My Life, My Cello

The late Serge Koussevitzky once said that GREGOR PIATIGOKSKY was “the greatest cellist of our day.” Born in the Ukraine in 1903, Mr. Piatigorsky was appointed first cellist of the Imperial Opera Orchestra in Moscow at the extraordinary age of fifteen. With the outbreak of the Revolution in 1919 he left Moscow, and for a number of years he was reduced to playing in cafés and theaters in Warsaw and Berlin to keep body and soul together. Ifis tribulations finally came to an end in 1924, when he was ”discoveredfor a second time by Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Since 1929 he has made his home in this country.



IT WAS misty and cold on that November day in 1923, and my coat was no match for the piercing dampness in those Berlin 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,” I heard a man address me. He was tall, well-shaved, and smiling. “Are you Mr. Piatigorsky, by any chance?”


“Extraordinary. What luck! Boris Kroyt certainly described you well. Gott sei Dank, I found you,”he beamed. “Paul Bose is my name. I am the flutist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra,” he introduced himself.

“Very glad to meet you,” I responded.

“I hope you are glad; not even the police could locate you. You did receive my messages, didn’t you?” 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.”

I waited.

“Do you know Arnold Schönberg’s music?”

Verkärte Nacht,” I said.

“Do you know Pierrot Lunaire?”

“No, but why do you ask?”

“I will go right to the point,” he said. “ In about three weeks from now, there will be the first performance of Pierrot Lunaire. We have already had quite a few rehearsals with our cellist Evel Stegmann and others, but he is not sure if he wants to have twenty more rehearsals without pay, and the others—I mean Schnabel and Stiedry — are not sure if they want him to play at all. Anyway,” continued Bose, “Stegmann got sick and we want you to replace him. The great question now is: Do you want to try?”

“But you don’t know me,” I said.

“Never mind. I know about you. Musicians live on gossip, so to speak, and an outstanding performer can’t remain unknown for long, even if he wants to. Besides, a virtuoso’s passion for obscurity is as nonexistent as a 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, expressed his delight, and warned me to be there at two o’clock sharp. He left, waving both hands to his right as though he were playing a flute.

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 Serenata of the Debussy Cello Sonata? There, too, was a Pierrot. He played a mandolin to an angry moon. After all these years, I still didn’t know where the moon was, or the Pierrot, or why Debussy wanted him to play the mandolin and not the cello. Was there ever a Pierrot with the cello? Never, I decided. It was a noble instrument fit for a knight, like Don Quixote — or a king, like Solomon — but not for impersonating the bumblebee, bells, birds, or bulls.

Suddenly I was overcome by a feeling of great weakness. The cello seemed to weigh tons. I had to lean on it as it stood on the wet ground. It was my crutch and I was an invalid. With my cello silent, I am dead, I thought morbidly. If only I could listen to music! The thought of it brought life into me again. There must be a concert tonight — maybe they would let me in. They must, they must, I repeated to myself, heading toward the Philharmonie.


IT WAS easy to sneak in through the backstage door, for my cello was as good as a ticket. I saw a group of latecomers rushing into the hall but I could not join them with the cello in my hands. Looking for a safe place for it, 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 standing behind a double bass case, and I seized the opportunity to place my cello in the nearest corner and disappear quietly,

I did not succeed in entering the hall before the first piece had ended, but I did find a seat just a second before Busoni began the Eighth Symphony of Beethoven.

When the concert was over, it was not easy to break through the crowd, and when I reached the dressing room almost all the orchestra had already left. I took my cello without being questioned.

Just as I was about to step out of the building, the icy wind stopped me and I turned back. My shirt and socks were still damp from the rain and I felt miserably cold. Passing the drafty corridor, I walked toward the lobby. In a few minutes I heard the steps of the last people 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 no one could hear me, and yet I dared not take a breath as I groped on tiptoes deeper into the dark.

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, and was delighted that 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, I marveled, and what a difference from the bench in the Tiergarten. I was ready to fall asleep, but perhaps I enjoyed my new comfort too much to let the slumber take it away from me. Or was it my overtiredness that kept me awake?

Several hours must have passed before I suddenly had a great urge to play. I jumped 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. Panting and impatient, I took the cover off my cello, found a. chair, and began to play. The sound of the cello seemed to come back to me from every corner of the hall and from the ceiling of immeasurable height. I improvised at first, then continued with the Suites by Bach and everything I knew for unaccompanied cello. Quite exhausted, but elated, I 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 and blessing my good fortune, 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!”

Schnabel greeted me likewise 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 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, so to speak, an objective thought thrown rather carelessly into a heap of strongly emotionalized nerve centers in which the seeming asymmetry represents its basic order.”

