My Cello and I

The late Serge Koussevitzky once said that GREGOR PIATIGORSKY wasthe greatest cellist of our day.”Born in the Ukraine in 1903, Dr. Piatigorsky was appointed first cellist of the Imperial Opera Orchestra in Moscow at the age of fifteen. With the outbreak of the Revolution in 1919 he left Moscow, and for five years endured untold hardships, until in 1924 he was “ discovered" for the second time by Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Furtwängler. The following account of his early years is drawn from a forthcoming autobiography by Gregor Piatigorsky to be published by Doubleday & Company, Inc.


EKATERINOSLA (now Dnepropetrovsk), where 1 was born, had a mild climate, but the air in the steppe was seldom still. There was enough breeze to bend and to sway the grass and rye, which grew high and wild and made the wide plains look from the distance like an ocean. I had never seen the ocean, but that was what my father said it looked like. When I was four or five I liked to stand in front of the rough fence which hid our peasantlike house and watch the shifting moods of the steppe and let it make me confident inside, or gay or sad, depending on the light and the time of day. Only the sunset remained always the same, lovely and within my reach. The stories of the roaming packs of wild dogs which devoured the cobbler’s son Vanya, who got lost in the steppe, and the tales of tramps and deserters, of hidden springs, and of the mysterious flowers and the scent which put men to sleep, never to awake again, frightened and fascinated me. I wanted to explore these places, but I did not dare.

I loved the Dnieper River, which flowed through the outskirts of our town; in flood the stream could be furious, rushing over rocks and tearing the banks away, but it did not frighten me. Nothing frightened me in the presence of Father. He was strong, and it was good to do things with him. We plunged into thundering waters and struggled with rapids, and we laughed at storms and lightning, and we always returned home to the edge of the steppe smiling and safe. Unlike my mother and older sister, Nadja, and baby sister, Pauline, I dreaded the family walks into town on holidays. “Those parks, boulevards, and monuments are here to remind even the poorest of the romantic founders of our city, the Empress Catherine and Potemkin,” Father lectured, and spurred us to look at things. But when we were in public none of us, I thought, acted natural. Even Mother appeared as if the whole world were watching her family parading, but she looked pretty as she walked unhurriedly, holding my father’s hand. She was always pretty and calm, and she enjoyed those walks. Perhaps Father enjoyed them too, but I knew he preferred our excursions on the river.

One summer day my older brother, Leonid, Father, and I wandered far into the depths of the steppe. The sun was hot, and there were burned patches and wild flowers that looked like weeds. “There must be springs somewhere near,” said Father. “We must listen for the bubbling sound of running water.” As we circled silently, looking for a spring, we thought Father spotted something. We ran toward him. “Be calm,” said Father. “Look, there they are — tramps — four of them.” We saw them swaggering toward us. “We may have to defend ourselves. Gather all the stones you can find. Fill your pockets; but pretend you are playing.” Father spoke fast and low. “Aim well. You are good at that.” He spoke faster. “Jump at their faces with the heels of your shoes. Get up quickly, run to the side, and throw the rocks. Make a lot of noise the moment I give the signal, and don’t be afraid.” Now the four ruffians were upon us. “Hands up!” They ignored my brother and me while Father let them go through his pockets. Standing with his hands up obediently, he looked gentle next to those rogues. He was not a giant at all, I realized. I was watching the fierce, drunken vagabonds collecting Father’s belongings when suddenly Father shouted, “Hit them, fry them!”

At his command, everything went wild. Whether they were drunk or stunned by the fury of our surprising attack, the battle did not last long. We followed Father’s instructions to the letter while he himself tore into them like a pugilist. Bewildered and bleeding, they limped away.

“Nothing is more degrading than that kind of contact with human flesh,” Father said sadly, collecting his scattered possessions. At home, Mother was horrified at our appearance — torn clothes and Father’s swollen face; but I thought he looked beautiful.

I don’t know how poor we were, but we were not hungry. One of the few houses with which I was acquainted besides our own was that of my grandfather, on Mother’s side. As in our house, there was no running water, and the toilet was in the yard. My grandfather’s name was Amchislavsky, and he was a carpenter. I loved to listen to him and watch him work, and to smell the wood in his workshop.

Our house bustled with activity. Father practiced his violin at all hours, and he was always cheerful and full of the most exciting plans. “Life is full of promise,” he used to say. He talked to me of the Messiah and Buddha, of Byzantine architecture, of the salmon’s mating habits, and of the insignificance of man before nature. He must have sensed my pride in being chosen to listen, and in turn, it must have encouraged him to continue his discourses, despite my inability to understand half of what he said.

