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Giacomo Puccini: The 100 most inspiring musicians of all time
Italian composer Giacomo Puccini (in full, Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini, (b. Dec. 22, 1858, Lucca, Tuscany [Italy]—d. Nov. 29, 1924, Brussels, Belg.) was one of the greatest exponents of operatic realism, who virtually brought the history of Italian opera to an end.
His mature operas include La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), and Turandot, left incomplete.
Early Life and Marriage
Puccini was the last descendant of a family that for two centuries had provided the musical directors of the Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca. Puccini initially dedicated himself to music, therefore, not as a personal
vocation, but as a family profession. When Giacomo was five, his father died, and the municipality of Lucca supported the family with a small pension, keeping the position of cathedral organist open for the young Puccini until he came of age. He first studied music with two of his father’s
former pupils, and he played the organ in small local churches.
A performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, which he saw in Pisa in 1876, convinced him that his true vocation was opera. In the autumn of 1880 he went to study at the Milan Conservatory, where his principal teachers were
Antonio Bazzini, a famous violinist and composer of chamber music, and Amilcare Ponchielli, the composer of the opera La gioconda. On July 16, 1883, he received his diploma and presented as his graduation composition
Capriccio sinfonico, an instrumental work that attracted the attention of influential musical circles in Milan.
In the same year, he entered Le villi in a competition for oneact operas. The judges did not think Le villi worthy of consideration, but a group of friends, led by the composerlibrettist Arrigo Boito, subsidized its production, and its premiere took place with immense success at Milan’s Verme Theatre on May 31, 1884. Le villi was remarkable for its dramatic power, its operatic melody, and, revealing the influence of Richard Wagner’s works, the important role played by the orchestra.
The music publisher Giulio Ricordi immediately acquired the copyright, with the stipulation that the opera be expanded to two acts. He also commissioned Puccini to write a new opera for La Scala and gave him a monthly stipend: thus began Puccini’s lifelong association with Giulio Ricordi, who was to become a staunch friend and counselor.
After the death of his mother, Puccini fled from Lucca with a married woman, Elvira Gemignani. Finding in their passion the courage to defy the truly enormous scandal generated by their illegal union, they lived at first in Monza, near Milan, where a son, Antonio, was born.
In 1890, they moved to Milan, and in 1891 to Torre del Lago, a
fishing village on Lake Massaciuccoli in Tuscany. This home was to become Puccini’s refuge from life, and he remained there until three years before his death, when he moved to Viareggio. The two were finally able to marry in 1904, after the death of Elvira’s husband. Puccini’s second opera, Edgar, based on a verse drama by the French writer Alfred de Musset, had been performed at La Scala in 1889, and it was a failure.
Nevertheless, Ricordi continued to have faith in his protégé and sent him to Bayreuth in Germany to hear Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.
Mature Work and Fame
Puccini returned from Bayreuth with the plan for Manon Lescaut, based, like the Manon of the French composer Jules Massenet, on the celebrated 18th-century novel by the Abbé Prévost. Beginning with this opera, Puccini carefully selected the subjects for his operas and spent considerable time on the preparation of the librettos.
The psychology of the heroine in Manon Lescaut, as in succeeding works, dominates the dramatic nature of Puccini’s operas. Meanwhile, the score of Manon Lescaut, dramatically alive, prefigures the operatic refinements achieved in his mature operas: La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and La fanciulla del west (1910; The Girl of the Golden West). These four mature works also tell a moving love story, one that centres entirely on the feminine protagonist and ends in a tragic resolution.
All four speak the same refined and limpid musical language of the orchestra that creates the subtle play of thematic reminiscences. The music always emerges from the words, indissolubly bound to their meaning and to the images they evoke.
In Bohème, Tosca, and Butterfly, he collaborated
enthusiastically with the writers Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. The first performance (Feb. 17, 1904) of Madama Butterfly was a fiasco, probably because the audience found the work too much like Puccini’s preceding operas.
In 1908, having spent the summer in Cairo, the Puccinis returned to Torre del Lago, and Giacomo devoted himself to Fanciulla. Elvira unexpectedly became jealous of Doria Manfredi, a young servant from the village who had been employed for several years by the Puccinis. She drove Doria from the house, threatening to kill her.
Subsequently, the servant girl poisoned herself, and the Manfredis brought charges against Elvira Puccini for persecution and calumny, creating one of the most famous scandals of the time. Elvira was found guilty but was not sentenced, and Puccini paid damages to the Manfredis, who withdrew their accusations.
The premiere of La fanciulla del west took place at the Metropolitan in New York City on Dec. 10, 1910, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. It was a great triumph, and with it Puccini reached the end of his mature period.
Puccini felt the new century advancing with problems no longer his own. He did not understand contemporary events, such as World War I. In 1917 at Monte-Carlo in Monaco, Puccini’s opera La rondine was first performed
and was quickly forgotten.
Always interested in contemporary operatic compositions, Puccini studied the works of Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky.
From this study emerged Il trittico (The Triptych; New York City, 1918), three stylistically individual one-act operas— the melodramatic Il tabarro (The Cloak), the sentimental Suor Angelica, and the comic Gianni Schicchi. His last opera, based on the fable of Turandot as told in the play Turandot by the 18th-century Italian dramatist Carlo Gozzi, is the only Italian opera in the Impressionistic style. Puccini did not complete Turandot, unable to write a final grand duet on the triumphant love between Turandot and Calaf.
Suffering from cancer of the throat, he was ordered to Brussels for surgery, and a few days afterward he died with
the incomplete score of Turandot in his hands.
Turandot was performed posthumously at La Scala on April 25, 1926, and Arturo Toscanini, who conducted the performance, concluded the opera at the point Puccini had reached before dying. Two final scenes were completed by Franco Alfano from Puccini’s sketches.
Solemn funeral services were held for Puccini at La Scala in Milan, and his body was taken to Torre del Lago, which became the Puccini Pantheon. Shortly afterward, Elvira and Antonio were also buried there. The Puccini
house became a museum and an archive.
LA BOHÈME ATO I 1. Introdução 2. Dueto: “Non sono in vena” 3. Ária: “Che gelida manina!” 4. Ária: “Si. Mi chiamano Mimí” 5. Dueto de amor: “O soave fanciulla” ATO III 6. Dueto: “Mimí” 7. Trio: “Marcello, finalmente!” 8. Ária: “D’onde lieta uscí” ATO IV 9. Dueto “Sono andati?” 10. Final: “Mimí”
MADAME BUTTERFLY ATO I 11. Introdução 12. Dueto: “Dovunque al mondo” 13. Dueto: “Amore o grillo”Arrivèe de Madame Butterfly 14. “Quanto cielo, quanto mar!” 15. Dueto de amor: “Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia” ATO II 16. Ária: “Un bel di vedremo”Scene de la carte 17. “Amico, cercherete quel bel fior di fanciulla” 18. Ária e Final: “Con onor muore”