By Laurence Vittes
For much of the 20th century, Gregor Piatigorsky and a small group of supreme colleagues defined what high-level string playing could be. With unsurpassed technical command of their instruments, these players were larger-than-life personalities who celebrated humanity with an innate sense of spontaneity.
In the case of Piatigorsky, who died 40 years ago, the personality was certainly larger than life—and then some. In his autobiography, Cellist, and in personal accounts, Piatigorsky told stories about his Paul Bunyanesque escape from Russia (post-Revolution) and Germany (pre-WWII) to Southern California’s sunshine paradise. There, Piatigorsky and his colleagues—many immigrants from World Wars I and II—recruited, taught, and in many cases, mentored a bounty of brilliant young novices.
In addition to Piatigorsky’s mentoring, his students had access to the institutions where he taught, the Brentwood mansion he called home, and to the dreams he had for them, as musicians and as people.
When the ten-day, Los Angeles–based International Gregor Piatigorsky extravaganza opens in May, Terry King’s Gregor Piatigorsky: The Life and Career of the Virtuoso Cellist should be required reading for all participants too young to have studied with the master. When the book was published in 2010, I wrote this for Strings: “In Terry King, Piatigorsky’s protégé and friend, Piatigorsky finds the perfect champion: a musician who captures the full rich panoply of the great man’s life and the poetry of his cello playing, along with his musical insights, teaching methods, and musical guidelines.”
King, a cellist, chamber musician, conductor, and educator, studied with Piatigorsky at Music Center Academy and at the University of Southern California, where he also served as his teaching assistant. After graduating from USC, King continued to study informally with Piatigorsky until his death in 1976.
I reached out to King, who teaches at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford and the Longy School of Music of Bard College, for his recollections of Piatigorsky.
His number one concern was to urge us to become who we really were as musicians, and as human beings.
It seems like Piatigorsky served as a vital link between cello playing of the past and present.
“I have always thanked Gregor Piatigorsky for inviting me into his world—his world lived in the 19th century as well as the 20th,” King told me by phone from his home in Boston. “His teachers were all born in the 1850s: Alfred von Glehn, Anatoly Brandukov, Julius Klengel, and Hugo Becker and they, in turn, were the products of Davidov, Fitzenhagen, Hegar, Cossmann, Piatti, and Grützmacher.”
They were giants of the cello’s Golden Age, weren’t they?
Plus, they had first-hand encounters with Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Dvorak, Saint-Saëns, Reger, and Busoni. Piatigorsky had his own unique connections to Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and Hindemith. For his students, it meant a wealth of information and perspective that is missing today. The historical continuum was very real. After one of Piatigorsky’s earliest concerts in Berlin—January 1925 in the Dvorak Concerto—one of the many ecstatic reviewers compared him to the legendary David Popper, who had died only 11 years earlier.
What was Piatigorsky like in person?
He was tall [6-foot-3] and imposing and spoke with a noticeable, charming Russian accent. He walked into the room, greeting us warmly, giving whoever spoke to him his full attention. He had a wonderful sense of humor. When asked by a young fan, “Are you the greatest cellist?” he answered deadpan, “No. I am the tallest.”
What was he like as a cellist?
In his prime Piatigorsky had it all: the supreme command to fashion anything into a personal statement. His range of expression incorporated the most intimate to the most full-on power. The cello was like a toy in his hands. His amazing bow control ranged from finely etched, seemingly spoken strokes to a beautiful, seamless legato. His spectacular flying staccato, either down bow or up, still stumps nearly everyone. We were always after him to demonstrate this phenomenon of nature and teach us how to do it; he had difficulty teaching it beyond telling us it felt to him like a right-hand vibrato. We all worked to master it; I think Nick Rosen, who was a Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medalist, got it best.
What was he like as a teacher?
His number one concern was to urge us to become who we really were as musicians, and as human beings. He told us that if our aim was to imitate someone else, which is a common habit among impressionable young musicians, the best we could hope to be would be a second-rate version of that person.
He asked us, “Why not become the best of you?” and then sent us out into the world to become the best we could be, and try to enjoy it. To be our best, however, is not an easy task for young cellists—there is a lot of deeply honest work and confrontational struggle. The joy we get is fleeting, as we rarely achieve to our complete satisfaction. His own life and compassion toward us served as a model and an inspiration for our journeys forward.
It must have been a joy to study with him.
It was a very special time. Boy, did we work! We studied each other’s repertoire in order to get everything we could from those unforgettable master classes. I always kept my cello handy for him to demonstrate because he liked it so much. It was a dark-wine Francois Nicolas from 1808 made for Napoleon’s band; it had a full, rich sound matching its appearance.
How did you interact with him in class?
We would all take notes as he played for us; I would stand behind him while he was playing to see his shifting and vibrato from different angles. He would shout and implore us, “Take advantage of me! Ask questions—exploit all you can!”
We can learn so much from him in those wonderful early films. You can see his flying staccato technique—it was more common in the 19th century; the bow was held more lightly and the fingers moved in a more nuanced fashion.
What were his principal tenets of teaching?
