Bunking down in the Philharmonic

Cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, after running into some problems with his accommodation, was spending a cold November day in the Tiergarten, Berlin, in 1923. Throughout the course of the day, he was approached by Paul Bose to play Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.

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 fatigue. 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.

Piatigorsky, Gregor (1965) Cellist: Autobiography of Gregor Piatigorsky. Da Capo Press. Cited at: Cello.org. Accessed. 1 May 2016.