One evening, in the middle of a story from the Bible, he announced that there would be a new addition, number five, to our family soon. “A new sister or brother will put you smack in the middle,” he said, as though offering me a formidable new position.

That evening he took me to the symphony concert, where I saw and heard the cello for the first time. Tremendously impressed, I thought I had never before heard or seen anything nearly so beautiful.

From that night on, armed with two sticks, a long one for the cello and a short one for the bow, I pretended to play the cello. Even the birth of my new brother, Alexander, did not interrupt my make-believe. Those magic sticks lifted me into a world of sound where every mood could come at will. When I was forced from this dreamworld back to our noisy house, it was not a happy descent.

Do re, mi, fa, so, la, si, get up.” Father awakened me. “What did I sing?”

“Do-major scale.”

“How many notes?”


“Today is your seventh birthday. Come on, hurry! There is something waiting for you.” I followed him into the living room, where the entire family was assembled. They all looked at me, and their serious faces were almost frightening. Then I saw the cello. “It’s a real one, not half size,” said Father as I stood awestruck, not daring to touch the unbelievable treasure and not able to respond to the expressions of joy which came from all sides. It was my first cello, and it was a beautiful day which I knew would stretch into tomorrow and always, as long as the cello would remain with me.

Father was my first teacher; he believed in the close relationship of all bowed instruments, and although he was a violinist, he was sure he could teach me the cello. He tried conscientiously, and when demonstrating something for my benefit on the cello he would repeat, “You see, they are all one big family.” But once, after producing a series of squeaks and scratches, he conceded that he had better stick to his violin and find a better instructor for me. So I began taking lessons with Mr. Yampolsky, a man in his thirties. I worked with enthusiasm. I liked him, and I thought his cello beautiful. It was golden red and shiny, while mine was a muddy color and of ungraceful shape. Though saddened by the unfavorable comparison, I practiced with such fervor that my parents had the illusion that I would not ask for a better instrument. Of course, they were mistaken.

“The longer you wait, the more you will feel you deserve it,” said Father. Well, I certainly waited a long time, while I developed a contempt for the bulky monster I had to live with. Finally, Father took me to a violin shop to see two instruments. Without hesitation, even before playing, I pointed to the darker and nicer-looking one.

“One does not judge a cello by its looks,” said Father.

“It has a fat belly like Uncle Leo,” I protested.

“What is this, a joke?” screamed Father.

Needless to say, I came home with the cello my father chose. As though he had just bought me a pair of shoes, he explained, “You will see that this cello will prove most wear-resistant.”

When Mr. Yampolsky left town, I became a student at the Conservatory of Music and, dressed proudly in its uniform, entered the class of Mr. Gubarioff. My new teacher, who was also director of the Conservatory, had a well-groomed mustache and a square face, with triple chin and loose jowls. He had an enormous stomach, which separated his cello from him and made it appear as if it stood by itself. I was impressed by everything, including his melodious voice and the smell of mint which enveloped him. He was very fond of mint drops, which he would offer me during lessons. He said I was one of his favorite pupils. No wonder! There were no others.

Father taught me harmony and often listened to me practicing. One day he walked into my room and saw a big pillow on my stomach and, propped against it, the cello. “What’s that?”

“I am trying to play like my teacher,” I said, my mouth full of mint. “Doesn’t it smell divine?” I puffed into Father’s face. I did not stay long with Mr. Gubarioff.

During the summer there were open-air symphony concerts. The many members of the orchestra came from various parts of Russia. The visiting first cellist, Mr. Kinkulkin, a pupil of Professor Klengel, consented to listen to me. My father took me to him, and saying, “Please tell Grisha the truth,” he left.

While I played, Mr. Kinkulkin tapped his tiny fingers on a table and cleaned his nails with a toothpick, He remained silent until I had put my cello away. “Listen carefully, my boy. Tell your father that I strongly advise you to choose a profession which will suit your capabilities. Keep away from the cello. You have no talent whatsoever.”

I repeated to Father what Mr. Kinkulkin had told me. He looked at me astonished, but said nothing. At first I felt happy to join my playmates at soccer, but after a week or so I began to look uneasily at the corner where the cello stood. It was increasingly difficult to ignore.

“What bothers you?” asked Father.

I pointed at the cello.

He smiled. “I know. Fate does not ask for advice.”