In general, he expected the traits of any professional musician to be in evidence—command of tone, intonation, and facility. Though basics were explored, he wanted to focus on those specific qualities and traits that he felt identified our personalities. He often said, “Whatever our weaknesses, we can’t hide from them.” He felt it was a compliment to recognize who is playing by hearing only one measure or phrase. This we recognize, he thought, through sound production, vibrato, musical attitude, nuance, and taste.
I remember playing something for him at full-capacity sound. He asked me, “Don’t you love your cello?” His point was that, by producing all the sound I could, I forgot to include a part of myself.
“We are in the beauty business,” he said. He entreated us to play every note as if it were being auctioned off to the highest bidder. To assure us of his confidence and goodwill he would say in his mock imitation of Western slang, “I vill not sell you a bum steer.”
What did Piatigorsky think about teaching?
He used to lament that when great artists—friends like Kreisler and Rachmaninoff—did not teach, something died with them. But then again, not everyone should teach! Leopold Auer once challenged Heifetz, “Someday you will be good enough to teach.”
Like Auer, Piatigorsky and Heifetz believed that it was their duty to pass their legacy on to the next generation, that playing at their level was a perishable art that could die without being taught [to the next generation]. Of course, Heifetz was not a born teacher like Piatigorsky, but he passed along important traits to the students who had thick-enough skins to endure his quirky nature.
Piatigorsky and Heifetz were close friends. What was that relationship like?
They both lived in Los Angeles and had known each other from the 1920s. They referred to each other as General Heifetz and Admiral Piatigorsky. Piatigorsky was Heifetz’s best friend; after he died, Heifetz was never the same.
How did they influence each other musically?
Piatigorsky once said, “Without a violin in his hands, [Heifetz] self-destructs.” On the other hand, Heifetz indirectly pushed Piatigorsky into practicing by playing the Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts series in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. Piatigorsky had pretty much stopped his daily work by the late ’60s, which he would have admitted. I remember him saying to us, “If you practice as much as I do, you are in deep trouble.”
You played chamber music in Heifetz’ class. How did Heifetz run his class compared to Piatigorsky?
I learned two fundamental things. We were reading Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet when I got lost in the slow movement. I said, “I’m very sorry, Mr. Heifetz, I couldn’t feel the rhythm there.” He said firmly, “There is nothing to feel. Just. Count.” His point was, when you’re reading, just read. Save the internalizing for later.
What was the other thing Heifetz said?
The other thing was, “Always leave enough bow for a thought.” That is so poetic. After all, as he knew better than anyone, when you always practice using your entire bow, you’re stuck when you play in a dead hall or when you want to gesture differently, perhaps on the spur of the moment.
Why did you decide to write Piatigorsky’s biography?
Piatigorsky is inexorably relevant to me. I was deeply connected with him, both as a student and as I became his biographer. He knew truths about music, life, and playing the cello that are constant and timeless.
I wanted to give back in measure what he gave to me. He would have said I gave back to him more than he gave to me, of course, but the change that took place in my life while I was in his care was profound. To be his biographer was a huge project that carried with it above all the responsibility of doing him justice. I wrote it in fits and starts—that’s why it took over 30 years. I didn’t want it to be a memoir by an adoring disciple. I wanted it to be worthy of him, revealing his greatness as well as his warts. I wanted it to be scholarly, yet a book for everyone. His story is a universal one of triumph over adversity. I also tackle some of the tall tales he wrote about in his book, Cellist. An amazing life.
What would he think of the upcoming BBC/PBS documentaries on his life and music?
He would be humbled by the documentaries. In his last hours he told me, “I need seven more years.” He would be secretly happy that his work lives on for a while longer.
Terry King’s Favorite Piatigorsky Recordings:
‘The Schumann Concerto with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Philharmonic (1934); Strauss’ Don Quixote both with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony (1953) and Fritz Reiner with the Pittsburgh Symphony (1941); Bloch’s Schelomo live with Alfred Wallenstein and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1955); Hindemith’s big 1940 Concerto live with the composer conducting the CBS Symphony (1943); the Saint-Saens Concerto live with Alexander Hilsberg and the Philadelphia Orchestra (1949); the Elgar Concerto live with Barbirolli and New York Philharmonic (1940); the Prokofiev Sonata (1953) and the Grieg Sonata (1945) with Ralph Berkowitz; and many short pieces by Mendelssohn, Moszkowski, Tchaikovsky, Granados, Debussy, Chopin, Weber, Bloch, and Piatigorsky. These have been issued on CD. The most comprehensive collection is The Art of Gregor Piatigorsky (West Hill Radio Archives), with six CDs and a DVD containing the early films.’
Highlights of the short pieces:
‘Piatigorsky’s version of Chopin’s “Introduction et polonaise brilliant” tastefully merged some of the piano part into a barren cello part. His arrangement of Haydn’s many baryton trios into the so-called Haydn Divertimento has become a staple in the repertoire. And you can hear his moving tender qualities in short pieces like Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor, Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, and Ernest Bloch’s Prayer. And there are treasures that may be made public someday: a Schumann concerto with Casals conducting, Don Quixote with Mehta, and the Schubert Quintet with Casals, Schneider, and friends filmed at the 1967 Casals Festival.’