Giacomo Puccini (Lucca, December 22, 1858 – Brussels, November 29, 1924) was an Italian composer, considered one of the greatest and most significant opera composers of all time.
His early compositions were rooted in the Italian opera tradition of the late 19th century. However, later, Puccini successfully developed his work in a personal direction, including some of the themes characteristic of musical Verismo, a certain taste for exoticism, and studying the work of Richard Wagner in both harmonic and orchestral aspects and in the use of the leitmotif technique. He received his musical training at the Milan Conservatory under such masters as Antonio Bazzini and Amilcare Ponchielli, where he befriended Pietro Mascagni.
Puccini”s most famous operas, considered repertoire for major theaters around the world, are La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1903) and Turandot (1926). The latter was not completed because the composer died, cut down by throat cancer shortly before finishing the last pages (Puccini was a heavy smoker). The work was later completed with different endings: the one by Franco Alfano (later in the 21st century by Luciano Berio, quite represented. There is no shortage of other proposals and studies of new completions.
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The first formation
He was born in Lucca on December 22, 1858, the sixth of nine children of Michele Puccini (Lucca, November 27, 1813 – ivi, January 23, 1864) and Albina Magi (Lucca, November 2, 1830 – ivi, July 17, 1884). For four generations the Puccinis had been chapel masters at Lucca Cathedral, and until 1799 their ancestors had worked for the prestigious Cappella Palatina of the Republic of Lucca. Giacomo”s father was, from the time of the Duke of Lucca Carlo Lodovico di Borbone, an esteemed professor of composition at the Pacini Music Institute. The death of his father, which occurred when Giacomo was five years old, put the family in dire straits. The young musician was sent to study with his maternal uncle, Fortunato Magi, who regarded him as a pupil who was not particularly gifted and, above all, not very disciplined (a “falento,” as he came to call him, that is, a talentless slacker). In any case, Magi introduced James to the study of the keyboard and to choral singing.
James initially attended St. Michael”s seminary and later the Cathedral seminary where he began the study of the organ. His scholastic achievements were far from excellent, in particular showing a deep impatience with the study of mathematics. Of the student Puccini it was said, “he enters the classroom only to wear out his pants in his chair; he pays not the slightest attention to any subject, and keeps drumming on his desk as if it were a piano; he never reads.” Having finished after five years, one more than he needed, his basic studies, he enrolled in the Lucca Music Institute where his father had been, as mentioned, a teacher. He achieved excellent results with Professor Carlo Angeloni, a former pupil of Michele Puccini, showing a talent destined for few. At the age of fourteen Giacomo could already begin to contribute to the family economy by playing the organ in various churches in Lucca and particularly at the patriarchal church of Mutigliano. He also entertained by playing the piano the patrons of the “Caffè Caselli” located on the city”s main street.
In 1874 he took charge of a pupil, Carlo della Nina, however, he would never prove to be a good teacher. From the same period comes the first known composition attributable to Puccini, a lyric for mezzo-soprano and piano called “A te.” In 1876 he attended the staging of Giuseppe Verdi”s Aida at the Teatro Nuovo in Pisa, an event that proved decisive for his future career by channeling his interests toward opera.
His first known and dated compositions date from this period, including a cantata (I figli d”Italia bella, 1877) and a motet (Mottetto per San Paolino, 1877). In 1879 he wrote a waltz, now lost, for the town band. The following year, upon obtaining his diploma at the Pacini Institute, he composed, as a final essay, the Messa di gloria a quattro voci con orchestra, which, performed at the Teatro Goldoni in Lucca, aroused the enthusiasm of Lucca”s critics.
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The conservatory and operatic beginnings
Milan, at the time, was the favored destination for musicians seeking their fortune, and in those very years it was going through a period of strong growth, having left behind the recession that had hit it so hard. Given her son”s musical aptitude, Albina Puccini tried hard to get Giacomo a scholarship to attend the Milan conservatory. At first she tried repeatedly with the city authorities, however, getting a denial probably because of the meager public coffers, although some claim it was because of his already bad reputation as an irreverent boy. Undefeated, the worried mother turned to Duchess Carafa, who advised her to approach Queen Margaret to obtain the funding that rulers sometimes granted to needy families. Also thanks to the intercession of the queen”s lady-in-waiting, Marchioness Pallavicina, the request was granted, albeit partially. It took, finally, the intervention of Dr. Cerù, a family friend, who supplemented the royal grant so that Giacomo could finally secure musical improvement.
Thus, in 1880, Puccini moved to Milan and began attending the Conservatory. In the first two years the young composer was entrusted with the teachings of Antonio Bazzini. and, despite his application, his musical output was very scarce if one excepts a string quartet in D, the only composition that can be assigned to this period with certainty. In November 1881 Bazzini took over from the late director of the conservatory having, therefore, to leave teaching. Puccini then became a student of Amilcare Ponchielli. whose influence would be found constantly in the composer”s future works. Thanks, albeit indirectly, to the new maestro, Giacomo made the acquaintance of Pietro Mascagni with whom he would carry on a sincere and lasting friendship, despite the two opposing characters (reserved the former, choleric and irrepressible the latter) but united by their musical tastes and in particular by their common appreciation of the works of Richard Wagner.
