Piatti, paintings and the first woman Tango composer

Eloisa d’Herbil was the first woman composer of Tango. She lived in Cuba for most of her childhood, and moved to Buenos Aires in 1868 (in the company of the American pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who died one year later in Brazil), where she married the Uruguayan director of an auction house. She died in 1943, 101 years old. Details about her life before she went to Argentina are often conflicting. According to the website “todo tango”, her father was a French baron, Joseph D’Herbil, and her mother a Portuguese duchess Raquel Angel de Cadia. She was born in 1852 in Cuba. However, another article on the same website claims she was born in Spain, studied with Liszt, and her father was the owner of large estates in Cuba. According to Wikipedia, she was born in 1842. Many articles mention her aristocratic origin: she is often referred to as “the baroness”.

What does this have to do with the subject of my research, the London-based Italian cellist Alfredo Piatti?

It started with a small article in a newspaper from 1857 that we found during our search in the British Newspaper Archive. An Italian named Giuseppe Angelo Diherbil went bankrupt and was put in prison because he was unable his debt of £150 to another Italian, an artist named Piatti. He had obtained 12 paintings of Piatti and had tried to sell them, but, as he claimed, the paintings were of little value.

This in itself was already a surprise to me. I knew that Piatti, who had a glorious career in England at that time, was sometimes selling musical instruments and also offered his service as an expert in setting up stringed instruments. I didn’t know his extra-musical activities included selling paintings to dubious fellow countrymen… but we can’t blame him for suing Diherbil. £ 150 at that time was half the yearly income of a middle class family.

The story became more and more interesting. I tried to find some information about this Giuseppe Diherbil, but I found no trace of him. Then I tried different spellings, and “d’Herbil” gave me some leads.

First of all, “Perry’s Bankrupt Gazette” (that’s a nice name for a newspaper!) of 7 November 1857 mentions a certain Giuseppe d’Angelo d’Herbil, Berners Street, in no business, who had been in a hearing at the courthouse.

Another article mentions “Guiseppe (sic!) d’Angelo d’Herbil (having adopted the name of Joseph Angelo d’Herbil, sued and detained as Giuseppe d’Angelo d’Herbil), formerly of No. 70, Margaret-street… and late of No. 14, Berners street, …. In no business or profession, but having on one occasion bought and sold pictures, his wife a Musical Artiste.”

It is easy to imagine how Piatti, keen on making some extra money, had come into contact with a fellow musician, and had started doing business with her husband.

At the same time, a child prodigy named Eloise d’Herbil was having some success as a pianist in the salons of London. Her concerts were generally well received in the press. In a review from 1855 it is stated that she was 7 years old at that time; later reviews that mention her age are consistent with that.

herbil

After some years, her career seems to have faded. An announcement in the Musical World, 15 may 1858: “MADLLE. D’HERBIL, the Juvenile Pianiste, begs to announce that she is at liberty to accept engagements for Concerts, Soirees, Address, 14, Berners-street, Oxford-street”

This announcement also seems to imply that she was the daughter of Giuseppe Angelo d’Herbil, who was living at the same address. On the same day, there is an announcement of a concert in which both she and Piatti appeared. That must have been an awkward situation! “How is your dad?”

The last time she appears in a newspaper in England is on the 26th of May 1858. After that date, she seems to have vanished completely.

Still intrigued by the story, I started searching Google for the name “d’Herbil”, and then I found out that she had moved to Argentina and had become a tango composer. At first I found it hard to believe that she was actually the same woman as the Eloise d’Herbil that I had found, but there were just too many similarities. The tanguera apparently started off as a child prodigy, she appeared at concerts in England, and her father was named Joseph. Her date of birth didn’t seem to be right, because if she would have born in 1842 she would have been 13 years old in 1855, not 6. However, in other biographies her date of birth was stated as 1852 or 1846, so there was a lot of confusion about that anyway.

