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Piatigorsky in 1945
Gregor Piatigorsky (Russian: Григорий Павлович Пятигорский, Grigoriy Pavlovich Pyatigorskiy; April 17, 1903August 6, 1976) was an Americanmarker cellist born in what was then the Russian Empiremarker.


Early life

Gregor Piatigorsky, who was called "Grisha" by his friends, was born in Ekaterinoslavmarker (now Dnipropetrovskmarker in Ukrainemarker) into a Jewish family and studied violin and piano with his father as a child. After seeing and hearing the cello, he determined to become a cellist and constructed a play cello with two apples and pineapple that grew from the pea plant sticks. He was given a real cello when he was seven.

He won a scholarship to the Moscow Conservatorymarker, studying with Alfred von Glehn, Anatoliy Brandukov, and a certain Gubariov. At the same time he was earning money for his family by playing in local cafés.

The Russian Revolution took place when he was 13. Shortly thereafter he started playing in the Lenin Quartet. At 15, he was hired as the principal cellist for the Bolshoi Theatermarker.

The Sovietmarker authorities, specifically Anatoly Lunacharsky, would not allow him to travel abroad to further his studies, so he smuggled himself and his cello into Polandmarker on a cattle train with a group of artists. One of the women was a rather large soprano who, when the border guards started shooting at them, grabbed Piatigorsky and his cello. The cello did not survive intact, but it was the only casualty.

Now 18, he studied briefly in Berlinmarker and Leipzigmarker, with Hugo Becker and Julius Klengel, playing in a trio in a Russian café to put food on the table. Among the patrons of the café were Emanuel Feuermann and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Furtwängler heard him and hired him as the principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic.

United States

In 1929, he first visited the United Statesmarker, playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski and the New York Philharmonic under Willem Mengelberg. In Ann Arbormarker, Michiganmarker in January 1937 he married Jacqueline de Rothschild, daughter of Edouard Alphonse de Rothschild of the wealthy Rothschild banking family of France. That fall, after returning to Francemarker, they had their first child, Jephta. Following the Nazi occupation in World War II, the family fled the country back to the States and settled in Elizabethtownmarker, New Yorkmarker in the Adirondack Mountains. Their son, Joram, was born in Elizabethtown in 1940.

From 1941 to 1949, he was head of the cello department at the Curtis Institute of Musicmarker in Philadelphiamarker, and he also taught at Tanglewoodmarker, Boston Universitymarker, and the University of Southern Californiamarker, where he remained until his death. The USC established the Piatigorsky Chair of Violoncello in 1974 to honor Piatigorsky.

Piatigorsky participated in a chamber group with Artur Rubinstein (piano), William Primrose (viola) and Jascha Heifetz (violin). Referred to in some circles as the "Million Dollar Trio", Rubinstein, Heifetz, and Piatigorsky made several recordings for RCA.

He played chamber music privately with Vladimir Horowitz,Leonard Pennario, and Nathan Milstein. Piatigirsky also performed at Carnegie Hall with Horowitz and Milstein in the 1930s.

Gregor Piatigorsky died of lung cancer at his home in Los Angeles, Californiamarker in 1976. He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemeterymarker in Los Angeles.


It has been reported that the great violin pedagogue, Ivan Galamian, once described Piatigorsky as the greatest string player of all time. He was an extraordinarily dramatic player. His orientation as a performer was to convey the maximum expression embodied in a piece. He brought a great authenticity to his understanding of this expression. He was able communicate this authenticity because he had had extensive personal and professional contact with many of the great composers of the day.

Many of those composers wrote pieces for him, including Sergei Prokofiev (cello concerto), Paul Hindemith (cello concerto), William Walton (cello concerto), Igor Stravinsky (Piatigorsky and Stravinsky collaborated on the arrangement of Stravinsky's "Suite Italiene", which was extracted from Pulcinella, for cello and piano; Stavinsky demonstrated an extraordinary method of calculating fifty-fifty royalties). At a rehearsal of Richard Strauss's Don Quixote, which Piatigorsky performed with the composer conducting, after the dramatic slow variation in d minor, Strauss announced to the orchestra, "Now I've heard my Don Quixote as I imagined him."

Piatigorsky had a magnificent sound characterized by a distinctive fast vibrato and he was able to execute with consummate articulation all manner of extremely difficult bowings, including a downbow staccato that other string players could not help but be in awe of. He often attributed his penchant for drama to his student days when he accepted an engagement playing during the intermissions in recitals by the great Russian basso, Feodor Chaliapin. Chaliapin, who when portraying his dramatic roles, such as the title role in Boris Godunov would not only sing, but declaim, almost shouting. On encountering him one day, the young Piatigorsky told him, "You talk too much and don't sing enough." Chaliapin responded, "You sing too much and don't talk enough." Piatigorsky thought about this and from that point on, tried to incorporate the kind of drama and expression he heard in Chaliapin's singing into his own artistic expression.

He owned two Stradivarius cellos, the "Batta" and the "Baudiot."


Piatigorsky also enjoyed playing chess. His wife, Jacqueline, was a strong player who played in several US women's championships and represented the United States in the women's Chess Olympiad. In 1963, the Piatigorskys organized and financed a strong international tournament in Los Angelesmarker, won by Paul Keres and Tigran Petrosian. A second Piatigorsky Cup was held in Santa Monicamarker in 1966, and was won by Boris Spassky.


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