IT may be that the theatre of a town like Bergamo, where the absence of wealth compelled those who had the direction of the performances to avail themselves of such resources as came readily to hand, afforded to a young man of quick observation, such as Alfredo Piatti was, opportunities of seeing the humourous side of stage life which would never arise in a theatre where wider means enabled the management to ensure perfection of detail in all departments. It may also be that a quick Italian boy of fifteen would see humour which might escape his graver seniors. Certain it is that Piatti had a fund of amusing stories connected with his early life with which he entertained his friends for many an hour. It would be wearisome to read these, indeed a large part of the charm lay in the skilful telling, but the following story of a misunderstanding is worth recording.
Balfe, the composer and conductor, commenced life as a baritone singer and made he début at Bergamo while Piatti was playing in the orchestra. One night Balfe had to sing in "Olivo e Pasquale." the part was really too low for him, and, as was common in many of the smaller theatres of Italy, the pitch of the orchestra was also low. Balfe at rehearsal complained to the Director of the Theatre "that the orchestra was troppo basso." The Director, who in fact knew nothing about music, assured him that eh would not find it so for the performance. Carpenters were at once set to work and when the members of the orchestra arrived in the evening they found that all their seats had been raised a foot and a half, which of course made matters all the worse by bringing the orchestra up between the singer and the audience.
Piatti’s work was not confined to orchestral playing in the theatre at Bergamo. He was taken by his father to every town and village in the neighbourhood where there was an opportunity for him to play as a soloist, and he said that he did not think that there was a village in the Province of Bergamo in the church of which he had not played. Among the places visited in this manner was Chiavenna, a town on the shores of Lake Como. The only building that could be found in the town, in which a performance could be given, was a cellar, and that was occupied by some marionette performers; but Antonio Piatti was told that his son might play between the parts of the marionette performance. This he did. The cellar was lighted with oil, in snail shells with wicks floating in the oil, a form of illumination still in use among the peasant children of Italy at small festivities. The marionettes were played by the brothers Ferni, who were assisted by two young ladies who afterwards became celebrated violinists. If these itinerant performances of the youthful violoncellist were not very lucrative they must at least have served to give him experience and confidence.
It was on one such tour that Piatti found himself without a penny in his pocket at Venice. It was important to him to cross the lagoon and he managed to get on and off the ferry boat without paying a fare. Years afterwards he was introduced to a high dignitary of the church who said "I have met you before." Piatti smiled; "Yes," said the ecclesiastic, "I saw you join and leave the ferry boat in Venice without paying your fare."
After a time these tours were extended beyond the confines of Italy, and the first foreign town to which Piatti was taken by his father was Vienna where he was told that he was to perform, as he understood, between the acts of a play, at the Kärntherthor Theatre. The work which he selected for the occasion was a Concerto by Romberg. Before the performance he was told that when he went on to the stage he must bow to the king. As there was no king in Vienna Piatti naturally asked "What king?" "The king of the theatre," was the answer. Piatti went on, made his bow to the king, who with others was sitting on the stage, and played. During the performance the king frequently called out "Bravo, bravo." It suddenly dawned on Piatti that he was being made to play in the course of a drama, and at the end of the concerto, not being an actor, he made a rush to a door to get off, and found that the door through which he tried to escape was only a painted one in the scenery.
During Piatti's engagement at Bergamo a gentleman came from Turin and stated that owing to the death of the violoncellist there he was sent to offer him an engagement. Piatti accepted the engagement readily under the impression that he was to be the principal violoncellist in the orchestra at Turin, but on his arrival, he found that he was only the eighth, the post of principal being held by Casella. One night Casella came to the theatre in a state of intoxication, the opera was "Rolla" by a young composer named Mabelini of Pistoia, and in it was a solo for the violoncello. The Director of the Opera told Piatti to play the solo; Piatti said, "but my 'cello is but a bad one." He was told by the Director to take Casella's instrument. Curiously enough some years later Piatti bought this very instrument from Casella's son who had succeeded his father in the orchestra at Turin.