The sound of the cello filled the house again. I thought nothing of getting up at four in the morning and practicing while the family slept, with the soundless system I devised, my fingers on the fingerboard and the bow in the air.

Father was not an ordinary man, and though he never achieved anything substantial, he made important mistakes. Grandfather wanted him in his bookstore and opposed Father’s ever-shifting search for a career — as a theologian, philosopher, sportsman, and biologist. Above all, he opposed Father’s mightiest ambition, to be a concert violinist. Grandfather threatened to stop his financial support should Father disobey. When Father left to study with Professor Auer in St. Petersburg, he did not believe the threat would be carried out, but it was. Soon after his departure, I was elected to appeal to Grandfather for help.

“I won’t give another penny. I said that this would happen. Your father is irresponsible; he is a wastrel and a fool,” said Grandfather, looking at me hard.

“It’s not true,” I shouted, and ran out of the store.

Although penniless and hungry, Mother would not ask Father to come home. “This is his only chance. We mustn’t take it away from him,” she said.

“Don’t worry, Mother, I’ll think of something.”

She patted my head. “Yes, but you are only eight.”

THE next day I left the house with my cello and wandered through the streets. After a few hours, as I was on my way home, I saw a group of people with musical instruments entering a building. I followed them into a large hall, where quite a number were standing and talking. Some had long hair, many were old, and none looked prosperous. There were no chairs, except one occupied by a man at a desk.

“What do you want?” he called to me, “Looking for someone?” I did not know what to say. “Gome on, son. This is a hiring hall. Are you a cellist?” He looked at the case I was carrying.


“Really? A pupil?”

“Yes, but I can play,” I said shyly.

“I thought so,” he said. “Play something for us.” He offered his chair. “Have you played anywhere?”

“At home — quartets, with my father and brother.”

“Hm. That only makes three.”

“I usually sing the part of the viola at the same time.”

“Also a singer, eh? We don’t need quartets; we need gypsy music. Can you play something?”

I played “Marussja Poisoned Herself” and improvised variations on “Dark Eyes.”

“Will you take a job in a nightclub?” asked the man, who was now sitting on his desk.

“Yes,” I said.

“Mustn’t you ask your father?”

“He is away. He would like me to play in a nightclub.”

“Can you start tomorrow? Good, let’s shake hands.” He took my name and address, and I hurried home.

We kept my job secret from Father, and I brought home my wages regularly, and proudly handed them over to Mother.

All went well, except for my tiredness at the club after midnight. It was hard to fight off my sleepiness and be fit for school the next morning. I did not like to speak at home of the music I played and the makeup of the ensemble, which puzzled me. Why were there two women with us on the stage? I wondered. Neither of them could play the guitar or the mandolin which she held. When I asked the leader, he said, “Decoration — just furniture!” What did he mean?

Vera, I thought, was beautiful. She sat next to me, and I inhaled the perfume she wore. Everyone liked her, and many demanded her company, which caused her to leave the stage sometimes for hours. People also wanted to see Natka, but much less often. I did not blame them. Her cheeks were too red, and she had angry eyes. One rainy, dark night, Vera offered to bring me home in a coach. I accepted with joy.

“Why don’t you come to my place? I will give you hot chocolate. You will see how I live,” she said, caressing my hand.

“May I, really?”

She lit the kerosene lamp so much faster than my sister Nadja could do, I thought, looking around the small room. A terrier doll sat in the middle of an enormous bed. It had the same spot under its left eye as our dog. I touched the doll. It was soft and perfumed.

Vera said, “Your chocolate will be ready in a minute. Why don’t you say something, my big little boy? You haven’t taken your coat off yet. I will make myself comfortable.” Swiftly, she pulled her dress over her head. It threw her rich golden hair into disorder. I saw delicate laces and a part of her breasts. She looked at me. Her eyes were shiny and serious. She came close. “Do you like girls?” she asked, lightly pressing against me. She played with my hair. I felt her breath. Dizzy and frightened, I moved away.

“Don’t go, don’t go.” Her voice kept ringing as I fled in confusion down the street.

I slept as in a fever and kept dreaming all the next day. In the evening, at work again, I dared not look at Vera. The days passed. I attended to my duties absently. My eyes followed her jealously. Why didn’t she speak to me? I wanted to tell her I loved her, that I was not a child.

“The kid is bad for my conscience,” I heard one evening from a nearby table. “It’s a lousy business to be looked at reproachfully the whole damn night.” There was laughter. Later, some ruffian yelled, “Is this a whorehouse or a kindergarten?” I remember my last nostalgic look at Vera as the pimpled manager sent me home.

