EVERY visitor to Italy is familiar with the beauty of Lake Como, the shores of which have been called the garden of Italy, and particularly with the collection of villas, chiefly built for the English, in the neighbourhood of Tremezzo, which is known as Cadenabbia from the Italian village on the hills above the lake.
Here in 1868 Piatti purchased a small villa by the side of the lake which has been since known as the Villa Piatti and to this pleasant spot he would retire alter the steady work of the musical season in London. There he was sure, especially among the English visitors, to meet with many friends, and there was no more genial companion or better gnide along the paths, which stretch up the hills on both sides of the lake, than the simple, liberal-minded artist, with his large fund of general information derived from extensive travel with a power of close observation, and from wide reading with the gift of an excellent memory.
It is said that during the Napoleonic wars a party of cavalry once endeavoured to effect a retreat along one of the steep paths on the northem side of the Colico arm of the lake, but the story has been doubted on the ground that no cavalry could attempt such a route. Piatti was once walking on this path when he saw a plant, the flower of which interested him and he proceeded to dig it up with his umbrella. The point of the umbrella struck something hard. Piatti dug on and up came the eagle of a cavalry helmet.
The interior of the Villa Piatti is an ideal residence for an artist. The principal living rooms are on the ground floor looking on to the lake, but the owner's private library was at the back of the house on the upper floor; the steep ascent of the ground, however, enabled him to have direct access on the level to his garden.
Piatti had always been a keen collector of rare books, especially in England, and any one entering his library would have thought that the collection was that of a man of leisure who had reaped the full benefit of an early literary education, rather than that of a poor artist who had commenced the struggle of life as a mere child.
In the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony there is an episode distinctly suggestive of military music, with a part for an instrument called in the score "Cinelli," which is always played on cymbals. One day Piatti took down the score of this symphony in his library, saying, "I wonder what instrument Beethoven meant by the word Cinelli.' There is no such word in the Italian language, and I think that he meant the bells which were carried in military bands and which were called 'Chinese bells.'" The usual word in German for cymbals at the present day is "Becken," but that name did not come into use until long after Beethoven's death. In Vienna there was and still is a local name, "Cinellen," which is not to be found in ordinary dictionaries. "Cinelli" may be an Italianized form of the popular Viennese word, but, as Chinese bells were not discarded from military bands until twenty years after Beethoven's death, Piatti's suggestion was so far interesting that he was asked to put it in writing. He wrote the following particulars;—"Signor Gemalli, a traveller of the sixteenth century, speaks of a Chinese instrument with bells in a festive entrance of the King. Might the name have been corrupted in 'Cinelli'? When a boy I remember in the orchestra something called "Campanelli Cinesi," a long stick with bells, played by shaking it, which I think is what Beethoven means in the Ninth Symphony, and very appropriate. 'Cinelli' is not in any dictionary, cymbals being called 'Piatti.'"
The villa was also adorned with a small but choice collection of paintings including an interesting picture of the piazza which forms the centre of the city of Bergamo, and a portrait of Charles I. attributed to Vandyke, which Piatti's keen eye discovered in a dealer's shop at Como.
After Piatti had been settled for some years on the shore of the lake, a concert was given in the town of Como in support of an important charity, at which he played. Just before he went on to the platform a telegram was put into his hand. He said, "I cannot open it now," and went up the steps and played. Then he opened his telegram. It was to announce that he had been made a Cavaliere of the order of the Crown of Italy.
Piatti's daughter, Rosa, who was his life long companion, was married in 1875 to Count Carlo Lochis, a member of an old Bergamo family, who for many years represented the district in the Italian Parliament. The family estate of the Count is at Crocetta di Mozzo, about four miles from Bergamo, and there was no more welcome guest in the house than his father-in-law, for whom he had great affection. Piatti's skill in collecting had such an inspiring effect on the Count, that after his marriage he became himself a keen bibliophil.
In 1885 Piatti with his daughter were travelling from Cadenabbia to Crocetta. They were met after dark at the railway station at Ponte San Pietro by the Count in his carriage. A new road has since been made from the station, but at that time there was a very sharp turn in the road at the foot of a hill between the station and the town. Unfortunately the horse was frightened and, the coachman losing control, the carriage was overturned at this corner. The Count had concussion of the brain and lay for many days between life and death; Piatti's bow arm was broken below the shoulder and his head was severely cut; and the Contessa, who fortunately escaped without serious injury, had for weeks to move between the sick rooms of her husband and her father concealing from each the condition of the other.
When Piatti was able to rise from his bed he attempted to play the violoncello and, finding his right arm powerless, burst into tears. In time however, the strength returned, and many will remember the applause which greeted him in St. James Hall, when after nearly a year's absence he was able to resume his accustomed seat at the Popular Concerts on Monday, March 8th, 1886. The following account of his return is taken from the Musical Times under the heading of "Monday and Saturday Popular Concerts."