From this last two-year period spent at the conservatory, the main works that can be mentioned were a Preludio sinfonico, performed on July 15, 1882, at a concert organized by the conservatory to present the students” work, and an Adagetto for orchestra dated June 8 of the following year, which would be the first Puccini work to be published. On July 13, 1883, the premiere of the Symphonic Capriccio took place, conducted by Franco Faccio, composed by Puccini as his final exam paper. And so ended the young musician”s conservatory training, who graduated that same year with a score of 163 out of 200, enough to also receive a bronze medal. Ponchielli would remember his famous student as one of his best, even though he often had to complain about a less than ironclad assiduity to study and composition.
In April 1883 he participated in the competition for one-act operas of the contestant”s choice announced by the music publisher Sonzogno and advertised in the magazine Il Teatro Illustrato. Ponchielli introduced Puccini to the scapigliato poet Ferdinando Fontana, and there was an immediate understanding between the two, so much so that the latter was responsible for writing the libretto for Le Villi. The outcome of the competition was strongly negative, so much so that he was not even mentioned by the commission. In spite of this, Fontana did not give up and managed to organize a private performance in which Puccini was able to play the opera”s music in front of, among others, Arrigo Boito, Alfredo Catalani and Giovannina Lucca, this time gaining lively appreciation. Thus, on May 31, 1884, it was performed at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan under the patronage of publisher Giulio Ricordi, a competitor of Sonzogno, where it received an enthusiastic reception from both audiences and critics.
The success enabled Puccini to enter into a contract with the publisher Casa Ricordi, giving rise to a collaboration that would continue throughout the composer”s life. The happiness at the take-off of his career lasted, however, very little time; in fact, on July 17 of the same year Puccini had to mourn the death of his mother Albina-a severe blow for the artist.
Heartened by the lively success of “Le Villi””, Ricordi commissioned, strongly convinced of the urgency, a new opera from the Puccini-Fontana duo: “if I insist, it is because one must strike while the iron is hot… et frappér l”imagination du public,” the publisher wrote. It took a full four years for l”Edgar, whose libretto is based on Alfred de Musset”s La coupe et les lèvres, to be completed. Finally the work went on stage, under the direction of Franco Faccio, on April 21, 1889 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, garnering, in spite of itself, only an esteemed success while the audience response proved particularly cold. In the following decades the opera underwent radical rehashes but never entered the repertoire.
Meanwhile, in 1884, Puccini had begun a cohabitation (destined to last, amid various vicissitudes, a lifetime) with Elvira Bonturi, wife of Lucca grocer Narciso Gemignani. Elvira brought her daughter Fosca with her, and between 1886 and 1887 the family lived in Monza, Corso Milano 18, where the composer”s only son, Antonio known as Tonio, was born and where Puccini worked on the composition of Edgar. A plaque, placed on the dwelling (still standing today), commemorates the illustrious tenant.
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Chiatri, Torre del Lago and Uzzano
Puccini, however, did not like city life, passionate as he was about hunting and having an essentially solitary nature. When, with Manon Lescaut he had his first great success and saw his financial means increase, he therefore thought of returning toward the land of his birth and, having purchased a property in the hills between the city of Lucca and Versilia, he made an elegant little villa out of it, which he considered for some time an ideal place to live and work. Unfortunately, his companion Elvira resented the fact that one had to go on foot or on the back of a donkey to reach the city, so it was a matter of necessity for Puccini to move from Chiatri to Lake Massaciuccoli below.
In 1891 Puccini therefore moved to Torre del Lago (now Torre del Lago Puccini, a hamlet of Viareggio): he loved its rustic world, its solitude and considered it the ideal place to cultivate his passion for hunting and for meetings, even goliardic ones, among artists. Of Torre del Lago the maestro made his refuge, first in an old rented house, then having the villa built that he went to live in 1900. Puccini describes it thus:
The master loved her so much that he could not detach himself from her for too long, and claimed to be “suffering from acute torrelaghìte.” A love that his family members respected even after his death, burying him in the chapel of the villa. It was here that all his most successful operas, except Turandot, were composed, at least in part.
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Uzzano and Pescia
Uzzano hosted the composer for several months, and it was here that he composed the second and third acts of Bohème. In the spring of 1895 he wrote several times from Milan to his sister Ramelde and brother-in-law Raffaello Franceschini, who were living in Pescia, asking them to help him find a quiet place where he could carry on the drafting of his new opera, based on Henri Murger”s appendix novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème. After several searches, suitable accommodation was found in Villa Orsi Bertolini, in the hills of Uzzano, in Castellaccio. Surrounded by olive trees, cypress trees and a large garden with a pool in the center where Puccini often bathed, the Castellaccio villa proved to be the appropriate setting to inspire him to continue his work, as evidenced by the two autograph inscriptions he would leave on a wall: “Finito il 2° atto Bohème 23-7-1895” “Finito il 3° atto Bohème 18-9-1895.” Before leaving Uzzano, Puccini also began Act 4.
Thereafter, the musician would continue to frequent the Valdinievole. In Pescia, thanks to his sister Ramelde, a frequenter of cultural circles, Puccini got to know prominent local personalities and cultivated a passion for hunting, so much so that in 1900 he became honorary president of the newly founded Venatorial Society of Valdinievole. In Montecatini, where he went regularly to undergo spa treatments, he met musicians, librettists and men of letters from all over Italy and abroad. In Monsummano Terme he made friends with Ferdinando Martini.
