Already a cello prodigy with a full scholarship to the Moscow Conservatory, the ten-year-old Gregor Piatigorsky found himself stranded in Astrahan’ due to one of his father’s failed enterprises.
Tall enough to pass as a teenager, he found a temporary job as a substitute cellist in an amusement-park orchestra, and when the former cellist returned he was offered a job playing violin. Piatigorsky accepted gamely, and found that he could play the unfamiliar instrument easily in undemanding passages; but for more difficult ones he had to revert to playing it between his knees, like a cello. For distracting attention from the conductor and eliciting unwelcome applause, the boy was fired.
Still lacking the funds to return to Moscow, he found a job in a café orchestra. To keep the underaged cellist from seeing the nude dancers onstage, the owner had him turn to face the wall of the pit and provided a mirror so he could see the conductor. When he quit in sympathy for a fired dancer he had developed a crush on, he was given a week’s pay.
Piatigorsky used the money to buy a train ticket as far north toward Moscow as he could; he finally arrived home after about 12 days of hitching rides on freight trains by night, sleeping during the day, and selling everything but his cello for food.
This according to Gregor Piatigorsky: The life and career of the virtuoso cellist by Terry King (Jefferson: McFarland, 2010, pp. 8–10; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-6179).
Today is Piatigorsky’s 120th birthday! Above, the cellist in his school uniform before he moved to Moscow. Below, excerpts from the film Heifitz & Piatigorsky (Kultur, 1953).
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