THE Coliseum was the first movie theater in Ekaterinoslav. Moving pictures were a novelty, and everyone spoke of them and was proud of the new place of entertainment. But none was as happy as I, for I belonged to it. I sat with my cello in the orchestra pit and saw the pictures even before the grand opening.

It was a stroke of luck that the only other available cellist in town was seldom sober. The owner himself was present at the tryout, and at the end he and the eight members of the orchestra complimented me. When I emerged from the pit, the owner put on his glasses and looked me over.

“I’ll be darned ! Say, what’s your age?”

“No one can see him down there, below,” someone said.

The owner hesitated. “There’s no one else to be had,” said the conductor, and I was hired.

I was jubilant and impatient to tell Mother the great news. “How hard will the job be?” she wanted to know, and how long the hours were, and how late I would come home. I did not know.

I saw a tear run down her face. Mother had been frail for a long time.

“It’s a marvelous job,” I said, to cheer her. “They will let me choose the music for the picture. It will be such fun — really different.” I spoke fast. “You know, Mother, how it’s done? You must come with me. Will you? I will have a watch, paper, and pencil for timing every action. Every mood must be illustrated with music. For example, when the train comes, we will play tarararntararamtamtam. You know, Rossini. There is a scene, Mama,” I chattered on. “Oh, you will like it. A beautiful girl is kissed by a man, and he is all bent over. I never saw anything like that. There is a bit of music, just perfect, by Tchaikovsky.”

I saw Mother smile. “Don’t you think it’s time for you to go to bed?” she asked, and kissed me good night. Alone in my room, I thought of Father. I wished he were home. I missed him — his cheerfulness and even his anger.

My first days at the Coliseum were exciting. The orchestra, the repertoire, the picture itself I felt were a part of my own creation.

Before the week passed, my enthusiasm lessened. I sat deep in the pit. Drops of water fell on my head from the new cement on the low ceiling, and even after I covered my head with a cap, there was no relief. I anticipated every drop before it reached me. There was no other place for me to sit, and no one volunteered to change places with me. I developed a strange ticlike grimace, which alarmed Mother. On Sundays and holidays I had to play from three in the afternoon until midnight. I became irritable and run-down, but I would not complain. Only my friend Stolpikoff in the orchestra knew how tired I was. He offered to play my part on the trumpet, but his own was more than he could handle. Besides, his lip was constantly sore. I thought it was from eating too many peanuts, but he would not listen. There was never such a peanut fiend. He liked them roasted. His pockets were full of them, and wherever he went one could track him by bits of shells. A goodhearted man, he had not much to offer except sympathy and a handful of peanuts.

One Sunday, about nine in the evening, I heard Stolpikoff urging the other musicians to give me some rest. I never suspected he could be so firm.

“The youngster will die.”

“Shut up, you peanut head !”

Later, I was in the middle of the solo in William Tell, but I could not continue. There was no strength left in me. “Play!” hissed the conductor. I could not. “Play, you son of a bitch!” He hit me with his bow. All went dark in my mind. I must have done something terrible, something savage. I do not recall. But later, on the street, I learned from Stolpikoff that I broke a chair on the head of the conductor and that among other casualties were a violin and Stolpikoff’s trumpet. So ended my second job.

GRANDFATHER’S death brought my father back home. He looked haggard and depressed. It had been a fiasco in St. Petersburg.

“I tried to defy nature, as if perseverance can triumph over lack of talent. I will never be a virtuoso,” he said.

My Aunt Julia and her family left hurriedly for the United States with their share of the inheritance. Father decided to use his to move to Moscow, where his children would have better opportunities for education.

Without seeking competent advice, Father invested in an apartment house in Ogorodnaja Ulica, on the outskirts of Moscow, and applied for my entrance to the Moscow Conservatory of Music. I was interviewed, and played for the director, Ippolitov-Ivanov, and the cello professor, Von Glohn, and was admitted as a scholarship student.

“You did all right,” said Father as we walked home. I spoke of my impression of the great institution and of the two wonderful people I had met.

It was a long walk back to our apartment. The front of our building was constructed of solid logs. There was a courtyard, which was reached through a wicker door attached to a high, strongly built gate. A bolt barred it for the night. There were six apartments, three on each floor; and ours upstairs was the largest. I remember we had a piano and Father’s books and a large table in the dining room. That table, between meals, was used for writing, reading, or playing games.