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Success: collaborations with Illica and Giacosa
After Edgar”s half-hearted misstep, Puccini risked the interruption of his collaboration with Ricordi had it not been for the strenuous defense of Giulio Ricordi himself. On Fontana”s advice, the composer from Lucca chose the novel Histoire du chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by Antoine François Prévost for his third opera. Presented, after a long and troubled composition, on Feb. 1, 1893, at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Manon Lescaut proved an extraordinary success (the company was called to the stage more than 30 times), perhaps the most authentic of Puccini”s career. The opera also marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, the former taking over from Domenico Oliva in the final stage of genesis, the latter in a more defiladed role.
The collaboration with Illica and Giacosa was certainly the most productive of Puccini”s artistic career. Luigi Illica, a playwright and journalist, was mainly responsible for sketching out a “canvas” (a sort of script) and defining it little by little, discussing it with Puccini, until he arrived at the drafting of a complete text. To Giuseppe Giacosa, author of successful comedies and professor of literature, was reserved the very delicate job of putting the text into verse, safeguarding both literary and musical reasons, a task he performed with great patience and remarkable poetic sensitivity. The last word, however, belonged to Puccini, to whom Giulio Ricordi had given the nickname “Doge,” indicating the dominance he exercised within this working group. The publisher himself personally contributed to the creation of the librettos, suggesting solutions, sometimes even writing verses and, above all, mediating between the literati and the musician during the frequent disputes due to Puccini”s habit of repeatedly revolutionizing the dramaturgical plan during the genesis of the operas.
Illica and Giacosa would go on to write the libretti for the next three operas, the most famous and performed in all of Puccini”s theater. We do not know exactly when the second collaboration of the three began, but certainly by April 1893 the composer was at work. The new libretto was thus born from the subject of Scènes de la vie de Bohème, a serialized novel by Henri Murger. The realization of the opera took longer than Ricordi had budgeted since he had to, Puccini, intersperse the writing with his numerous trips for the various staging of Manon Lescaut, which took him to Trento, Bologna, Naples, Budapest, London… and hunting trips to Torre del Lago, among other places. During this time, the opera underwent substantial reworking, as evidenced by the numerous letters between Ricordi and the authors during these troubled months of writing. The first painting was finished on June 8 while the composer was in Milan, while on the 19th of the following month he completed the orchestration of “Quartiere Latino,” the second painting. He wrote the 2nd and 3rd acts of La Bohème in the summer of 1895 while staying at the Villa del Castellaccio, located in the municipality of Uzzano (PT). The opera was completed in late November while Puccini was staying at the home of Count Grottanelli in Torre del Lago, however, the finishing touches lasted until December 10. Among the masterpieces of the late operatic scene, La bohème is an example of dramaturgical synthesis, structured in 4 pictures (the use of this term in place of the traditional “acts” is indicative) of lightning speed. The premiere, held on February 1, 1896, received the favor of an enthusiastic audience, a judgment that, however, was not fully shared by the critics who, while showing their appreciation for the opera, were never too satisfied.
Now famous and well-to-do, Puccini returned to the idea of setting to music La Tosca a historical drama with strong colors by Victorien Sardou. Such a thought came to the composer even before Manon Lescaut thanks to the suggestion of Fontana, who had had the opportunity to attend performances of La Tosca in Milan and Turin. Puccini was immediately enthusiastic about the idea of setting the drama to music, so much so that he wrote to Ricordi that “in this Tosca I see the opera that is needed for me, neither of excessive proportions nor as a decorative spectacle nor such as to give rise to the usual musical overabundance.” Despite this, then, the French playwright was reluctant to hand over his work to a composer without a solid reputation. But now, after La Bohéme things had definitely changed and work on what was to be Tosca could begin. Giacosa and Illica immediately set to work despite the fact that they accused difficulties in making such a text suitable for an opera. Puccini, on the other hand, did not begin to get to the heart of the work until early 1898. The first act of Tosca was composed, in 1898, in the seventeenth-century Villa Mansi di Monsagrati, where Puccini, a guest of the ancient patrician family, essentially worked during the cool summer nights that characterize that locality in the Freddana Valley located about ten kilometers from Lucca. Shortly thereafter, being in Paris, at the request of Ricordi, he went to Sardou to play him a preview of the hitherto composed music of the opera. Work continued unabated, with the exception of a trip to Rome to attend the premiere of Iris by his friend Mascagni and the writing of Scossa elettrica, a marchetta for piano and the lullaby E l”uccellino vola, on a text by Renato Fucini. The response to the premiere, staged on January 14, 1900, was comparable to that of Boheme, excellent (though lower than expected) reception by the public but some reservations raised by critics. Musicologist Julian Budden wrote, “Tosca is an opera of action, and therein lie both its strength and its limitations. No one would proclaim it the composer”s masterpiece, the emotions it provokes are mostly obvious, but as a triumph of pure theater it will remain unmatched until the Fanciulla del West…”
After the debut of Tosca, Puccini spent a period of little musical activity in which he devoted himself to completing his residence in Torre del Lago and attending the filming of his last opera. On the occasion of the premiere at London”s Covent Garden, the maestro stayed in the British capital a full six weeks. In late March 1902, work began on Madama Butterfly (based on a play by David Belasco), which was to be Puccini”s first exotic opera. The maestro spent the rest of the year writing its music and in particular researching original Japanese melodies in order to recreate the atmosphere in which the opera is set. Meanwhile, on February 25, 1903, Puccini had a car accident; rescued from the occupants of the vehicle by a doctor who lived nearby, the composer suffered a fractured tibia and several contusions that forced him to endure a long and painful convalescence of more than four months. Having recovered, in September he left with Elvira for Paris to attend rehearsals for Tosca. Back in Italy, he continued with the music of Madama Butterfly, which he completed on December 27. On January 3, 1904, he married Elvira, after she had been widowed in March of the previous year. A little over a month later, on February 17, Butterlfy was finally able to make his debut at La Scala, proving, however, to be a solemn fiasco, so much so that the composer described the audience”s reaction as “A real lynching!” After some reworking, most notably the introduction of the celebrated closed-mouth chorus, the opera was presented on May 28 at the Teatro Grande in Brescia, where it garnered a full success, destined to last to this day.