1 listened to Schnabel’s deep voice with fascination. Glancing at Bose, I thought he understood 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 was interrupted by the entrance of Stiedry and Kroyt.

I was glad to see Boris Kroyt, whom I had first, met at the Café Rucho. I realized 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.

Alter we had all taken our places, I discovered that the cello part was missing, but we found an extra score and the rehearsal began.

I was soon completely absorbed in the music. Its originality delighted me, and despite the hunger which gnawed at me mercilessly, I managed to play well. Everyone seemed pleased, most of all Schnabel himself.

“Shall we rest for a while? Tea is served in the other room.”

No one except me seemed in a hurry to have the 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 a lamb with a wolf, I thought, devouring the sandwiches one by one. I worked fast. Soon there were no sandwiches left, and I began the devastation of the sweeter but less satislying 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 attentively, standing around Schnabel. My absence had not been noticed.

“Well, gentlemen, tea is waiting for us.” All followed Schnabel.

The moment he entered the room and saw empty plates, he called the maid. “Where are the sandwiches?" he demanded indignantly. I saw her eyes widen almost with fear.

We had twenty more rehearsals without pay, and I had twenty afternoon leas as my only daily meals. I enjoyed enormously both rehearsals and the sandwiches. But above all, I valued Schnabel’s tactfulness and understanding, which right from the beginning made our relationship grow into lasting friendship.


THE forthcoming first performance of Schönberg’s work awoke considerable interest in the music circles of Berlin, and an atmosphere of expectation awaited us on the night of the concert. We knew Pierrot Lunaire as well as any standard repertoire. Yet, because we were not certain how the composition would be received, we were anxious about the première.

We were greeted by a large audience, and after taking our places we waited for quiet to settle over the auditorium. Instead of silence, however, we heard a sudden loud shriek, followed by a series of boos, and then a group of people on one side of the hall started a great commotion, punctuated by violent 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. Soon there was complete silence and we were ready to start. Our singer-speaker, Marie Gutheil-Schoder, apparently did not recover from the incident immediately, for at ihe beginning she appeared almost mute. But before long we caught the true spirit of the music, and despite the fact that overrehearsed performances can sometimes have a pedestrian quality, ours proved fresh and inspired.

A few weeks after this concert, I received a message from Bose asking me to bring my cello to the Philharmonie. When I arrived, he explained excitedly that although the orchestra season had begun and there was no vacancy, he had spoken so much of me to his colleagues and to Furtwängler that anything might happen. “They all want to know you,”he said, “and they are waiting to hear you now on the stage.”

Facing Furtwängler 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 absentmindedness must have been noticed, for I heard Furtwängler’s voice: “What’s the matter with him?" This brought me back and I began the Schumann Concerto, followed by a movement of Dvorák, a suite by Bach, and many solos and passages from various orchestral works. The orchestra’s response was overwhelming. I was engaged as first cellist, embraced by colleagues, and almost moved to tears when Furtwängler put his arms around me and we walked off the stage together.

The procedure of signing my contract was short and happy. I did not want to spoil such an occasion by reading it or asking that its content be explained or translated. Feeling jubilant over my new membership in this great organization, I was impatient to begin work. 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 job.

Otto Müller, one of the oldest members of the orchestra, the 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 Philharmonie, some at the Singing Academy and at other places I had never heard of.

The organization of the orchestra was basically a coöperative one, consisting of active members with life tenure, while some younger members and soloists, like myself, were engaged on a one-year basis. The active members had all the decisions to make, and often held meetings which 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 Büllow and Nikisch. Now the old tradition was being carried on by Furtwängler. Though he was the head of the orchestra, the coöperative ruled. I had no opportunity to know their financial situation, and though I valued my colleagues’ friendship, there was between us a wall separating a stranger from something that resembled a secret society.

I was disturbed by the quality of many of the performances. For 2000 marks anyone could hire the orchestra for a concert with two rehearsals, with 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 law of behavior 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 at the concert “as usual.” At such concerts the conductor’s presence was completely ignored, and as a matter of honor the orchestra actually gave good performances. Real trouble came on those occasions when there was doubt as to the conductor’s abilities and the words “as usual” did not pass. We had conductors who could not deny themselves the pleasure of conducting several concerts in a season. Financially, they could afford it. Two of them became orchestra favorites. Rehearsals with them were great entertainment. Both, though on the “as usual" list, attributed their successes not to their artistry alone, but to skill and psychological understanding at rehearsals.

“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 which we are accustomed to know as his inspiration.”At this point, many musicians would unfold their morning newspapers. Some would settle themselves with sandwiches, while the rest would 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 Müller would announce time for intermission.