Piatti played the whole season at Turin but his salary was not more than sufficient to maintain him while there and he had to give a concert to earn the money to enable him to leave the town and return home.
For this concert Piatti borrowed a violoncello from his cousin. The instrument though not made by Stradivarius bore a label with his name, and Piatti subsequently bought it for 300 francs. Later he took it to Pavia at a time when Madame Despine was singing there. One day her husband came on the stage and asked to look at the instrument. After doing so he announced that he was himself the maker of it. Piatti subsequently sold the instrument in Piacenza to a gentleman named Castagna. The instrument was so frequently examined by a well known connoisseur in Piacenza that Castagna was induced to think that the instrument was a genuine Strad; and, when he was dying, he advised his wife to consult Piatti about the instrument before parting with it. After his death his widow wrote to Piatti that she had received an offer of 3,000 francs for the violoncello and asking him to come and see her at Piacenza. This he did, and on opening the case he found inside it a Tourte bow which he had himself by mistake left in the case when he sold the bass to Castagna. This bow he bought back from the widow, who had refused the 3,000 francs. The offer was then increased to 5,000 francs which was accepted. The dealer who thus acquired the instrument sold it making doubtless a very handsome profit. Some years later Piatti received a letter from a lady informing him that her husband had died and that, among his effects was a violoncello bought at Piacenza on which she wished to have his opinion, and enclosing a photograph of the violoncello, from which Piatti recognized that it was the instrument which M. Despine had stated that he had made. The lady asked Piatti to sign a declaration that the violoncello was not made by Stradivarius, but this he was not prepared to do. Subsequently Piatti received a letter from a gentleman in Milan stating that he had bought a Stradivarius violoncello which had come from Piacenza and on which he would like to have Piatti's opinion. Piatti went with Signor Bisiach, an instrument maker of Milan, to see the violoncello and found that it was the instrument which he had sold for 300 francs. Later Signor Bisiach heard that there was a Stradivarius violoncello in Tyrol. He went to see it and found it to be the same instrument. Still later Piatti got a letter informing him that there was at Trieste a Stradivarius violoncello which had once been in his possession. He was unable to go and see it himself, but Mr. Alfred Hill saw the instrument and was able to satisfy Piatti of its identity with the instrument which he had sold in Piacenza.
Piatti's engagement at Bergamo came to an end under the following circumstances. He unexpectedly received an offer of an engagement at Milan with an intimation that he must come at once if he accepted it. There was not time for him to comply with the usual formality of obtaining regular leave of absence on a form which had to be countersigned by the authorities of the Chapel for which he was engaged. He therefore sent in his application and left for Milan feeling sure that the leave would be granted. He was not a little mortified when he received, in lieu of the expected permission, notice of dismissal signed not only by the authorities, but also by his friend Mayr the Maestro di Capella. Mayr however afterwards explained that his dismissal was the best thing that could have happened to him as otherwise he would have stuck in Bergamo for ever and would never have done anything in the world.
After the conclusion of his engagement at Milan, Piatti went to give concerts in various towns in and out of Italy. One of the most distant spots visited in this way was Pesth, and there he fell ill. He had no reserve of funds to help him in such an emergency and he was at last obliged to sell his violoncello. Finally a friend from Bergamo, knowing that he was without means, came to bring him home. On their way, they passed through Munich where, going up the stairs of an hotel, Piatti, hearing a pianoforte being played, said, "If that is not Liszt I do not know who it is." Standing at the door of the room was an Italian gentleman who seemed surprised at Piatti's remark, as well as pleased. This gentleman was Liszt's secretary, Belloni. He took Piatti into the room and told the great pianist how his touch had been recognised. Piatti explained his circumstances to Liszt who said "I am going to give a concert at the theatre for the poor of the town, it would be a good opportunity for you to play." Piatti said, "I should be delighted but I have no 'cello; however I know Menter, and will ask him to lend me one." The Menter referred to was the principal violoncellist in Munich and the father of the well-known pianist, Fraulein Sophie Menter. Piatti played with great success, he was re-called three times and finally Liszt came on to the stage and embraced him. Afterwards Liszt said "You must come to Paris, I am going there; you must give a concert and I will play for you." Thus encouraged, Piatti went to Paris in 1844 and it was there that he composed his "Chant Religieux" being at the time without an instrument, practically without funds, for he arrived in Paris with only £5 in his pocket, and, as he felt, almost without friends.