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The most difficult years
In 1906 Giacosa”s death from a severe form of asthma put an end to the three-way collaboration that had given rise to the earlier masterpieces. Attempts at collaboration with Illica alone were all doomed to failure. Of the librettist”s various proposals, a Notre Dame by Victor Hugo aroused the composer”s initial but short-lived interest, while a Marie Antoinette, already submitted to Puccini”s attention in 1901, was deemed too complex despite subsequent attempts at reduction.
Puccini, in order to attend a review of his operas at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, left with Elvira for the United States on January 9, 1907, where he stayed for two months. There, after attending a performance on Broadway he had the inspiration for a new work that was to be based on David Belasco”s The Girl of the Golden West, an ante-litteram western. complicit in the choice was Puccini”s passion for exoticism (from which Butterfly had sprung), which increasingly pushed him to confront the language and musical styles associated with other musical traditions.
In 1909 a tragedy and scandal occurred that deeply affected the musician: the 21-year-old maid, Doria Manfredi, committed suicide by poisoning herself. Doria, from a poor family, was 14 years old when her father died, and Puccini, to help the family took the girl in as a maid. As she grew up, Doria became very beautiful and Elvira”s dislike for her grew. Arguments between the couple were constant, with Elvira scolding her husband for paying too much attention to the girl. Because of the backbiting, on the morning of January 23, 1909, the girl took corrosive sublimate tablets. Despite treatment she died on January 28. The drama further aggravated relations with his wife and had heavy judicial aftermath. Puccini was truly tried by the affair, so much so that in a letter to his friend Sybil Beddington he wrote, “I can”t work anymore! I am so discouraged! My nights are horrible I always have before my eyes the vision of that poor victim, I can”t get it out of my mind – it is a continuous torment.” But the crisis manifested itself in the huge number of aborted projects, sometimes abandoned at an advanced stage of work. Since the last years of the 19th century Puccini also tried, on several occasions, to collaborate with Gabriele d”Annunzio, but the spiritual distance between the two artists proved unbridgeable.
After almost a year, in exchange for 12,000 liras, the composer”s lawyers persuaded the Manfredi family to drop the lawsuit against Elvira, after the first-degree judgment had sentenced her to a prison term. Thus putting an end to the tragedy, the Puccinis moved back in together, and Giacomo resumed the orchestration of La fanciulla del West, whose libretto, in the meantime, had been entrusted to Carlo Zangarini assisted by Guelfo Civinini. The premiere of the new opera took place on December 10, 1910, in New York with Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso in the cast, garnering a clear triumph as evidenced by the forty-seven calls to the limelight. However, the critics did not go along with the audience and, although they did not crush it, they still did not judge it to be up to Puccini”s standards. This time the critics were right, and in fact the opera”s circulation, which although it received excellent reception in subsequent performances, soon declined, so much so that even in Italy it will never be part of the main repertoire.
In October 1913, while traveling between Germany and Austria to promote La fanciulla, Puccini became acquainted with the impresarios of the Carltheater in Vienna, who proposed that he set to music a text by Alfred Willne. However, upon returning to Italy and receiving the first drafts, he was so dissatisfied with the dramatic structure that in April of the following year Willne himself submitted a different work to him, created with the help of Heinz Reichert, more congenial with the Tuscan musician”s tastes. Convinced this time of the new draft, he decided to turn Die Schwalbe (in Italian La rondine) into a full-fledged opera, relying on the playwright Giuseppe Adami. In the meantime, World War I had broken out and Italy had sided in the Triple Entente against Austria, a fact that negatively affected the contract between Puccini and the Austrians. Nevertheless, the opera managed to be put on at the Grand Théâtre de Monte Carlo on March 27, 1917 under the direction of Gino Marinuzzi. The reception turned out on the whole to be festive. However, as early as the following year Puccini began to make major changes to it.
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Puccini”s eclecticism, and together his incessant search for original solutions, found full implementation in the so-called Trittico, that is, three one-act operas to be performed on the same evening. Initially, the composer, had envisioned a performance with only two operas strongly contrasted in plot: one comic and one tragic, and only later did he come up with the idea of the triad.
After once again unsuccessfully contacting Gabriele d”Annunzio, he had to look elsewhere for libretto authors. For the first opera he was approached by Giuseppe Adami, who proposed Il tabarro, based on Didier Gold”s La houppelande. Setting out to find an author for the other two pieces, Puccini found him in Giovacchino Forzano, who provided two operas of his own composition. The first was a tragedy, Suor Angelica, which immediately pleased the composer so much that to find inspiration for the music, the composer went several times to the convent of Vicopelago where his sister Iginia was mother superior. The triad was then completed by the Gianni Schicchi for which Forzano drew from a few verses from Canto XXX of Dante Alighieri”s Inferno on which he then built a plot starring the forger Gianni Schicchi de” Cavalcanti. Initially Puccini coldly welcomed this subject, stating in a letter, “I am afraid that the ancient Florentineism does not go to me and does not seduce the world”s audience so much,” however, as soon as the text was better worked out he changed his opinion. In any case, on September 14 Suor Angelica was finished so also, on April 20 the following year, Gianni Schicchi.
