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The Special Effect

SS Rex

The crossing from Europe to New York left Igor Stravinsky with hours to fill and so he prevailed upon cellist Gregor Piatigorsky to work with him on a cello and piano transcription of his ballet Suite Italienne. Violinist Nathan Milstein also had some time on his hands and so he came along and watched as Piatigorsky made daring suggestions and defended them as Stravinsky listened.

One of Piatigorsky’s most brilliant effects came about by accident.

Tea was served aboard the SS Rex at 4:45, and Milstein and Piatigorsky attended regularly, enjoying the company of various attractive young women who were drawn to the charming cellist. One day when the two musicians were expecting a particularly alluring young lady, Stravinsky got more involved than ever in the transcription and showed every indication of working right through tea.

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Piatigorsky was a nervous wreck. He had no intention of missing his date, but he couldn’t work up the courage to tell Stravinsky that their time for working on the Suite Italienne was limited.

As he played the suite, Piatigorsky became so tense that the bow popped out of his hand and slipped behind the bridge of the cello, where it made a strange whistling sound.

Stravinsky jumped up. “That’s it! Marvelous! I like it!” he cried. “How do you do it?”

After some tinkering, Piatigorsky was able to recreate the effect and they decided to write it into the transcription.

Milstein was impressed that the stubborn and opinionated Stravinsky was so quick to pick up on the new sound and use it. The composer was delighted with their accidental discovery, and so were Milstein and Piatigorsky, who got to tea in time for their rendezvous with the young lady.

Nathan Milstein tells the story in From Russia to the West, the 1990 memoir he co-authored with music journalist Solomon Volkov.

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