~ Cellist by Gregor Piatigorsky ~
Mrs. Yates was my private art teacher (pencil drawing and watercolors, mostly) but she also taught me to love classical music. Every Thursday after school I spent an hour in her small 1950s ranch-style house. She was older than my mother but younger than my grandmother, a pretty woman with freckles and fine wrinkles, who kept her dark hair up in a bun and moved like she had once been a dancer. Waiting for me on the Formica table in her kitchen were cookies and milk, or tea in the winter. The radio was always tuned to the classical music station. Working on a landscape or still life at the kitchen table, I got to know the music of Mozart and Beethoven, Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Grieg, Dvorak, and many others.
When my son at age seven announced he wanted to play violin, I had to wonder how much of his interest in classical music was owed, indirectly, to Mrs. Yates; if it weren’t for her influence on me, he might not have been raised listening to it. Now that he’s eighteen, I reflect on how my son has deepened my own appreciation for music. Not only have I watched him slowly master his instrument, which has given me an understanding of technique and performance I wouldn’t otherwise have gained, but he has taught me to listen more intelligently, to recognize and savor the characteristic nuances of the performers he most admires – violinists like Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, and Leonid Kogan, and other artists like cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.
It was on my son’s recommendation that I recently read Piatigorsky’s 1965 autobiography; it had a lot of the “Russian flavor” he knew I enjoyed. Indeed, it opens like a Chekhov story:
“Ekaterinoslav had a mild climate, but the air in the steppe seldom stood still. The breeze bent and swayed the grass and rye, which grew high and wild and made the wide plains look like an ocean. I had never seen an ocean, but my father said that the steppe looked like one. It had great power over me. I liked to stand outside in front of the fence and listen to the wind and watch it change the face of the steppe. Inside our peasant-like house I was always in the mood to hear stories about it. Fascinated, I listened to the tales of roaming packs of wild dogs that devoured the cobbler’s son Vanya, for example, of tramps and deserters, of hidden springs and mysterious flowers whose scent put men to sleep, never to awaken again.”
The first half of Cellist would make a fine movie. Young Gregor survives pogroms under the Czar, family upheavals, war, and revolution. From age eight he plays cello in theaters and taverns to support his family, then leaves home for good at twelve years old. He is homeless off and on, sleeping in parks and train stations. He gets a position with the Bolshoi Theater, then escapes the Soviet Union over the border to Poland, living a bohemian life until signing on with the Berlin Philharmonic and launching the international career that would eventually bring him to the United States.
The book is full of memorable anecdotes and pranks (once Piatigorsky and a co-conspirator tied a thin cord to another cellist’s instrument and slowly lifted it off the floor in the middle of a performance). There’s a lot of name-dropping, too. He played for royalty and presidents, James Joyce attended one of his rehearsals, and he was friends with Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig. And of course Piatigorsky knew everyone in the world of early 20th-century classical music: Vladimir Horowitz, Toscanini, Carl Flesch, Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Richard Strauss, Leopold Stokowski, Jascha Heifetz, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, and Aaron Copland, among others. He tells a story about riding in a speedboat on Lake Lucerne with Rachmaninoff:
“[I]n rain hood and phantom-like, he raced, zig-zagged, and transformed the peaceful lake into a churning whirlpool. As if challenging the trust of his guest, he headed straight for the shore, avoiding it by a sharp turn at the very last moment. He had a smile on his wet face. ‘You are not easily scared,’ he said. ‘You should have seen some other musicians. I like you.’ I more than liked him, I deeply admired him and he never ceased to fascinate me. But I never took another ride in his boat.”
Alongside his good humor, Piatigorsky’s love for music is apparent on every page. Though I possess it in lesser measure and without the insight of his genius, I share that love. So does my son (more deeply than me), and so do all the children and teenagers he’s played with in youth orchestras and string ensembles and chamber groups since age seven. They say it’s a dying art, but in our city there’s a surprising number of young people studying classical music performance. Still, I fret about the future, for my son’s sake. As he prepares to study music in college, I worry that today’s standard-bearers of the great tradition are also its worst enemies. Not to be outdone by humanities departments sacrificing themselves to the fashionable gods of racist critical theory, the classical music world is feverishly slashing its own wrists too.
For a sobering review of the state of classical music in the United States today, read Heather Mac Donald’s two–part City Journal essay. Just ten years ago, anyone might have laughed to hear that the traditional canon was nothing more than a bulwark of white, colonialist, patriarchal oppression, but these days taking exception to that notion can cost you your chair in the orchestra. Mac Donald writes:
“As the lies about classical music accumulate, not one conductor, soloist, or concertmaster has rebutted them. These influential performers know that Beethoven’s late piano sonatas and quartets are not about race but about pushing beyond ordinary human experience into an unexplored universe of unsettling silences and space. They know that Schubert’s song cycles are not about race but about yearning, disappointment, and fleeting joy. They know that the Saint Matthew Passion is not about race but about crushing sorrow that cries out in pain before finally finding consolation. To reduce everything in human experience to the ever more tedious theme of alleged racial oppression is narcissism. This music is not about you or me. It is about something grander than our narrow, petty selves. But narcissism, the signal characteristic of our time, is shrinking our cultural inheritance to a nullity.”
I choose not to despair, however. Fads pass and few leave permanent scars. The academic study of music – like the academic study of literature – is not the sum total of the art. Like the love of books, the love of music belongs first of all to amateurs, because that’s how everyone begins. Even if the conservatories shut down and the orchestras shame themselves into silence for a generation, there’s an almost infinite catalog of scores and recordings to await rediscovery. In the meantime, young people continue to practice their instruments and our local classical music radio station is going strong, with the works of the greats in prominent rotation. Seated at kitchen tables in 1950s ranch-style houses all around this country, there’s another generation of children, like me, accidentally discovering and learning to love the music of Bach and Schubert and Dvorak and all the wealth of the traditional canon.