Having completed the Trittico there was the search for a theater where to host the premiere, with not a few difficulties given that those were difficult days for the morale of the Italians who had just suffered the defeat of Caporetto and were afflicted by the Spanish flu that also killed Tomaide, Puccini”s sister. Surprisingly, there was a positive response from the New York Metropolitan and so the event took place on December 14, 1918, at which, however, the composer could not be present because of fears in facing an Atlantic crossing at a time when there could still be unexploded mines despite the end of hostilities. Instead, he was present at the Italian premiere on January 11, 1919 at the Teatro dell”Opera in Rome under the baton of Gino Marinuzzi.
Of the three operas that make up the Triptych, Gianni Schicchi became immediately popular, while Il tabarro, initially judged inferior, gained full critical favor over time. Suor Angelica, on the other hand, was the author”s favorite. Conceived to be performed in a single evening, today the individual operas that make up the Trittico are mostly staged paired with works by other composers.
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The last years and death
From 1919 to 1922, having left Torre del Lago because he was disturbed by the opening of a peat extraction plant, Puccini lived in the town of Orbetello, in the Lower Maremma, where he bought on the beach of Tagliata an old watchtower from the time of Spanish rule, now called Torre Puccini, in which he lived permanently. In February 1919 he was awarded the title of grand officer of the Order of the Crown of Italy.
In the same year he received a commission from Rome Mayor Prospero Colonna to set to music a hymn to the city of Rome on verses by poet Fausto Salvatori. The first performance was scheduled for April 21, 1919, on the anniversary of the city”s legendary founding. That event was initially to be held at the Villa Borghese but, first because of bad weather then because of a strike, the debut had to be postponed to June 1 at the Stadio Nazionale for the national gymnastic competitions where it received an enthusiastic reception from the audience.
In Milan, during a meeting with Giuseppe Adami, he received from Renato Simoni a copy of the theatrical tale Turandot written by the 18th-century playwright Carlo Gozzi. The text immediately struck the composer, who took it with him on the following trip to Rome for a revival of the Trittico. Although he immediately found it difficult to set it to music Puccini devoted himself fervently to this new work on which, moreover, two Italian musicians had already tried their hand: Antonio Bazzini, with his Turanda of, however, great little success, and Ferruccio Busoni who staged it in Zurich in 1917.
However, Puccini”s Turandot had nothing to do with those of his other two contemporaries. It is Puccini”s only opera with a fantastic setting, whose action-as the score states-takes place “in the time of fairy tales.” In this opera, exoticism loses all ornamental or realistic character to become the very form of the drama: China thus becomes a kind of realm of dream and eros, and the opera abounds with references to the dimension of sleep, as well as apparitions, ghosts, voices and sounds from the “other” dimension of the offstage. In his efforts to recreate original settings, he was aided by Baron Fassini Camossi, a former diplomat in China and the owner of a music box playing Chinese melodies that Puccini made intensive use of, particularly in setting to music the imperial anthem.
Puccini was immediately enthusiastic about the new subject and the character of the algid and bloodthirsty Princess Turandot, but he was assailed by doubts when it came time to set to music the ending, crowned by an unusual happy ending, on which he worked for a whole year without coming to terms with it. In 1921 the composition appeared to continue amid difficulties, on April 21 he wrote to Sybil “I seem to have no more confidence, I find nothing good,” and moments of optimism, to Adami he wrote on April 30 “Turandot is going well ahead; I seem to be on the high road.” Certainly the writing of the score did not follow the chronology of the plot but jumped from scene to scene.
Difficulties became more and more apparent when, in the fall, Puccini proposed several changes to the librettists, such as reducing the opera to only two acts, but by early 1922 they were back to three acts and it was decided that the second would be opened by the “three masks.” By the end of June the final libretto could be completed, and on August 20 Puccini decided to leave on a road trip through Austria, Germany, Holland, the Black Forest and Switzerland.
Having partially overcome the difficulties, the composition of Turandot continued, albeit slowly. The year 1923 was the turning point: having moved to Viareggio, Puccini worked intensively on the opera, so much so that after a short time they were already beginning to think about where to host the debut.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the year, the composer, who was a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with a throat tumor judged inoperable. From a further visit to another specialist, Puccini was advised to travel to Brussels by Professor Louis Ledoux of the city”s Institut du Radium who might try a radium treatment. Thus, on November 24, 1924, the musician underwent a three-hour surgery under local anesthesia, which consisted of the application, via tracheotomy, of seven irradiated platinum needles inserted directly into the tumor and retained by a collar. Despite the fact that the surgery was judged to be fully successful and that medical bulletins were in positive tones, Puccini died at 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 29 at the age of 65 from internal bleeding.
The funeral mass was held in the Church Royale Sainte-Marie in Brussels, and soon afterward the body was taken by train to Milan for the official ceremony held in Milan Cathedral on December 3. On that occasion, Toscanini led the Teatro alla Scala Orchestra in performing the requiem from Edgar. Initially Puccini”s body was laid to rest in the Toscanini family”s private chapel, but two years later it was moved, at Elvira”s suggestion, to the chapel of the villa in Torre del Lago, where it was also buried.