"Monday was a red letter day in the calendar of the undertaking. The public had almost ceased to hope for the return of Signor Piatti this season, and the announcement of his reappearance was therefore doubly welcome. Need it be said that he was greeted with vociferous cheering and applause again and again renewed. The demonstration was at once a testimony to his artistic worth and a tribute of sympathy and congratulation. It would have been painful had Signor Piatti's career been cut short by his unfortunate accident, and his complete restoration to health and resumption of his old position remove all cause for anxiety on that score, more especially as no trace of ill effects was observable in his playing either in Mozart's Quintett in G Minor or Veracini's Largo and Allegro in F for violoncello. In execution, phrasing and expression, Signor "Piatti is still without a rival on his instrument."
In the summer of 1892 a visit was paid to Mlilan by Piatti and his daughter, and the following account of an evening with Verdi is taken from a letter written by the latter.
"While dining at our hotel we heard that Rubinstein was in Milan, at the Hotel de la Ville, so directly after dinner my father proposed that we should go to see him and we did so. Rubinstein was delighted to see my father again, and asked us to dine with him the next day. While talking and drinking a cup of coffee, Rubinstein said he heard that Verdi was in Milan and that he would like to go and see him, so my father, who knew Verdi, asked if he should go with him. Of course Rubinstein accepted the offer, and the next day we all went together to call on Verdi. During our visit I saw Verdi take my father by the shoulder and go out on to the balcony and speak to him. When they returned into the room my father asked Rubinstein if he would play something for Verdi. Rubinstein said, certainly, but I think we ought to play something for the 'cello, and I should like to play one of my sonatas with you, to Verdi.' My father had no 'cello in Milan, but Count Melzi, who has an instrument, was asked to lend it to my father and he did so, and, a 'cello having been found, Verdi and his wife invited us all for the next evening. It was a most delightful evening and one never to be forgotten. Verdi was charming. Stolz was there and also Boito. I was sitting opposite Verdi while Rubinstein and my father were playing, and it was a picture to see the changes in Verdi's face, and during the last movement unconsciously he got up from his chair and tears were running down his face; but, as they played the last chord, he again sat down in the same position as before and no one who had not watched him would have thought that he had moved from his place or displayed any sign of feeling such as to cause tears. When we were about to leave, as I went to shake hands with Verdi, I thanked him for having invited me also, to spend such a delightful evening. He stopped me short putting his hand before my mouth, and said, 'You thank me? It is I who have to thank you for bringing your father, Alfredo Piatti, to play to me.' And thus ended a delightful evening."
Piatti's final retirement from active professional life practically took place at the end of the season of Popular Concerts in 1898. He was seriously ill before he left England and his parting with many friends was a great trial to him. Among those to whom he had to say farewell was his favourite collie dog "Pop," who died a few months later. His daughter accompanied him back to Italy and there his remaining years were spent, partly at Cadenabbia and partly at his daughter's residence near Bergamo, his health not allowing him to revisit England.
In the autumn of 1898, under the auspices of Piatti, who had happily recovered his health, a Musical Festival, at which Joachim and other great artists assisted, was organised at Bergamo to commemorate the centenary of the birth there of Donizetti. A statue of the composer was unveiled on the occasion. The late King of Italy took the opportunity to confer on Piatti, who was, as has been said, already a Cavaliere of the Italian order of the Crown of Italy, the rank of Commendatore della Corona d'Italia with the medal, one of the highest honours that he could receive.
In March 1899, Piatti's son-in-law, Count Lochis died, alter only a few days illness, leaving two children, Margherita and Albedo, named alter his grandfather.
Adjoining the Casa Lochis at Crocetta is a glazed verandah, where the family commonly breakfast and which was Piatti's favourite resort in cold weather. The high road from Bergamo to the west is visible from this verandah. One day, in February 1901, Piatti saw a body of Italian troops marching along this road. "That sight," he exclaimed, "sends a thrill through my heart. How often have I seen Austrian troops on that road."
Up to within a few weeks of his death Piatti would now and again take his violoncello, not the Strad' which had been left at Cadenabbia, out of its cane and play to his own satisfaction and to the unbounded pleasure of his friends; but from the summer of 1900, it was clear that age was rapidly telling upon him; and his small form seemed to be gradually fading away. He suffered from failure of heart action and each attack left him a step lower. He still delighted in the society of his friends, and not long before his death enjoyed a visit from Boito, who carne to see him at his daughter's house where he had been since the previous autumn. At the beginning of July he could no longer go out into the garden, but dressing with his daughter's aid would get to a sofa downstairs. Finally this exertion was too much for the body though his mental power never left him. His last words were an affectionate blessing to his daughter, and he passed quietly away, holding her haud, shortly before midnight on Thursday the 18th July 1901.
Though the last months of the simple minded artist had been passed in the peaceful surroundings of his immediate family, after death, art claimed the right to honour her son. The professors and students of the school of music at Bergamo kept solemn watch by the body till it was finally borne from the house covered with wreaths to its last resting place in the private chapel of the Lochis family; and at the funeral four of the professors played the Andante from Schubert's Quartet in D minor, which is based on the air "Der Tod und das Mädchen"; Piatti having once expressed a wish that if any music were played at his funeral it should be that.
