THE year 1844 was also eventful as the year in which Piatti paid his first visit to London. On his arrival he was met by an Italian violinist who said "I have got some lessons for you." Piatti was most grateful as he had no income; and the next day he was taken to a private house. In the drawing room he found an old gentleman seated, and a violoncello case stood in the room. Piatti was asked to try the instrument, and while he was playing the old gentleman went to a corner of the room and listened attentively, then to another corner, and then to a third. Piatti's conductor then said, "that will do, put away the 'cello and let us go." It turned out afterwards that the old gentleman was a prospective purchaser of the instrument and that Piatti had been taken to the house to play because the violinist knew that he would bring out the tone of the instrument better than himself.
Piatti at once obtained an engagement to play in the orchestra at the Opera; and the first private house in London at which he played was that of Dr. Billing, the medical adviser at the Opera. At this private party Grisi and Rubini sang a duet; the company talked the whole time but the singers went on. Piatti thought "If they will do that to them what will they do to me?" When his turn to perform came he began to play a sonata by Mendelssohn. The audience talked, but Piatti felt that, as Grisi and Rubini had gone on singing, he could not stop playing. Presently servants came in with ices and refreshments and there was a general jingling of glasses added to the hubbub of tongues. This was too much, so in the middle of the first movement Piatti got up and put his instrument away. Dr. Billing afterwards thanked him for playing, adding "But what a pity that that piece was so short!"
Piatti's first appearance as a soloist before an English public was at the Annual Grand Morning Concert given by Mrs. Anderson at Her Majesty's Theatre on May 31st 1844.
Mrs. Anderson was pianist to Queen Victoria and to the Queen Dowager, she was the wife of Her Majesty's Master of Music, and she was also notable as the first lady pianist who played at a Philharmonic Concert, having performed Beethoven's Emperor Concerto at a concert of the Society in 1835. In the advertisements of her Annual Concert which were published for eight days in the "Morning Post," the name of Piatti appears only once and that on the day of the concert. The inference is that it was only at the last moment that he was engaged to play.
In the review of the concert in the "Morning Post," which commences with a reference to the fashionable assemblage and to the gay toilettes of the ladies, there is the following criticism of Piatti's performance of a Fantasia.
"Signor Piatti, a violoncello performer from Milan, made a most successful debut. He played a fantasia on themes from Lucia, in construction like most works of this nature. His style resembles that of Servais; and a clear and liquid tone, with great equality all over the board, struck amateurs as being particularly fine. In point of inventiveness, there is nothing to record. He did what has been done before. But his certainty and precision were unerring."
It was at this Concert that Piatti first met Joachim then a boy of thirteen who is described by the critic as "last and least in size of solo performers, although certainly not least in merit."
Piatti's next appearance as a soloist was at the first of three Matinees given at the Hanover Square Rooms by Herr Döhler, the pianist, who had been absent from England for four years. Piatti was afterwards much associated with Herr Döhler both in this country and on the continent. In reviewing this concert, the critic of the "Musical World" said:— "M. Piatti performed a violoncello fantasia in which he displayed as great a command of this instrument as we ever recollect to have heard."
It is also interesting that after this matinee a critic in the "Athenaeum" wrote that Signor Piatti had "obviously formed his cantabile playing on that of the singers of his own country," while in criticisms, written half a century later, attention has more than once been drawn to the lesson which his cantabile playing was to vocalists.
Piatti's third appearance in public was at a Concert given by Signor Brizzi, a singer, on June 21st. It is well to mention these concerts because it has been frequently thought that Piatti's first appearance as a soloist was at a Philharmonic Concert.
A Philharmonic Concert was a more important event then than now, and Piatti's first appearance at a concert of the Philharmonic Society took place on June 24th, 1844. At this concert Mendelssohn played Beethoven's Concerto in G almost immediately before Piatti made his appearance. This Concerto was always a favourite with Mendelssohn, and the performance on this occasion was particularly brilliant. It was a severe ordeal for a young man of twenty-two to have to step upon the platform, in the presence of such an audience as would be assembled at a Philharmonic Concert, and just after the greatest and most popular musician of the day, had achieved a brilliant success. When he accepted the engagement Piatti did not know that Mendelssohn would be present; had he known it, it is not improbable that he would not have dared to accept it. The work which was selected by Piatti for the occasion was a Fantasia by Kummer and, according to the "Musical World," he made a most brilliant "debut" and was encored in the last part of his Fantasia. To Piatti, as to most foreigners, English audiences seemed cold at first, until he learned that it was the habit of the nation. They do not seem to have been cold however on this evening for Piatti late in life said that it was the only time that he heard an English audience call out "Bravo" in the middle of a phrase that he was playing. The critic of the "Morning Post" wrote:—"Piatti's magnificent violoncello playing won universal admiration, by the perfection of his tone and his evident command over all the intricacies of the instrument."
