By David J. Craig
Critics considered her among the best pianists of the early 20th century, yet music lovers today have never heard of her. She was championed by the likes of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, conductor Arturo Toscanini, and pianist Vladimir Horowitz, yet no recordings of her playing are available.
Gitta Gradova (1904–1985) disappeared from classical music in 1942, abruptly quitting a sensational performance career to raise a family. To the prominent musicians she counted as friends and who regularly cajoled her to return to the concert stage -- legends such as Elman, Rubinstein, Prokofiev, and Heifetz -- it was a tragic waste of talent. And to loved ones who bore the brunt of Gradova's simmering resentment and unhappiness, says her son and biographer Thomas Cottle, it was apparent that Gradova's premature retirement eventually pushed her, and him with her, to the brink of mental breakdown.
“My mother was a remarkable person who made an unbelievably foolish, although understandable, mistake,” says Cottle, an SED professor of education and special education and the author of When the Music Stopped: Discovering My Mother, to be published in March by SUNY Press. At once a biography of a frustrated artist and an intimate account of Cottle's strained relationship with her, the book combines insights culled from love letters, interviews, and concert reviews with the author's own reflections and psychological analysis.
In When the Music Stopped, Cottle attempts to understand why his mother, a strong-willed and sharp-tongued firebrand who had been known to chew gum on stage -- and subsequently wowed audiences with her emotional playing and flawless technique -- would settle down, at the height of her career, to a conventional married life. After all, there was nothing conventional about her. A child prodigy born to Russian immigrants in Chicago, she moved to New York at age 13 to study and live with composer Sergei Prokofiev, was internationally known by her early 20s, and was firmly established in the top echelon of the world's pianists in her 30s. Opinionated, clever, and boisterous, Cottle says, she was a free spirit with a bawdy sense of humor at a time when it was considered high praise for a music critic to write that a woman “played like a man.”
Among the revealing items Cottle turned up in his research were love letters from his physician father to his mother, written in the 1920s, when she was traveling regularly and performing with the world's most prominent orchestras. “He was really putting pressure on her,” says Cottle, who is also a clinical psychologist and sociologist. “In letters that are very subtle, very articulate, and very powerful, the message is: when is this career business going to end?”
Also contributing to his mother's decision to walk away from her passion, Cottle speculates, was a stage fright that worsened over her career and her tendency to allow other people to make decisions about her life -- while generally fiery and self-assured, he says, his mother grew increasingly unable to exhibit those qualities outside of her music. “I remember as a teenager yelling at her, ‘Why can't you express an opinion about the way you want your own bedroom decorated?'” Cottle says. “‘Say what you want!'”
Gradova never gave up playing music or associating with musicians after retiring, and Cottle says his fondest memories of her include listening to her daily practice sessions, and watching her charm guests at large parties at the family's Chicago home, which was frequented by famous musicians and other artists. “She was phenomenal on those occasions,” he says. “She'd have 50-year-old bankers and 2-year-olds eating out of her palm. The parties may have been bittersweet for her because friends were constantly asking, ‘Why aren't you playing, Gitta? You've got to play, you've got to record! You've got to, got to, got to! If you're afraid of forgetting the music, just use a music stand!' But mostly her time with other musicians was a lifeline.”
On a daily basis throughout his childhood, however, Cottle remembers his mother as depressed, defensive, bitter, and unkempt, and the two argued constantly, especially when Cottle and his older sister were in their teens. “I think it became extremely difficult for her when my sister and I were at the age that she was when she went to New York,” he says. “I think she began to realize just how much she had given up by being a prodigy. I had sympathy for her, but I also had a lot of rage for the way she treated me, and the way she acted around the house. When I had the choice, I chose rage.”
Gradova finally admitted her regret over quitting music in an interview at age 80 discussing what would have been her return to the concert stage. She was scheduled to perform the Rachmaninoff First Piano Concerto with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony in 1985, but she died three months before the concert.
Cottle, who has authored numerous books on psychology and sociology in recent years, began writing When the Music Stopped in 2000. “The first draft just poured out,” he says. “I'd find myself crying, realizing that I'd never cried about something until writing it down.
“I think I came to understand a lot more about my mother's pain,” he continues. “I read mountains of concert reviews, and the depth and the scope of the praise was just majestic. In interviews she was so amazingly intellectual, even at age 21. The overriding feeling I was left with was: ‘Your life was a waste. Why did you waste such a talent? And why didn't we get to know each other? I think we really could have hit it off. And now I wish that I could ask you about all this stuff.' Of course, the glib part would be, ‘So am I right, Mother?'”
To read excerpts from When the Music Stopped, see a related story in Bostonia magazine at www.bu.edu/alumni/bostonia/2003/spring/index.html .