The last two scenes of Turandot, of which only a discontinuous musical sketch remained, were completed by Franco Alfano under the supervision of Arturo Toscanini; but on the evening of the first performance Toscanini himself interrupted the performance on the last note of Puccini”s score, that is, after the funeral procession following Liù”s death.
A leading figure in the Italian operatic world at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Giacomo Puccini approached precisely the two dominant trends: first the verista (in 1895 he had begun work on an operatic reduction of Verga”s La lupa, abandoning it after a few months), then the D”Annunzian:
It is equally arduous to place his artistic personality in the international arena, as his music, despite its incessant stylistic evolution, lacks the explicit innovative tension of many of the major European composers of the time.
Puccini, moreover, devoted himself almost exclusively to theatrical music and, unlike the masters of the twentieth-century avant-garde, he always wrote with the audience in mind, personally taking care of the stagings and following his operas around the world. If he gave birth to only twelve operas (including the three one-acts that make up the Triptych), it was in order to put in place absolutely flawless theatrical organisms, such that his works became firmly established in the repertoires of opera houses around the world. Interest, variety, rapidity, synthesis and psychological depth, and abundance of scenic gimmicks are the fundamental ingredients of his theater. Audiences, although sometimes bewildered by the novelties contained in each opera, always took his side in the end; in contrast, music critics, particularly Italian critics, looked at Puccini with suspicion or even hostility for a very long time.
Especially from the second decade of the twentieth century onward, his figure was the favored target of attacks by the young composers of the Generation of the Eighties, led by a scholar of early music, Fausto Torrefranca, who in 1912 published a polemical booklet of extraordinary violence, entitled Giacomo Puccini and International Opera. In this little book, Puccini”s opera is described as the extreme, despicable, cynical and “commercial” expression of the state of corruption in which Italian musical culture, having abandoned the high road of instrumental music in favor of melodrama, would pour for centuries. The ideological assumption that fuels the thesis is nationalistic in nature:
It is curious to reread Torrefranca”s words in the light of the critical reappraisal to which the figure of Puccini was subjected in the last decades of the twentieth century, as well as of the disinterested admiration manifested for it by the major European composers of his time: from Berg to Janacek, from Stravinsky to Schoenberg, from Ravel to Webern. In his rancorous attack, burdened with ideological prejudices, Torrefranca nevertheless managed to grasp some key aspects of Puccini”s artistic personality; starting with the central thesis of the “international” dimension of his musical theater. The critical reappraisal of Puccini, itself international in that it was initiated by scholars such as the Frenchman René Leibowitz and the Austrian Mosco Carner, based its most persuasive arguments precisely on the breadth of the Lucchese composer”s cultural and aesthetic horizon, later investigated with particular subtlety, in Italy, by Fedele D”Amico in his activity as musicologist-journalist and, more recently, by Michele Girardi, who not by chance wanted to subtitle his latest volume devoted to Puccini The International Art of an Italian Musician.
Indeed, Puccini”s great merit was precisely that he did not allow himself to be seduced by the regurgitations of nationalism, assimilating and synthesizing different languages and musical cultures with skill and speed. An eclectic inclination that he himself recognized in a joking tone (as was in his character) as early as his Conservatory desks, tracing in his notebook the following autobiography:
Since some youthful works indeed present an unusual combination of Boccherini-esque gallant style (destined to reappear, years later, in the eighteenth-century setting of Manon Lescaut) and Wagnerian timbral-harmonic solutions, this goliardic autobiography (truly bohemian!) contains at least a hint of truth. To approach Puccini”s artistic personality, it is therefore necessary to investigate the relationships he established with the different musical and theatrical cultures of his time.
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The influence of Richard Wagner
From the time of his arrival in Milan, Puccini openly sided with admirers of Wagner: the two symphonic compositions presented as Conservatory essays-the Symphonic Prelude in A major (1882) and the Symphonic Capriccio (1883)-contain explicit thematic and stylistic references to Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, works of Wagner”s early maturity. In early 1883, moreover, he purchased together with Pietro Mascagni, his roommate, the score of Parsifal, whose Abendmahl-Motiv is quoted verbatim in the prelude to the Villi.
Puccini was perhaps the first Italian musician to understand that Wagner”s lesson went far beyond his theories on “musical drama” and the “total work of art”-which were at the center of the debate in Italy-and specifically concerned musical language and narrative structures.
If in his works of the 1980s the Wagnerian influence manifests itself mainly in certain harmonic and orchestral choices that sometimes border on the cast, starting with Manon Lescaut Puccini begins to fathom its compositional technique, coming not only to use Leitmotifs systematically but also to bind them together through cross-motive relationships, according to the system Wagner employed especially in Tristan and Isolde.
All of Puccini”s operas, from Manon Lescaut onward, also lend themselves to being read and heard as symphonic scores. Réné Leibowitz even went so far as to identify in the first act of Manon Lescaut an articulation in four symphonic tempi, where the slow tempo coincides with the meeting between Manon and Des Grieux and the scherzo (the term appears in the autograph) with the card game scene.
Especially beginning with Tosca, Puccini also resorts to a typically Wagnerian technique, the canonical model of which can be identified in the famous hymn to the night in Act II of Tristan and Isolde. This is what we might call a kind of thematic crescendo, that is, a form of proliferation of a motivic nucleus (subject possibly to generating secondary ideas), the progression of which develops and is fulfilled in a sonic climax, placed just before the conclusion of the episode (a technique that Puccini employs particularly systematically and effectively in Tabarro).