The following criticism may be quoted from the report in the "Times" of the Philharmonic Concert:—"Piatti is a masterly player on the violoncello. In tone, which foreign artists generally want, he is equal to Lindley in his best days; his execution is rapid, diversified and certain, and a false note never by any chance is to be heard.” Younger readers may be reminded that it was Lindley who charmed a past generation by his musicianly accompaniments from figured bass to the recitatives in Handel's oratorios, which are now generally accompanied on a pianoforte, though it must be admitted that the tone of a violoncello and double bass are more in harmony with an eighteenth century composition than is that of a modern pianoforte.
After this concert Moscheles told Piatti that Mendelssohn wanted to play a violoncello Sonata with him. Piatti went to Moscheles' house, where Mendelssohn was staying, prepared to play his Sonata in B flat, but Mendelssohn said "Oh no," and produced a new Sonata in D in manuscript. Piatti had in his possession a letter from Mendelssohn expressing his pleasure at and appreciation of Piatti's performance. Later Mendelssohn commenced the composition of a concerto for violoncello and orchestra expressly for Piatti and completed the first movement. The manuscript of this work was however never found.
This season of the Philharmonic Society was a memorable one, for the first appearance at concerts of the Society of Ernst,*[In Ernst's honour let it be recorded that on June lst, 1844 he gave a Concert in London with Moscheles; but he was unable through sudden indisposition to appear. His moiety of the profits of the Concert amounted to £74 but, having failed to keep his engagement with the public, instead of retaining this sum he presented it to the Royal Society of Musicians.] Sainton and, on May 27th, Joseph Joachim.
Fifty years later at the Grafton Galleries the friends of the two artists, Joachim and Piatti, presented to them an address of congratulation on their English Jubilee. In his reply Piatti said that "in his youth he had heard so much of English hospitality that he had formed a strong desire to make England his home; but before he could do so he had many ups and downs, especially downs." He then gave an amusing account of the concert at which he made his first appearance in London, saying of his own performance that "he thought he had played rather well, and was pleased with the impression which he had made, when a little fat boy with ruddy cheeks and a short jacket stepped on to the platform and played the violin in a way which completely cast his own performance into the shade. "It was" he said "his good fortune to be much associated with the little boy in after years; his name was that of his dear friend, the great artist, Joachim."
After playing at the Philharmonic Concert, Piatti played the same year at the second and third Matinees given by Herr Döhler on July 1st, and July 12th. On July 1st he took part with Sivori and Döhler in the performance of Beethoven's Trio in C Minor. This was his first public performance of concerted chamber music. He also played his "Chant Religieux," which, as has been mentioned, was composed at Paris in a moment of despondency. On July 12th, he played his own fantasia on airs from Bellini's "Beatrice di Tenda." Although his performance on July 12th was dismissed by the critic of the "Times" in the words "M. Piatti, a violoncellist, new to the English public, played a fantasia very ably," the managers of the concert evidently felt that his name was now an attraction, as, though printed in small type in the advertisement of the first two matinees, it appears in large type in advertisements of the third matinee.
The critic of the "Morning Post" on the other hand wrote enthusiastically of the performance on July 12th:—"Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from “Beatrice di Tenda” had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country."
Piatti had thus not done badly for a first season. He had played at eight concerts in six weeks during the London season, and it must be remembered that concerts were not so numerous in 1844 as they are now. Moreover he had to compete with other performers on the same instrument who were playing in London at the same time; Lindley, the universal favourite; Haussmann a relative of the Haussmann of to-day; and Offenbach, who is better known now in another capacity, but who was described in the "Times" in 1844 as "a violoncello player of distinguished merit."
Piatti always spoke with delight of his first provincial tour in England, which took place in the autumn of 1844. He had pleasant companions, and he was much taken by the clean appearance of the English sea-side places which he now visited for the first time. Sivori, Döhler, Lablache and his son were of the party, and during part of the tour, a well known baritone, Belletti. Belletti was an excellent vocalist; his first great success was in "Ernani": he also played Figaro well; but he was not of a literary turn of mind. At Stratford-on-Avon the party went to see Shakespeare's house. A woman opened the door and Belletti asked who she was. Frederick Lablache, the son, who was full of fun, said, "Oh, don't you know? that's Shakespeare's nurse." Belletti's admiration for the old woman was immense. So said Piatti.