More problematic is the story of her parents. I find it hard to believe that a French Baron (who owned a lot of land in Cuba) and a Portuguese duchess would live in the city centre of London; members the upper class lived in the suburbs. This French Baron was sometimes using an Italian name. The duchess would have been a musician and their daughter Spanish. The Baron then went bankrupt over a debt of £ 150 and a year later the whole family just disappears. Then the young Baroness shows up far from home, in the company of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a notorious womanizer who was on the run because of a scandal involving one of his students. It just doesn’t add up…

My theory for the moment is that Eloise has made up the whole story about her family later in her life. Possibly her father was an imposter, which would explain the changes in his name, but her noble descent is mentioned in none of the newspaper articles I found, so it is probably not a story that he had invented.

Apparently, Eloise and her impoverished family migrated in 1858 or later, maybe directly to Cuba, but possibly to Spain first. I have read that there are some Spanish reviews of her concerts, but I haven’t seen them yet. Also, I found a Spanish composer with the name Angelo d’Herbil, which of course reminded me of Giuseppe d’Angelo d’Herbil. His compositions appeared around 1900, and if extraordinary longevety ran in the family, it could even have been the same man. I would love to find out everything there is about this, but I am afraid I will have to spend all my time on Piatti…

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Mere threads

One of the things I want to learn more about is string tension in the 19th century, in particular in connection to Piatti and the Milanese cello school. A good starting point seems to be the cello method by Guglielmo Guarenghi (1877), a friend of Piatti who studied with the same teacher (Merighi) in Milan. Quarenghi writes that the tension of each cello string must be 13 Kg. At A=440, this would correspond to an A string of 1.18 MM and a D string of 1.76 (uncovered gut). Quarenghi doesn’t specify the pitch, but in another chapter he writes that the lowest note of the cello has a frequency of 130,5 Hz, which corresponds more or less to a 440 tuning.

Piatti was working in England during most of his career. It is said that English cellists of the Lindley-school were using very thick strings. I have yet to find a source on how thick exactly. Also, I intend to find out whether or not Piatti converted to the “English system” at some point in his career. That is, if there still was an English system when he arrived… In a review from 1846 of a concert in London by Piatti, the reviewer complains (about the piece by Romberg that Piatti played, not about his performance, which he loved): “It is the fault, we think, of almost every solo player on the violoncello, to throw almost entirely aside the full, deep tones which belong to its natural scale, and to scramble incessantly towards the bridge in search of tones which belong to the compass of the violin, though inferior in quality; producing an effect like the singing of some Italian tenors, who insist on warbling incessantly in falsetto. To facilitate this, too, these violoncellists string their instruments with mere threads, from which the full tone of the instrument cannot be drawn.”

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A poor and meagre instrument

From a review of a concert that Piatti gave on the 24th of October in York: “Signor Piatti, it is true, has not the powerful tone of Lindley, and the instrument he plays upon is poor and meagre; but he far exceeds him in every other requisite, and he is the most elegant and finished performer on the violoncello we ever heard.”

This is certainly high praise for the young Piatti, who was in the middle of his first concert tour in England at that moment. Foreign cellists visiting England in the first half of the 19th century were always compared with Robert Lindley, the leading figure of the old English cello school, and usually not very favorably. However, I don’t think many cellists would be really happy with such a review. I don’t know if Piatti actually read it, but if he did, he will certainly have thought about it a few days later, on the 5th of November. On that day, during a rehearsal for a concert in Dublin, he met a local cellist called Samuel Pigott, who owned a beautiful Stradivari cello. Piatti tried out the instrument on that day, and “greatly envied it’s owner”. More than twenty years later, Piatti himself became the owner of  the Stradivari cello. It was given to him by a rich admirer, Colonel Oliver. The “poor and meager” cello was probably a Rogeri…

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Collard & Collard

photo(1)

This grand piano from 1870 by Collard & Collard will hopefully be restored in the coming months. I will use it for house concerts with repertoire connected to my research and maybe even for recordings. How it came into my possession is an interesting story. I promise I will post it here one day. For now, let’s just say that it is in remarkably good condition for a piano that has been standing on its side for over 15 years. In a sauna.

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A new start

Here’s a new post, after almost three years of silence! The coming years I will use this blog to share some of the results of my research project. Maybe it will become a kind of irregular research diary. Let’s see how it develops.

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new website

Hi everybody, this is going to be my new website. Blog style. The coming weeks I will work on the design and content. For now, I’m just experimenting!

You can navigate this site with the menus on the picture (colored canyon in Sinai) .

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