He gave his concert at Paris and borrowed an instrument from an amateur for the occasion. Liszt excused himself from playing saying "I cannot play for you as there are so many artists for whom I should have to do the same thing." Liszt however, who was always kind to young artists, instead of playing gave Piatti a violoncello by Amati. This violoncello had some strange adventures afterwards. On one occasion Piatti was travelling by sleigh in Russia. It appears that the sleigh was badly constructed, the runners being too near together, and the result was that both the violoncello and its owner were upset several times. By good fortune neither of them sustained any serious injury. The violoncello was a large one, so Piatti afterwards sold it, and it is now in the possession of Canon Pemberton.
Piatti told a characteristic story of Liszt when he played with Ole Bull at the old Hanover Square Rooms, which, after having been converted into a club, were pulled down in 1901. They played the Kreutzer Sonata, and Liszt was rather jealous of the amount of applause bestowed upon the violinist. After one of the variations, the applause was so great that the variation was repeated. Ole Bull played it the second time in octaves and the applause was redoubled; so Liszt, very vexed, turned to him and said, "now play it in thirds" which it is hardly necessary to explain would have been impossible on the violin, though easy on the piano.
Ole Bull used a bow of unusual length. He once recommended Wieniawski to adopt a similar model. Wieniawski answered "What's the good of it? you never use more than half."
While in Paris, Piatti played at a party given by an English lady, Miss Stuard, who was one of the contributors to the "Revue des Deux Mondes," and his "Sonnambula" was written for the occasion.
In Paris Piatti came in contact with Habeneck, the conductor at the Opera, and heard from him the following account of Paganini's first appearance in public in Paris. Paganini was not in the habit of taking any pains at rehearsal. The result was that the orchestra pooh-poohed his playing as that of a charlatan. The work was his own concerto called "La clochette." The introduction was played by the orchestra and Paganini only came on to the stage just before the entry of the solo instrument. The performance however was so remarkable that, said Habeneck “I jumped on to the stage and embraced him and cried like a child."
It was also in Paris, though on a subsequent visit, that Piatti played at a concert which was given by Wieniawski the pianist, a brother of the violinist. Sivori played at the same Concert, and Wieniawski had provided a splendid bouquet for Madame Miolan Carvalho who had promised to sing. At the last moment she wrote that she was prevented by illness from singing. After the concert Sivori's secretary got hold of the bouquet and handed it to Sivori with the words "De la part de la plus jolie femme dans la calle." At this moment Wieniawski appeared and claimed his bouquet.
During the year 1844 Piatti also went to Germany taking with him the Amati violoncello for which he was indebted to the generosity of Liszt. Among other places he visited Ems, and there wrote his "Souvenir d'Ems." Piatti thought himself in love with a young lady, and they both on one occasion took part in an excursion on the river. At one spot where there were some rapids, through an error of the steersman, the boat was for a short time in some danger. When the anxiety was over the company asked each other what had been uppermost in their thoughts in the moment of peril. When Piatti's turn to answer came he said, "I thought of my bass". Whether it was the effect of this somewhat ungallant answer or not cannot be said, but Piatti did not become engaged to the object of his affections. Perhaps it was as well, for his position at that time would not have justified him in marrying.
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