Belletti had been told that there was danger of arsenic in the colour green. Piatti went to see him once at his rooms in London, and happened to say "What nice rooms you have." Belletti answered, "I am leaving them, the chairs are green."
A different story connected with the same caretaker at Shakespeare's house may be given here. Piatti at a railway station in Paris saw the tragedian Salvini, whom he did not know personally, in front of him, and involuntarily called out his name. Salvini turned, and Piatti apologized with the result that they travelled together to Italy; and Piatti found the celebrated actor a most agreeable companion. In the course of the journey he told Piatti that the greatest compliment which he had ever received had been from the old woman who acted as custodian of Shakespeare's house. Salvini visited the house with a friend who said to her, "I have brought the greatest living interpreter of Shakespeare to see you." The woman promptly answered "You don't mean Signor Salvini?"
Piatti's acquaintance with Lablache led to his hearing many amusing stories. Perhaps younger readers should be reminded that Lablache was a man of immense size. It is said that an Englishman visiting Paris and being desirous to see Tom Thumb in private life, was directed by some practical joker to the house where Lablache lived. He sent in his card and was ushered into the presence of the great man who was sitting with his waistcoat unbuttoned. The Englishman began to apologize, but Lablache entering into the joke said "Yes, yes! I am Tom Pouce in public. "Mais chez moi je me mets à mon aise."
The gentleman who held the post of prompter at Covent Garden was Signor Monterasi, a native of Bergamo, and as big a man as Lablache. In the supper scene of "Don Giovanni," Lablache, in the part of Leporello, moved about the stage trembling and carrying a lighted tallow candle. He always contrived to pour plenty of tallow over Signor Monterasi who in the narrow limits of the promptor's box was unable to escape it.
From England the touring party went to Ireland. At Queenstown it was so rough that, after a voyage from Liverpool which had lasted 24 hours instead of 12, they could not get alongside the quay, so a little boat was sent out to take them ashore. Sivori would not part with his violin, and finally, being a little man, he was taken up bodily, violin and all, and let down kicking into the boat.
In Dublin they found that the programme had been made up without consulting the artists, and among other numbers was a duet by Corelli, to be played by Sivori and Piatti; they had no such duet; however Sivori said, "I have an arrangement of Rossini's duet, "Mira la bianca luna." They played it; the subject was a very well known air, but one reviewer mentioned how very fine "that old Corelli was."
Piatti used to tell a story of Vivier, a celebrated horn player who was able to produce on his instrument a chord of four notes at once. He had to leave a Dublin hotel at an unusually early hour one morning. Before leaving he knocked at the door of a room. The occupant of the room called out "Who are you?" "The barber, sir." "I don't want the barber." Later he knocked again. "Who are you?" "The barber, sir." The occupant replied with an oath "I tell you, I don't want a barber. Go away." Vivier then left the hotel, but before doing so, he told the real barber that he was wanted in number 4. The barber was admitted and got an unexpected thrashing.
A performance of Rossini's "Barbiere" was given in Dublin under the direction of Balfe. The trio "Zitti, zitti, piano, piano" is preceded by a storm which is indicated by the drum alone, the other instruments suggesting the stealthy movements of the actors on the stage. Balfe looked to the drummer for his first entry, but the drum was silent. For the next entry of the drum he looked again, but the drummer was fast asleep. His neighbours woke him up, he rubbed his eyes and came in vigourously with the drum in "Zitti, zitti." The experiences of his boyhood would have made Piatti sympathise with an artist who fell asleep in the orchestra.
Dublin was the scene of another violoncello adventure. Having to start from the hotel to leave Dublin, and there being a party of four inside the carriage, the case containing Piatti's violoncello, which was a Ruggieri, was put on the top of the conveyance. When they arrived at the station the case was gone, having fallen off on the way. The party went back and found some boys lugging the case along and kicking it. When Piatti opened the case he found that the instrument had suffered no injury. It is wonderful what a violoncello will go through without being hurt, while on the other hand it is sometimes put out of order by a very slight jar.
