Classical Composer Profile : Giacomo Puccini
by Betty Fry
Giacomo Puccini was born on the 23rd December 1858 and was the fifth of seven children. But although his father died when he was only five years old, he was able to follow in his family’s long musical tradition by studying first with his uncle, and then with Carlo Angeloni. His father had been a teacher, church organist, and composer. At ten years of age he joined the choir in his father’s old church of San Martino, and by 1873 was playing the organ there, and elsewhere. His first compositions were organ pieces written from his eighteenth year onwards.
However he was already attracted to opera, and after seeing Verdi’s ‘Aida’ in 1876 he made up his mind to break with family tradition and make his future in musical theatre. He said that the occasion had opened up a musical window for him.
In 1880 he entered the Milan Conservatory and remained there for three years as a pupil of Bazzini and Ponchielli, both of whom had written operas. In these student years Puccini learned to know both the poverty and the lively Bohemianism that he was later to depict in ‘La Boheme’.
Encouraged by Ponchielli, Puccini entered a competition for a new one act opera with his ‘Le Villi’ but did not win with it. However Fortune smiled on him. A wealthy Milan music lover invited him to a party. There he sang and played the short opera he had submitted for the competition in the presence of influential people. Two of them were the composer-librettist Boito, and the publisher Ricordi.
As a result of their admiration, ‘Le Villi’ was successfully performed at the city’s ‘Teatro del Verme’ in May of 1884; to add to his good luck Ricordi agreed to publish it (revised as a two-acter), and commissioned Puccini to write another opera.
But the libretto of ‘Edgar’ on which he then embarked, did not suit him. It was five years before he finished the score, and the work failed when it finally reached the stage in April 1889. Later he called it ‘a mistake’.
By this time he had also begun what became a long love affair with Elvira Gemignani, a married woman whom he finally married on the death of her husband in 1904. She was to outlive him by six years; dying in 1930. They are buried together at Torre del Lago.
Despite the failure of ‘Edgar’, Ricordi maintained his confidence in Puccini, and even helped to write the libretto of his next opera, ‘Manon Lescaut’. Produced in Turin in February 1893, it marked the real beginning of the composer’s triumphant career, and after a London production in the following year, Bernard Shaw hailed Puccini as Verdi’s natural successor.’ From then interest in his work became widespread, and the story of his life is largely that of his music and his continuing success although there were a few troubled times.
For example while Tosca was adored by the public, some critics attacked it for what they saw as its brutality, and in 1904 the first night of ‘Madame Butterfly’, at La Scala, Milan, was greeted with noisy hostility. However the composer made some revisions and it succeeded thereafter.
The story of ‘Madame Butterfly’ is based on historical fact. Puccini took the idea, and the title for his opera from a play by the dramatist David Belasco, who in turn based his play on a magazine article recounting the sad story of a real life geisha girl who was jilted by her sailor husband and tried to take her own life.
In Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly marries the handsome young American Naval Officer Lt. Pinkerton during his shore leave in Nagasaki. After a brief honeymoon Pinkerton leaves again on his warship, unaware that his bride is pregnant.
Three years pass. Everyone tells Butterfly that her husband has abandoned her and her infant son. She refuses to believe this, and to her great joy Pinkerton’s ship does return to Nagasaki.
Butterfly decorates her little home overlooking the harbour with cherry blossom and waits expectantly as night falls. The lovely ‘Humming Chorus’, with which I have begun my own introduction to this beautiful story, is sung off stage to accompany her vigil beneath a starry sky.
The gentle humming suggests perfectly the feeling of relaxed happiness she must have been feeling as, knowing he is near, she is thinking that soon they will be reunited.
Towards the end of the opera Butterfly sings the lovely aria ‘One Fine Day’when she sees a wisp of smoke over the far horizon signaling the return of her husband. Seen in the light of the tragic conclusion of the story her aria is especially poignant.
Sometimes it seems as if Puccini was incapable of writing an opera with a happy ending. His heroines are usually tragic figures, doomed to unhappiness and, very often, an early death. In addition, many are flawed in one way or another.
Giorgetta, in Il Tabarro, for instance, is an adulteress; Sister Angelica in ‘Suor Angelica’ brings disgrace on her family through her illegitimate child; Tosca, and Minnie from ‘La Fanciulla’ are not above deceiving friends and lovers.
But somehow it is the very fact that his characters are imperfect that gives them dramatic strength.
Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ takes its story from a play entitled ‘La Tosca’ by Victorien Sardou, which was first performed in 1887 with the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt in the title role.
‘La Tosca’, set in 16th century France at the time of the religious wars, tells how a Catholic nobleman promises to save the husband of a Protestant peasant woman, if she will let him seduce her. She consents, only to discover her husband the next day hanging from the gallows.
The tragic character of Liu who sacrifices herself for her master Calaf in Puccini’s Opera ‘Turandot’, is Puccini’s own invention. Puccini’s wife Elvira was convinced her husband was having an affair with their 21 year old servant Doria Manfredi. Elvira drove her away and continually harried her until the poor girl committed suicide.
The post mortem proved Doria a virgin, but the unhappy series of events haunted Puccini for the rest of his life, and also resulted in the creation of Liu.
Puccini spent the last four years of his life working on ‘Turandot’. During this time he was deeply depressed. By March 1924 he was suffering constantly from a throat condition, which was finally diagnosed as cancer.
At a Brussels clinic he underwent a grueling operation that brought on heart failure and on 29 November he died. Italy plunged into mourning, and at his funeral, Toscanini and the company of La Scala, performed the Requiem music from his opera, ‘Edgar’.
Puccini died leaving ‘Turandot’ unfinished at Liu’s death scene. The score was completed by Franco Alfano, but at the La Scala premiere in 1926, only Puccini’s music was performed.
After the death scene of Liu, the conductor, Toscanini turned to the audience and declared “The opera ends here; at this point Giacomo broke off his work. Death on this occasion was stronger than art.”
There was a long moment of silence, then a cry of “Viva Puccini,” and a passionate ovation.
‘Nesssun dormo’ from ‘Turandot’ has been one of opera’s best loved arias ever since Puccini composed it. In 1990 it became the theme tune for the World Cup finals in Italy, and sung by Luciano Pavarotti, was played on television before every game. This Global coverage resulted in a sale of over 10 million copies of the single.
A major feature of Puccini’s operatic scores is his ability to paint a picture in orchestral terms, whether the Wild West in ‘La Fanciulla del West’ the Japanese countryside in ‘Madame Butterfly’, or ‘Turandot’s’ Peking.
No less a Frenchman than Debussy said of ‘La Boheme’ “I know of no one who described the Paris of that time so well”. He also added “If one didn’t keep a grip on oneself, one would be swept away by the sheer verve of the music”.
In the realm of opera, few composers can compare with Puccini in his ability to match a theme to a dramatic situation and touch the hearts of his listeners.
‘Your tiny hand is frozen’, ‘One fine day’, ‘None shall sleep’, and of course ‘Nessun dormo’ are just some of Puccini’s arias that have echoed around the world.
He wrote with equal skill and sensitivity for the orchestra, making every note, every chord, every instrument highlight the drama. The combined effect of music and song is pure theatrical magic.