Close up with the composers

Article by Elio Nissim

My father was a man of great intelligence, wit and imagination.  When I was a little boy he would tell me wonderful stories about Livorno, the town to which the Nissim family had moved from Spain at the time of the Inquisition.  One of the stories which I remember most vividly was about the famous composer, Pietro Mascagni.  My father talked about him with great affection, admiration and familiarity because he said that he had known him as a child when Pietro was the baker’s boy who deliver red the bread every morning to my father’s house in Livorno.  I have to admit the possibility that some of my father’s stories about Mascagni might have been a little embellished by his vivid imagination.

My father, who was six years older than Mascagni, told me about the boy who always liked to sing as he went on his rounds through the streets of Livorno delivering the bread.  One day, a rich man who loved music and was crazy about opera heard him singing and was struck by the boy’s passion for music and his obvious intelligence.  So he went to the boy’s family and offered to pay for his education.  That’s the story as told to me by my father: whether it was all true, I never asked.  The fact is that later Mascagni, a true Livornese, became famous.

When I was a little older, Mascagni came to Florence to be honoured by the city with an official ceremony as a hero of Tuscany.  The popular Il Giornalino della Domenica (the children’s ‘Little Sunday Paper’) had the idea of appointing a child to present him with a large bouquet of flowers and make a little speech on behalf of all the children of Florence.  Unfortunately, I was the very child chosen to welcome Mascagni, and so, having learnt my little speech by heart, accompanied by my father and with a large bouquet of flowers, I went to the Hotel Cavour where the great Maestro was staying.

The hotel was overflowing with people who wanted to see Mascagni, to applaud him and if possible speak to him; the lobby could hardly contain this crowd of enthusiastic admirers.  Pushed forward by my father, I approached the great hero hesitatingly.  I can still see him, tall and stout, with grey hair and a large gold chain across his chest, as was the fashion then.  Having thrust the magnificent bunch of roses and carnations into his hands, I started to splutter a few words of my little speech, and then, overcome by emotion, I stood speechless.  I was spellbound, dazed by that gold chain which was shining before my eyes on the chest of the famous composer.  My father, realising what was happening, rushed forward to rescue me.  Shaking the Maestro’s hand, he may have said a few words to remind him about the time when they were both boys in Livorno.

I continued to feel my humiliation for several days.  But later, as often happens when you talk about things in the past, I forgot about the poor show I had put on, and made myself look good in the eyes of my friends by telling them about the conversation I had had with such a famous man.

Just after the First World War, I was a student at the university in Pisa studying law with a great friend of mine, also from Florence, Arturo Loria.  Unlike me, Arturo didn’t become a lawyer but became one of the most outstanding Italian writers of his generation.

Arturo and I decided to call our girlfriends in Florence and ask them if they would like to spend a couple of weeks with us in Viareggio, a very elegant seaside resort not far from Pisa.  It had become very fashionable because of its marvellous beach, and it was very popular in the summer with the elegant set – and even the not-so-elegant set; so we thought it the perfect place to invite our girlfriends for a little holiday and a little flirting.  Our girlfriends were both English: Arturo’s girlfriend Rita was small and blonde with a sweet face, and she was studying music and singing in Florence.  My girlfriend Helen was the exact opposite; she was a big girl, very nicely constructed, and she wore a monocle which attracted me very much.  So we rang them up and they accepted our invitation with great enthusiasm.  The four of us met in Viareggio and we settled down in the same little pensione.  It was lovely at that time of year because there were very few people there.

One day when it was raining we didn’t know what to do because we usually went into the pine woods walking, kissing and doing little things.  So we thought, “Why don’t we go to the cinema?” There was a little cinema in Viareggio with an elderly woman playing the pianoforte for the films because in those days they were silent.  If I remember rightly, a Lillian Gish film was showing – Intolerance by the great D.W. Griffith.  When we got there we realised that we were the only four people in the cinema, apart from an elderly gentleman sitting in the opposite corner wearing a hat and smoking a cigar with great gusto.  We enjoyed the first part of the film, and then during the interval, the gentleman came over to us, raised his hat, made a little bow to the girls, and with the utmost courtesy introduced himself saying, “I would like to come and sit next to you because, as there are only the five of us here, I think it’s ridiculous for me to sit in a corner on my own over there.  May I introduce myself? – my name is Giacomo Puccini.”  We were absolutely flabbergasted, thinking, “My goodness… this is really Giacomo Puccini, my goodness… my goodness!” The girls were extremely excited!  The film started again and we had to break off our conversation, but we weren’t interested in the film any more – we were interested in Puccini.  We just wanted the film to end as soon as possible because we wanted to talk to him again.

When the film ended Signor Puccini said to us, “Listen, if you’ve nothing else to do, why don’t you come over to my house?” At first we thought he meant his big villa near Viareggio in Torre del Lago, but he explained to us that he meant his little cottage in the pine-woods just five minutes away from the cinema, and of course we agreed to go.  When we got there, he made us feel completely at home, as if we were old friends, and he asked his housekeeper to prepare us something to eat and drink.  Then, he sat down at the piano and said, “What would you like me to play?”, and one of the girls said, “Something from Madama Butterfly”.  He started to play, even singing little bits, and we were all delighted.

After a while he jumped up and said, “But what are we doing here playing the piano? Let’s dance!” We couldn’t believe it.  He was a man of over 60, but he had become like one of us young people.  He said, “Does any of you play the piano?” “Well,” said Arturo, “I’m not very good, but I can play a ‘Valserino’, a little waltz.”

“Yes, yes,” said Puccini “please go ahead!” So Arturo sat at the piano and played, I danced with Helen and Puccini danced with Rita.  Soon he was pirouetting around just like a man of 18; he was really marvellous.  If he wanted to change partners he would tap me on the shoulder, which was the formal way in those days.  We were all like any other students on holiday.  And we soon realised that he was none too abstemious in the way he danced with the girls, embracing his partner with great fervour.

It was an unforgettable evening.  We said goodnight with mutual expressions of great friendship.  Puccini invited us to come again not only to his little villa amongst the pine trees, but also to his big house in Torre del Lago.  But sadly the holidays were over, the girls had to go back to Florence and we to our studies in Pisa and Puccini back to his wife in Torre del Lago.  It was just a few years later that the newspapers announced the death of Giacomo Puccini.

From Il Pappagallo del Nonno (‘My Grandfather’s Parrot’) by Elio Nissim (1899-1996), translated by Danny Nissim