It was during this visit to Dublin in 1844 that Piatti first saw the violoncello by Stradivarius which afterwards became his favourite instrument and which was in his possession at the time of his death, and which is now the property of Herr von Mendelssohn. This violoncello was at that time in the possession of Pigott, an Irish violoncellist resident in Dublin. The instrument had been brought from Spain by a wine merchant, who sold it for a very low price. Piatti fell in love with it directly he saw it, but the possessor did not think of selling it, nor could Piatti have bought it, as he had no money wherewith to do so, but the thought of that violoncello always hovered in his mind. A few years later Pigott died and the instrument was sent to London to a gentleman who wrote to Piatti asking him to go and see it, and to give his opinion on it. When he saw it he was again in despair at not having the means to buy it himself. He went to Maucotel an instrument maker and advised him to buy it, which he did for £300. Later on, General Oliver, one of Piatti's best friends, wanted his opinion about a violoncello which had been sent to him with a view to his buying it; and Piatti saw his beloved Stradivarius again. Of course he advised the General strongly to buy it, and he did so for £350. Vuillaume of Paris went to see it, and offered at once £1,000, but General Oliver would not sell it. Piatti had the satisfaction of keeping it in order, and of playing it occasionally to the owner. One day he was thus playing and comparing it with other instruments in the possession of the General when he was asked which he thought the best of them: "Of course the Strad"; he said. Springing up from a chair, the General said: "Well, take it home, keep it, and enjoy playing on it." Piatti was quite paralyzed; but he felt that he could not take it away from the old General, so after expressing his gratitude he said he would not take it away at once, but would go there to play it to him as much as he could. The General would not have it so, and the next day sent the instrument to Piatti with a most kind note.
Holl, the artist, hardly ever produced a finer portrait than that of Piatti with this violoncello which forms the frontispiece of this volume; but Piatti was wont to say of it "He did not do justice to the bass."
After playing in Dublin the party had a concert at Belfast and then had to fulfill an engagement to play at Glasgow on the following night. The departure from Belfast was made by steamer to Greenock. They had a very bad voyage with the result that they only reached Glasgow an hour after the time fixed for the commencement of the concert. It was not pleasant to have to play under such circumstances, and after a bad voyage, a possible contretemps for which the manager of the tour apparently never made allowance. The party hurried off to the concert hall and found that the doors had been locked to prevent the people asking for the return of their money, and that the benches were being broken up and a general disturbance was going on. The manager tried to explain matters, but could not get a hearing, and it was at last decided to try the effect of a trio. The public hissed all the time until at last a cantabile passage for the violoncello seemed, as Piatti afterwards said, to soothe them and changed the hisses into applause. In contrast with this a story may be told, of a trio performed on another tour by Pauer, Sainton and Piatti at St. Andrews. At the end of the first movement there was a little applause; at the end of the second movement less; and at the end of the third none; and when the audience saw the performers about to begin a fourth movement, they called out, "Oh, give us a tune." Joachim, when playing at Cambridge on the occasion of a degree being conferred on the late Prince Consort, was interrupted in the middle of Mendelssohn's concerto by a cry of "Oh, pray no more."
The financial result of the first visit to England however left Piatti without a penny and Madame Castellan, who had been singing at Herr Döhler's matinees at which Piatti had been playing, gave him £10 which was just enough to enable him to get to Milan.
After crossing the Channel he landed at Boulogne and there his passport was taken from him, and he was told that he would get it again at Paris. Wishing not to spend his money in Paris, his first act on reaching the capital was to book a place in the diligence which was to start for Turin on the night of his arrival. This done he applied for his passport, but his surprise may be imagined when he was told that it could not be issued until the following day, with the result that he had to submit to an unnecessary detention of twenty-four hours in Paris.
The long diligence journey southward passed without incident until they were approaching Chambéry when Piatti, thinking to take a short cut and to stretch his legs, lost his way and missed the diligence. Presently he heard the sound of a conveyance on the road and when he was overtaken by it he asked the occupants for a lift. He was told by them that they had no room in the carriage but that he might get up on the shaft. As they went along Piatti recognized by his accent that a gentleman in the carriage was a Milanese. When they got to Chambéry the diligence had already started and there was nothing to be done but to remain there until the diligence of the following day arrived. The Milanese gentleman asked Piatti if he was not going to dine at the table d'hôte. Piatti said "No, I shall walk into the country and get some milk and cheese.” The gentleman offered to accompany him. They reached a cottage where they had some food together, and Piatti was about to confide to his companion his money difficulties when that gentleman said "I have run short of money, will you lend me some?" Piatti explained that he was in the same plight. They then found that, by combining their respective funds, there was just enough to enable one to reach Milan; so it was arranged that they should draw lots which should go on, on the understanding that the fortunate winner should, on arriving at Milan, send to the other the means to enable him also to proceed with his journey. The fortunate lot fell to the Milanese, and Piatti was left alone at Chambéry. Happily in due time the funds arrived and he got to his destination.
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