During the second part of the rehearsals, we would run through a few bars from each composition on the program. In between, the conductor would pay us compliments or tell a few jokes.

The parade of people renting the orchestra included almost as many instrumentalists who couldn’t play, and singers who couldn’t sing, as conductors who couldn’t conduct. I tried hard to match the attitude of dull insensitivity in which, strangely, so many orchestra members seemed to seek their spiritual survival. It was not easy. The rehearsals seemed 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 couldn’t understand why all the others hadn’t done the same. Like a conductor, I began to study scores, and during rehearsals and concerts I imagined myself assuming the entire responsibility for the performances. I got to know the parts of other instruments as well as my own, and in the choral works I would sing silently, and sometimes audibly, with the chorus.

At one memorable performance of St. Matthew’s Passion, I was so engrossed in the singing that at the most dramatic moment, all alone, I pierced the air with a most unattractive voice, one bar too early: “Barabbas.” The poor conductor fainted. The performance was spoiled. But I was not even fired — just never permitted to play under that particular conductor again.

While the great interest I took in my work was not entirely without injury to the others, I was the only person in the orchestra who wasn’t bored at rehearsals, and the only one who kept conductors and soloists company in perspiring profusely at the concerts. I pulsated with enthusiasm and once, after a wonderful performance of a Brahms Symphony, I responded to the applause of the audience as though it were meant for me personally — I stood up and took a bow.


MY GREATEST joys were the Furtwangler concerts, He, true leader that he was, made his orchestra give more than it had. Under his influence, the highest achievements were only ambitions. I was young, and perhaps I idealized him somewhat, but his musical guidance and his influence in my development, though great, did not blind me completely. Already in my first months with Furtwängler, I noticed with surprise that he had but a scanty knowledge of string instruments. But how enchanted I was when he admitted it frankly and asked me to instruct him!

“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 be the Toscanini he is if he hadn’t been a cellist at the start?”

I said, “I don’t know. I never heard him. I only know what Chaliapin told me of him.”

“What was it?” Furtwängler was eager to know.

“Not much,” I said. “Chaliapin, I guess after too much vodka, said that Toscanini was the goddamndest lump of macaroni to swallow and that he was the only conductor who scared him and made him feel like a little pupil.”

After a pause, Furtwängler said, “Fundamentally, Toscanini is an opera conductor, as Chaliapin is an opera singer. We here are engaged in a different profession.”

Knowing of Furtwängler’s jealousy, I was not impressed, and I continued to bring to his attention the many intricacies and basic characteristics of the string-playing art. What, a magnificent student he was! Fingerings, bowings, portamenti, vibratos—he grasped them all with the astounding rapidity of one who knew that the means justified the end. I wonder who got the most profit out of those hours, and who really was the master of us two. His penetrating questions gave me enough cause to re-examine my own convictions for years to come.

Furtwängler’s peculiar technique of conducting has been a constant source of discussion, not only by professionals but among laymen as well. It is difficult to explain his ability to make his orchestra achieve the perfection of an ensemble without the slightest help of precise indications on his part. He could not explain it himself. Perhaps it was exactly the lack of concreteness in his directions that made the orchestra “feel” his intentions more keenly.

His downbeat in forte would be announced by a vigorous stamping of his feet and shaking of his head, and instantly followed by a series of short spits (never reaching beyond the first cello) which would finally force down his trembling baton. Just a fraction of a second after the baton had reached its destination, the orchestra would enter, but always in perfect unison and precision. His downbeat in a piano had almost the same characteristics, except that there was no stamping and hardly any spitting at all.

Under him there were many glorious performances, a few of which are unforgettable. Yet not every Furtwängler 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. Furt wängler, 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 Furtwängler with a question. “There are seven eights 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. Furtwängler, visibly nervous while 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,” Furt wängler 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 reassembled at the Philharmonie.

“Gentlemen,” announced Furtwängler, “I have just received the most wonderful news from Vienna — the composer is not coming. He sends his best wishes.”

“Bravo! Bravo!” 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 a standard repertoire, and without so much as touching the new composition, we completed the rehearsal in a fairly jovial mood.

The next day the musicians began arriving for the concert much earlier than usual, and an hour or two before the time to be called on stage, everyone was busy practicing his part. We played the pieces preceding the première in a sort of absentminded manner, tense and yet as if we were not really present. Then came the premiere and up loomed Furtwängler’s worried face as we made ready to plunge into deep, unknown waters.

From the very start, I had the extraordinary sensation of having been taken by surprise. 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 Furtwängler for help. He himself appeared hopelessly lost.

The termination of the performance began very gradually, the players dropping out one by one until only Furtwängler 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 a few well-known musicians. I heard them say later, “The public is ignorant.” So are we, I thought.