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Relations with France
From French opera, and particularly Bizet and Massenet, Puccini derived the extreme attention to local and historical color, an element substantially foreign to the Italian operatic tradition. The musical reconstruction of the environment constitutes a major aspect in all Puccini”s scores: whether it is the China of Turandot, the Japan of Madama Butterfly, the Far West of La fanciulla del West, the Paris of Manon Lescaut, Bohème, Rondine and Tabarro, the papal Rome of Tosca, the 13th-century Florence of Gianni Schicchi, the 17th-century convent of Suor Angelica, the 14th-century Flanders of Edgar or the Black Forest of Villi.
Even Puccini”s harmony, so ductile and prone to modal procedures, seems to echo stylistic features of French music of the time, especially non-operatic music. However, it is difficult to prove the presence of a concrete and direct influence, since passages of this kind are already encountered in early Puccini, starting with the Villi, when the music of Fauré and Debussy was still unknown in Italy. It seems more likely to imagine that it was instead the last Wagnerian score, Parsifal, certainly the most Frenchizing, in which one finds extensive use of modal combinations, that steered Puccini toward a harmonic taste that, in retrospect, can be called French.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Puccini seems to go through, like other Italian musicians of his generation, a phase of fascination with Debussy”s music: the whole-tone scale is employed heavily, especially in Fanciulla del West. Sennonché, the Tuscan composer rejects the aestheticizing perspective of his French colleague and uses this harmonic resource in a functional way for the sense of expectation of a rebirth – artistic and existential – that constitutes the poetic core of this opera set in the New World.
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The Italian legacy
Puccini”s fame as an international composer has often overshadowed his connection to the Italian tradition and, in particular, to Verdi”s theater. The two most popular Italian opera composers are united by their search for maximum dramatic synthesis and the exact dosage of theatrical timing on the meter of the spectator”s emotional journey. Beyond the joking vein – aimed, moreover, more to lighten than to deny the arguments – the words with which Puccini declared on one occasion his total dedication to the theater could have come from Verdi”s pen as well:
Italian is also the presence of that dialectic between real time and psychological time that anciently manifested itself in the opposition between recitative (the moment in which the action unfolds) and aria (the expression of a state of mind dilated in time) and now takes on more varied and nuanced forms. Puccini”s operas contain numerous closed episodes in which the time of the action appears slowed down if not actually suspended: as in the scene of Butterfly”s entrance, with the unreal offstage singing of the geisha intent on climbing the Nagasaki hill to reach the nuptial nest. More generally, the time-function is treated by Puccini with an elasticity worthy of a great novelist.
Critically more controversial is the role assigned to melody, which has always been the backbone of Italian opera. For a long time Puccini was considered a generous and even facile melodist. Today many scholars tend rather to emphasize the harmonic and timbral aspects of his music. On the other hand, it is necessary – especially since Tosca – to understand Puccini”s melody in function of the leitmotivic structure, which inevitably reduces the space of singability (the leading motif must first of all be ductile, and therefore its range must be short). It is therefore no accident that the most far-reaching melodies are concentrated in the first three operas.
On this topic it may be useful to reread what one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century-Edgard Varèse-wrote in 1925, historically contextualizing the problem of melody:
And it is still Puccini himself-with his usual aphoristic language-who notes on an outline of Tosca:
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From Puccini to Puccini
The first four names by which he was recorded on the birth certificate (James, Anthony, Dominic, Michael) are the names of his ancestors, in chronological order from his great-great-grandfather to his father.
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Puccini and engines
Passionate about motors, the master began his automotive career by purchasing, in 1900, a De Dion-Bouton 5 HP, seen at the Milan Exposition that year and soon replaced (1903) with a Clément-Bayard. With those cars, driving along the Aurelia, he quickly reached Viareggio or Forte dei Marmi and Lucca from his “refuge” in Torre del Lago. Perhaps too fast according to the Livorno Magistrate”s Court, which fined Puccini for speeding in December 1902. One evening two months later, near Vignola, on the outskirts of Lucca, on the Sarzanese-Valdera state highway, the Clement went off the road, overturning in the “la Contésora” canal, with his future wife, son and mechanic also on board; the mechanic injured a leg and the musician fractured a tibia.
In 1905, he purchased a Sizaire-Naudin, which was followed by an Isotta Fraschini of the type “AN 20
For this reason, Puccini asked Vincenzo Lancia for a car capable of moving even over difficult terrain. After a few months, he was delivered what we can consider the first “off-roader” built in Italy, complete with a reinforced chassis and clawed wheels. The price of the car was, for the time, astronomical: 35,000 liras. But Puccini was so pleased with it that he later bought a “Trikappa” and a “Lambda” as well.
With the first, in August 1922, the maestro organized a very long car trip across Europe. The “group” of friends took place in two cars, Puccini”s Lancia Trikappa and the FIAT 501 of a friend of his, a certain Angelo Magrini. This was the itinerary: Cutigliano, Verona, Trento, Bolzano, Innsbruck, Munich, Ingolstadt, Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Bonn, Cologne, Amsterdam, The Hague, Constance (and then the return to Italy).
The “Lambda,” delivered to him in the spring of 1924, was the last car Puccini owned; the one in which he made his last trip, on November 4, 1924, to Pisa station and, from there, by train to Brussels, where he underwent the fatal throat operation.
