Giacomo Puccini (ii)
(Born; Lucca, 22 Dec 1858; Died; Brussels,
29 Nov 1924). Italian composer, son of Michele Puccini and fifth in a line of composers
from Lucca. After studying music with his uncle, Fortunato Magi, and with the director of
the Istituto Musicale Pacini, Carlo Angeloni, he started his career at the age of 14 as an
organist at S Martino and S Michele, Lucca, and at other local churches. However, a
performance of Verdi's Aida at Pisa in 1876 made such an impact on him that he
decided to follow his instinct for operatic composition. With a scholarship and financial
support from an uncle, he was able to enter the Milan Conservatory in 1880. During his
three years there his chief teachers were Bazzini and Ponchielli.
While still a student, Puccini entered a
competition for a one-act opera announced in 1882 by the publishing firm of Sonzogno.He
and his librettist, Ferdinando Fontana, failed to win, but their opera Le villi
came to the attention of the publisher Giulio Ricordi, who arranged a successful
production at the Teatro del Verme in Milan and commissioned a second opera. Fontana's
libretto, Edgar, was unsuited to Puccini's dramatic talent and the opera was coolly
received at La Scala in April 1889. It did, however, set the seal on what was to be
Puccini's lifelong association with the house of Ricordi.
The first opera for which Puccini himself
chose the subject was Manon Lescaut. Produced at Turin in 1893, it achieved a
success such as Puccini was never to repeat and made him known outside Italy. Among the
writers who worked on its libretto were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who provided
the librettos for Puccini's next three operas. The first of these, La bohéme,
widely considered Puccini's masterpiece, but with its mixture of lighthearted and
sentimental scenes and its largely conversational style was not a success when produced at
Turin in 1896. Tosca, Puccini's first excursion into verismo, was more
enthusiastically received by the Roman audience at the Teatro Costanzi in 1900.
Later that year Puccini visited London and
saw David Belasco's one-act play Madam Butterfly. This he took as the basis for his
next collaboration with Illica and Giacosa; he considered it the best and technically most
advanced opera he had written. He was unprepared for the fiasco attending its first
performance in February 1904, when the La Scala audience was urged into hostility, even
pandemonium, by the composer's jealous rivals; in a revised version it was given to great
acclaim at Brescia the following May. By then Puccini had married Elvira Gemignani, the
widow of a Lucca merchant, who had borne him a son as long ago as 1896. The family lived
until 1921 in the house at Torre del Lago which Puccini had acquired in 1891. Scandal was
unleashed in 1909 when a servant girl of the Puccinis, whom Elvira had accused of an
intimate relationship with her husband, committed suicide. A court case established the
girl's innocence, but the publicity affected Puccini deeply and was the main reason for
the long period before his next opera.
This was La fanciulla del West,
based on another Belasco drama; it was given its première at the Metropolitan Opera,
New York, in December 1910. In all technical respects, notably its Debussian harmony and
Straussian orchestration, it was a masterly reply to the criticism that Puccini repeated
himself in every new opera. What it lacks is the incandescent phrase, and this is probably
why it has not entered the normal repertory outside Italy.
Differences with Tito Ricordi, head of the
firm since 1912, led Puccini to accept a commission for an operetta from the directors of
the Vienna Karltheater. The result, La rondine, though warmly received at Monte
Carlo in 1917, is among Puccini's weakest works, hovering between opera and operetta and
devoid of striking lyrical melody. While working on it Puccini began the composition of Il
tabarro, the first of three one-act operas (Il trittico) which follow the
scheme of the Parisian Grand Guignol - a horrific episode, a sentimental tragedy (Suor
Angelica) and a comedy or farce (Gianni Schicchi). This last has proved to be
the most enduring part of the triptych and is often done without the others, usually in a
In his early 60s Puccini was determined to
'strike out on new paths' and started work on Turandot, based on a Gozzi
play which satisfied his desire for a subject with a fantastic, fairy-tale atmosphere, but
flesh-and-blood characters. During its composition he moved to Viareggio and in 1923
developed cancer of the throat. Treatment at a Brussels clinic seemed successful, but his
heart could not stand the strain and he died, leaving Turandot unfinished. (It is
usually played today with Franco Alfano's ending.) All Italy went into mourning and two
years later his remains were interred at his house at Torre del Lago which, after his
wife's death in 1930, was turned into a museum.
Puccini's choral, orchestral and
instrumental works, dating mainly from his early years, are unimportant, though the Mass
in A Flat; (1880) is still performed occasionally. His operas may not engage us on as many
different levels as do those of Mozart, Wagner, Verdi or Strauss, but on his own most
characteristic level, where erotic passion, sensuality, tenderness, pathos and despair
meet and fuse, he was an unrivalled master. His melodic gift and harmonic sensibility, his
consummate skill in orchestration and unerring sense of theatre combined to create a style
that was wholly original, homogeneous and compelling. He was fully aware of his
limitations and rarely ventured beyond them. He represents Verdi's only true successor,
and his greatest masterpiece and swansong, Turandot, belongs among the last
20th-century stage works to remain in the regular repertory of the world's opera houses.
Operas: Le villi (1884); Edgar (1889); Manon Lescaut (1893); La bohème (1896); Tosca (1900); Madama Butterfly
(1904); La fanciulla del West (1910); La rondine (1917); Il trittico [Il tabarro, Suor
Angelica, Gianni Schicchi] (1918); Turandot (1926), inc.
Mass, AFlat; (1880); motets, cantatas, songs.
Instrumental music: orch
pieces, chamber music, pf pieces.
© Groves Dictionaries, MacMillan Publishers Limited, UK