Father had been swindled in the leases, and the legal proceedings that followed drained our resources. But, far from discouraged, Father bustled with energy, spoke of the magnificence of Moscow and the new, interesting acquaintances he had made.

“Come on, boys,” he called to Leonid and me one afternoon. “I have news for you. We are going on a trip when school ends, the first thing this spring. A friend of mine recommended all three of us to Mr, Susow, with whom I just signed a contract for a two months’ tour with his grandopera company. We will visit many towns on the Volga River.”

“May I introduce myself?” He stood up in a stately manner. “Pavel Piatigorsky, the first viola. You” — he pointed at Leonid—“the concertmaster, and you, Grisha, the first cellist.”

When the day of departure came, only my mother’s tears at the station clouded our joy. The entire company, with the orchestra and chorus, crowded themselves into one third-class railroad car. Our section, two hard lower and two upper benches, we shared with a very fat lady from the chorus.

In Samara, the first meeting of the company took place in the theater for the rehearsal of Eugen Onegin. Walkingfrom the railroad car, which was to be our living quarters, we saw huge billboards posted around town: “Historic Event — The Imperial Opera House — Famous Stars — 100-Man Chorus and Orchestra—In Sensational Production of Eugen Onegin

The orchestra consisted of seventeen men. One unusual feature was the conductor, who occupied the podium with his French horn. Holding the horn in both hands, his mouth shut by the mouthpiece, he was mute and gestureless. With a short interval for lunch, the company rehearsed until late in the evening. The next morning, we rehearsed almost up to the hour of the opening. I was surrounded by four music stands, with parts for the cello, clarinet, trombone, and oboe. It was my duty to play the important sections from each part.

At the opening, Mr. Shilo, the double-bass player, stood near me, with a bottle of vodka protruding from his pocket. The festive audience paid little attention to the orchestra spread scantily in the pit, but showed surprise when Mr. Jubansky, the conductor, walked to the podium with his horn.

The house lights dimmed, and during the overture it was quiet in the hall; but soon after the curtain went up the restlessness of the audience began to be noticeable. As the performers warily proceeded, scene by scene, the unrest grew, reaching a climax when, for some reason, Mr. Susow’s aria suddenly stopped. The conductor, desperately looking for a tenor, pointed at Mr. Shilo, of all people, and screamed, “Sing!”

Shilo’s rasping voice — “Olga, good-bye forever”— came loudly from the pit, and then he fell, crashing in a drunken stupor over his double bass.

The house was in an uproar. “Kill them! Money back!” the audience shouted, moving threateningly toward us. We ran out into the street. Back in our car, we listened silently to Mr. Susow. He promised that if we improved, we should have our pay in the next city. Shortly, we were on our way to Saratov. There the first performance was a shabby one, but was completed without serious protests from the audience. Mr. Susow assured us of a long stay in the city. At the second performance, the house was almost empty, and the third never took place.

Susow’s eloquence carried us on to Astrakhan. Now there was more space in the car, as a considerable number of the company dropped out in Saratov, among them the fat lady from our section. Upon our arrival in Astrakhan, Susow, unable to pay wages, disappeared, and the company disbanded.

We three counted our money. The sum remaining, after we paid for lodging, would buy two tickets home. One of us would have to stay. Walking through the amusement park, Father spoke to the conductor of the outdoor symphony orchestra and found there was an opening for a cellist. I auditioned and was accepted.

Shortly after my brother and father left, the old cellist of the orchestra reappeared, and I was told I could remain only if I played second violin.

“I don’t play the violin.”

“Try it. I have one for you,” said the conductor.

That evening I found myself playing the violin. I hated the little thing under my chin. For the difficult passages, I had to hold it, like the cello, between my knees. At first, the switching of the position did not seem unusual, but that was only until I was noticed by the public. I began to attract a large number of people who burst into applause each time I manipulated the violin.

“You make a circus of my concerts,” said the conductor, and fired me.

Soon, with my suitcase and cello, I was on my way to the railroad station, where I bought a ticket for as far as my money would take me. The remaining distance home, I stole rides on freight trains at night. I spent the days sleeping in haystacks. In one village, hungry and with no money left, I sold my suitcase and other belongings. I stuffed my pockets with bread and salami and continued making my way home. The nights were warm, and although I was traveling only with my cello, I never lost hope.

About twelve days later I arrived home in time for the opening of the Conservatory. Inventing a little here and there, I told of my adventures. I was not yet eleven.