IN 1832, at the age of ten, Alfredo Piatti sought admission as a scholar at the Conservatoire at Milan. At his entrance examination Merighi was, perhaps in consequence of the episode at Caravaggio, somewhat prejudiced against the boy, although all the other professors were in his favour. Merighi was however won over by Piatti's playing a work, the authorship of which he did not himself know at the time, and which, as he was already able to play Romberg's music, he considered, to use his own words, "a miserable work." The composition was in fact by Merighi himself, and may for that reason have been astutely selected by the candidate's father. It is also a curious coincidence that it was dedicated to Mr. Theophilus Burnand an English gentleman who at that time frequently visited Milan and whom in after life Piatti came to know intimately.
As a result, the boy was admitted as a free student or scholar at the Conservatoire, and there he remained five years. The advantage of this scholarship to a lad of humble means will be realized when it is borne in mind that the students were not only educated at the Conservatoire, but boarded and fed there during the whole year.
Vaccaj was the Principal of the School of Music at Milan when young Piatti entered it as a student. He was, according to Piatti, a very good singing master though not much of a musician. He composed several operas, amongst others, "Romeo and Juliet," the last act of which used to be substituted for the last act of Bellini's by Malibran, whenever she sang Bellini's opera.
At that time there were at the Conservatoire twenty-four free students, or scholars, and six paying students. The students, both boys and girls, slept, in separate buildings, at the Conservatoire; and, as they entered there quite young, they received a general education in addition to special instruction in music. Giuseppina Strepponi who afterwards married Verdi was a pupil at the Conservatoire. The students had also duties to perform in connection with the church, and this for the boys included service as acolytes at the altar. On one occasion Piatti had a fight with another acolyte over a candle, with the result that he fell down the steps of the altar and broke his leg. Verdi too as a boy had a not altogether dissimilar accident at the altar.
It appears that there was not much opportunity afforded to the students of orchestral or ensemble playing at the Conservatoire. A fact which will hardly cause astonishment when we know that one of the works put before them for practice was Rossini's Opera "William Tell" arranged as a quartet.* [Although "William Tell" was not heard in London till 1839 it was produced in Paris and Milan ten years earlier.] There seems really to have been no library worth speaking of at the Conservatoire, and the broad study of music as an art was almost entirely neglected. But for the special study of an instrument the school was particularly favourable, as, by the regulations, each professor was required to give instruction for two hours every day; and, the number of students of each instrument being limited, this meant a considerable amount of personal attention. For instance, Piatti had only one fellow student of the violoncello with whom to divide the two hours instruction devoted to that instrument; and whatever may have been Piatti's opinion of Merighi as a composer, he bore strong testimony to his merits as a teacher of the violoncello, a matter of far greater moment to the subject of this biography.
It was said of Merighi many years later that he "gave proof of his wisdom and skill in educating that piece of perfection (quella perfezione) called Alfredo Piatti.” [Grove's Dictionary of Music IV. 766.]
The following story may be told not so much to shew Piatti's views of Merighi's merits as a composer, as the boy's dogged obstinacy in his convictions, the result of his own innate genius for his special instrument.
Merighi on one occasion desired a composition of his own to be played by Piatti at a concert. Piatti felt that the work was as he thought "rubbish," he did not want to play it, and finally cut his finger so as to make it impossible for him to play at all. It is perhaps a pity that there was not at the Conservatoire a rule similar to that in force at the Royal College of Music in London which forbids the performance at a College Concert of any work by a professor of the College.
On the other hand Piatti was on one occasion required to play a work of his own composition at a concert. He selected some variations on an Air by Paisiello. Merighi objected, but Vaccaj, the principal, directed that it should be played and it was played accordingly and well received. Just before the subject was given out there was a short and insignificant passage for the trumpets. After the performance Merighi said to Piatti "but why did you not tell me of that entry of the trumpets?"
At the Conservatoire the students had only one holiday in each year, and that of a month's duration. It once happened that Vaccaj had gone to Venice to superintend the production there of one of his operas. While he was away one of the students contrived to break into the cellar and to steal the principal's wine, the whole of which was consumed by the students during his absence from Milan.
Vaccaj's opera was a failure and on his return from Venice he went to seek consolation in his cellar, with the result that he discovered the loss of all his wine. "That year" said Piatti "we had no holiday."
Piatti's one fellow student on the violoncello was a lad named Storioni. Storioni's grandfather had been an instrument maker and a pupil of Stradivarius, and his father had been professor of the violoncello at the Conservatoire at Milan, and in that capacity the master of Merighi.
Storioni, according to Piatti, played very well, but he was an eccentric character. One of his peculiarities was that every hair that appeared on his face he pulled out. On leaving the Conservatoire at Milan, Storioni got an engagement at Madrid, and he remained in Spain for some time; but when the fighting for the liberation of Italy began, he returned to his own country and was taken prisoner at Rome by the French, and ultimately seems to have been shipped off to England. Piatti was himself in London at the time, and one day a servant informed him that a man was at the door who wanted to see him. Piatti went down, and found a man sitting trembling on the doorstep, he looked at him and said, "What, Storioni!" Piatti took him in and offered him food, to which Storioni's pathetic answer was "No, I must learn how to live without food." He then told Piatti his story and that on his arrival in England, he had unsuccessfully tried to get into some company of strolling players. It was impossible for Piatti to recommend Storioni, in the deplorable condition in which he then was, for employment in an orchestra; but he helped him with money, and asked him to let him hear of him again. Some time afterwards Storioni appeared at his house in the capacity of a cheesemonger's messenger bringing some cheese which had been ordered by Piatti, after that said Piatti "I lost sight of him."
Among his early recollections Piatti remembered to have played when he was thirteen at a concert given by Malibran in Milan at the end of September, 1835. During the concert the news of the death of Bellini near Paris on the 23rd of September was announced to the audience. Malibran herself died exactly a year later on September 23rd, 1836.
When Piatti left the Conservatoire at Milan in 1837 at the age of fifteen and a half, he was only in the middle class on account of his youth; but his record is to the effect that he was an excellent pupil in every way. On leaving he played at a public concert of the Conservatoire given in Milan on the 21st September, 1837, a "Concertino" of his own composition; and he received as a prize the instrument on which he performed on this occasion. What part he took in the concert of 1835 does not appear, probably not that of a soloist; and therefore the 21st September 1837 must be regarded as the date of his first appearance as a soloist in a public concert.
The time had now come when his father considered that Alfredo must commence to earn his own living. Piatti therefore returned to Bergamo to take up a permanent engagement in the orchestra of the city. That had been the limit of the father's ambition for himself and that was the limit of his ambition for his son.
Purchase the LPR recording of Piatti's works for solo cello here.