin told me of him."
"What was that?"
"He said that Toscanini is the damnedest lump of macaroni to swallow and that he was the only conductor who scared him and made him feel like a pupil."
Furtwangler said, "Fundamentally, Toscanini is an opera conductor, as Chaliapin is an opera singer. We here are engaged in a different profession."
Furtwangler had a contradictory nature. He was ambitious and jealous, noble and vain, coward and hero, strong and weak, a child and a man of wisdom, both very German and yet a man of the world. He was one only in music, undivided and unique.
Furtwangler's peculiar mannerisms in conducting have been a constant source of discussion. It is difficult to explain his ability to make his orchestra achieve remarkable ensemble without precise indications on his part. He could not explain it himself. Perhaps it was exactly this that made the orchestra grasp his intentions more keenly.
His downbeat in forte was usually preceded by a vigorous stamping of his feet and shaking of his head, and only a series of short spits (never reaching beyond the first cello) would finally force down his trembling baton. Just a fraction of a second after the baton had reached its destination, the orchestra would enter, yet always with perfect precision. His downbeat in piano had almost the same characteristics, except that there were no stamping and hardly any spitting at all.
Under him there were many memorable performances. Yet not every Furtwangler concert was all glory. I remember particularly one first performance of a contemporary work. Extremely difficult, the piece needed more time for rehearsal than was available. Furtwangler, after running through the piece, began to work note by note for the rest of the rehearsal.
"Is it F sharp?" inquired a musician.
Furtwangler consulted the score and said, "Yes. Why?"
"Doesn't sound right."
Every second someone would interrupt Furtwangler with a question. "There are seven eighths in my bar. Is it correct?" "Is it a sixteenth note?" "How do you play pizzicato and arco at the same time?" Et cetera, et cetera. Furtwangler, trying to clarify things, sank only deeper into confusion.
He spent that afternoon and evening studying the score. I was permitted to glance at it, also. Next morning we rehearsed again, but the composition appeared only the more complex.
"Let's at least play together," Furtwangler would cry as he repeated the piece again and again. "You realize that there will be only one more rehearsal this afternoon, and that the composer will be present?"
After a short lunch we assembled at the Philharmonic.
"Gentlemen," announced Furtwangler, "I have just received the most wonderful news from Vienna. The composer is not coming. He sends his best wishes."
"Bravo! Wunderbar!" cried a host of jubilant voices.
"That's not all," Furtwangler continued. "We will of course try to do our best, but at the same time, I want you to know that there is only one score of the composition in the country. The composer has the other one."
We went through the rest of the program, which consisted of standard repertoire, and without so much as touching the new composition we cheerfully completed the rehearsal.
The next day the musicians arrived for the concert much earlier than usual, to practice their parts. The pieces preceding the premiere were played as if we had something else on our minds. Then came the world premiere. Up loomed Furtwangler's worried face and the orchestra plunged into deep, unknown waters.
From the very start I had the strange sensation of riding on the back of a galloping giraffe. The weird sounds of the orchestra welled up as though from the stomachs of hundreds of ventriloquists. The double basses sounded like violas, and the bassoons like flutes. Seconds became hours as the performance rolled crazily on. Each player strove desperately to keep in touch with the others, not turning any more to Furtwangler for help. He himself was hopelessly lost.
The termination of the performance began very gradually, the players dropping out one by one until only Furtwangler and a few isolated instruments were left. At that point, for no explainable reason, the brass section entered. The magnitude of the sound was truly fabulous, and, coming so unexpectedly, it took us all completely off guard. We grabbed our instruments and vigorously joined the brasses with renewed hope. The incredible noise did not last very long, and soon-after a few last convulsions-everything stopped dead.
The silence that followed this abrupt ending was terrible to bear, and the hissing, hand clapping, and catcalls came almost as a relief. Among those applauding in the audience I noticed two famous musicians. After the concert I heard them say, "The public is too stupid to understand." So are you, I thought.