The funeral, on Monday, July 22nd, was a public one and was attended by the Prefect; by members of parliament, and a deputation from the province; by the Mayor and municipality of the city of Bergamo; by representatives of the leading Musical Societies; and, touching tribute, by four of the boatmen of Cadenabbia, who insisted on coming on their own account. Hundreds of people from Bergamo and the surrounding district were present notwithstanding the tempestuous weather which prevailed. After the service in the parish church of Mozzo, the interment took place in the private chapel of the Lochis family, in the grounds of the house where the artist's last days had been spent.
A week later the professors of the school again visited the chapel; again they played the Schubert Quartet. Then joining hands they made a compact to play in the chapel in his memory annually on the anniversary of his death.
Piatti's compositions were essentially the works of one who was master of the instrument for which he wrote and who was also endowed with an Italian's fluency of melody. They include, besides some thirty smaller works for Violoncello and Pianoforte and songs with Violoncello obbligato, a Concertino, two Concertos composed for the Crystal Palace, and a Fantasia Romantica, written for the Hallé Concerts at Birmingham, all with orchestral accompaniments. Reference has already been made to his six Sonatas for the Violoncello and Pianoforte; he also wrote a Serenata for two Violoncellos. His last composition, finished on the last day of the year 1900, was a "Danza Moresca" for the Violoncello with accompaniment for the Pianoforte which he played with all his wonted brilliancy to a party of friends at his daughter's house on New Year's Day 1901.
Besides his original works, he has conferred a lasting benefit on all violoncellists by his editions of old music, the natural result of his genius for collecting everything of artistic or literary value, and forming the commencement of a library of high class music for the instrument which has been sadly needed hitherto. Amongst many other works which owe to Piatti a second life after more than two centuries of oblivion are some Variations by Simpson with figured bass, which he found by chance in the house of an English friend with whom he was staying, Sonatas by Locatelli, Veracini and Porpora, and six Lezioni by Attilio Ariosti, written originally for the Viola d'Amore, a work the editing of which for the Violoncello demanded much patience and study.
There probably never lived a better judge not only of violoncellos but also of violins than Piatti; he would spend many hours over an instrument adjusting the sound post, the bridge, the strings, to suit it. His opinion as to the alteration of pitch which has long been a serious question in England is therefore of value. He was not opposed to the lowering of the pitch, but he was strongly opposed to the uncertainty of two pitches.
Both in Italy and in England the violins of the great old masters, though originally made for a lower pitch than that now or recently in use, have been adjusted to the higher pitch by having suitable bars, sound posts, bridges and strings applied to them. "If the pitch is to be lowered," he said, "all these must be altered before you can get the true tone of the instrument."
Finally as a master of his instrument there can be but one opinion, that Piatti was the greatest. All living violoncellists have sat at his feet, Hausmann, Becker, Whitehouse, Ludwig, Stem—all. Just as Joachim has, directly or indirectly, taught every violinist of the present day, so has Piatti, especially in England, taught every violoncellist. As an illustration of his mastery of technique it may be mentioned that after his retirement, he would amuse himself by playing the solo part of Beethoven's violin concerto on the violoncello; but he was so averse to display that only a few had any conception of his astounding power and facility. An English amateur, an oculist by profession and a close observer, said that, knowing where difficult passages occured, it always interested him to observe the indication of the approaching difficulty in the manner of the performer, but that no such sympton could ever be detected in Piatti; on the contrary the more difficult the passage the easier he made it appear. Combined with his wonderful execution Piatti possessed even a greater gift, essential in cantabile playing and yet most difficult of attainment, the power of making the softest note travel.
Probably no feature of Piatti's character was more marked than his indefatigable earnestness, a quality essential to success in any career. Without this he could never have struggled on against all the difficulties and disappointments of his early life. Whatever he undertook he determined to carry through successfully.
He had an Englishman's love of games; and, although lawn tennis only came into fashion at a time when he had lost the vigour of youth, his skill in placing his balls made him no mean adversary. He was very fond of card tricks; and a passable player at whist though he never got so far as bridge. At the same time he had a great dislike of gambling; he said "I see no pleasure in winning my friend's money, or in losing my own."
His lovable disposition has been well described by a fellow artist who wrote after his death "He had the faculty of making real friends for himself. I had an affectionate regard for the man as well as an unbounded admiration for the "artist."
This sketch of one who was honoured, and admired by all, and whom to know intimately was to love, may be fittingly closed with the words of a life long English friend. "There is one feature in Piatti's character to which I can well testify after my long friendship of over half a century. I cannot remember any occasion on which he spoke unkindly of a brother artist. If he did not like them, he said nothing; on the other hand nobody could have been more ready to appreciate their merits. He was most kind to artists in distress and was often fleeced through untrue statements by undeserving persons."
Purchase the LPR recording of Piatti's works for solo cello here.