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Puccini and women
Much has been discussed about the relationship between Puccini and the female universe, both with reference to the characters in his operas and in relation to the women he met in his life. Frequent and now legendary is the image of Puccini as an unrepentant womanizer, fueled by various biographical events and by his own words in which he liked to describe himself as “a powerful hunter of wild birds, opera librettos and beautiful women.” In reality, Puccini was not the classic ladies” man: his temperament was friendly but shy, solitary, and his hypersensitive nature led him not to experience relationships with women too lightly. He had, moreover, been surrounded by female figures since childhood, raised by his mother and with five sisters (not counting Macrina, who died very young) and only one younger brother.
His first great love was Elvira Bonturi (Lucca, June 13, 1860 – Milan, July 9, 1930), wife of Lucca merchant Narciso Gemignani, by whom he had two children, Fosca and Renato. Giacomo and Elvira”s elopement in 1886 caused a scandal in Lucca. The two moved north together with Fosca and had a son, Antonio (Monza, Dec. 23, 1886 – Viareggio, Feb. 21, 1946). They did not marry until February 3, 1904, after Gemignani”s death.
According to Giampaolo Rugarli (author of the volume La divina Elvira, published by Marsilio), all the protagonists of Puccini”s operas are summed up and reflected always and only in his wife, Elvira Bonturi, who would have been the only female figure capable of giving him inspiration, despite her difficult character and the incomprehension she bore toward the composer”s inspiration (“You put some mockery when the word art is pronounced. It is this that has always offended me and offends me,” from a letter written to his wife in 1915). Be that as it may, Puccini had an ambivalent relationship toward Elvira: on the one hand, he soon betrayed her, seeking relations with women of different temperaments; on the other hand, he remained attached to her, despite violent crises and her dramatic and possessive character, until the end. Among the Italian noblewomen, the relationship between the master and Countess Laurentina Castracane degli Antelminelli, the last descendant of Castruccio, who founded the first Italian seigniory in Lucca, is worth noting. Countess Laurentina, a charming noblewoman, indulged Puccini”s passionate but shy nature and was close to him when he was hospitalized after a car accident in 1902. This liason is to be considered one of the most important of his life. They both took care to keep it as secret as possible, given the social position of both of them and because they drew further mutual passion from it.
One of his first lovers was a young woman from Turin known as Corinna, whom he met in 1900, apparently on the Milan-Turin train that Puccini had taken to attend the first performance of Tosca at the Regio in Turin, after its Roman debut. By chance Elvira learned of Giacomo”s encounters with this woman. The scandal that arose was also complained about by his publisher-father, Giulio Ricordi, who wrote Puccini a fiery letter urging him to concentrate on artistic activity. The relationship with “Cori” – as the musician called her – lasted until the car accident involving the maestro on Feb. 25, 1903, whose long convalescence prevented him from meeting his lover. The identity of this girl was revealed in 2007 by German writer Helmut Krausser: she was the Turin seamstress Maria Anna Coriasco (1882-1961), and “Corinna” was an anagram of part of her name: Maria Anna Coriasco. Previously Massimo Mila had identified her with a schoolmate of his mother”s, a magisterial student in Turin.
In October 1904 he met Sybil Beddington, married Seligman (Feb. 23, 1868 – Jan. 9, 1936), a London-born, Jewish lady, a music and singing student of Francesco Paolo Tosti, with whom he seems to have had initially a love affair that was later converted into a solid and deep friendship, cemented by the lady”s British poise. So much so that in the summer of 1906 and 1907 the Seligmans were hosted at Boscolungo Abetone by Giacomo and Elvira. However, the exact nature of the relationship between the two, at least in the early days, has been a matter of debate.
In the summer of 1911, in Viareggio, Puccini met Baroness Josephine von Stengel (a name often reported, erroneously, with the spelling Stängel), from Munich, then 32 years old and the mother of two girls. His love for the baroness-whom Giacomo called “Josy” or “Busci” in his letters, and by whom he was called “Giacomucci”-particularly accompanied the composition of Rondine, in which Giorgio Magri sees the reflection of this Central European and aristocratic relationship. Their affair lasted until 1915.
Puccini”s last love was Rose Ader, soprano from Odenberg. An Austrian collector has 163 unpublished letters testifying to this relationship, about which we know very little. The affair began in the spring of 1921, when Ader sang Suor Angelica at the Hamburg Opera, and ended in the fall of 1923. Thinking of her voice, Puccini wrote the part of Liù, in Turandot.
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Films and television dramas have been dedicated to the life of the composer from Lucca:
Puccini is named after the crater Puccini on Mercury.
In 1896, to celebrate the success of the premiere of Bohème, the Ricordi house commissioned Richard-Ginori to make a special series of wall plates dedicated to the various characters in the opera. A specimen of the series is on display, among other mementos, in the Villa Puccini in Torre del Lago.
Since 1996, Uzzano has annually dedicated to him the Pucciniana, a show connected to the Torre del Lago Puccini Puccini Festival. The event takes place in summer in the setting of the square of Uzzano Castello, where for one or more evenings paintings from the maestro”s major operas are performed.
Letters and personal belongings of the artist are deposited at the Museo Casa di Puccini in Celle dei Puccini (LU). Other letters are deposited at the Forteguerriana Library in Pistoia. Autographed music sheets are deposited at the Lucchesi del mondo Association in Lucca. Complete descriptions of the location of Puccini”s papers are available in SIUSA
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Conference proceedings and miscellany of studies
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