Giacomo Puccini was the last of Italy’s great opera composers, a lineage that began in the seventeenth century with Claudio Monteverdi and progressed through Gioacchino Rossini and Giuseppe Verdi. But unlike his predecessors, Puccini wrote lighter works in a new, realistic style that gained popularity in the late nineteenth century. His operas were notable for their delightful melodies and three-dimensional female heroines. His three great works—La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot— remain some of the most popular standards in the opera repertoire.
Born in 1858, Puccini was the eldest boy of several children in a musically gifted family in Lucca, Italy, where several generations of Puccinis had already achieved minor local renown. When his father died when he was just six, Puccini’s formidable mother asked the authorities to decree that the father’s post as organist at the Church of San Martino be passed on to her son when he came of age; his uncle, Fortunato Magi, assumed the post in the interim. Puccini began music study with Magi, and then took classes from Carlo Angeloni at Lucca’s Pacini Institute; both men had been taught by the elder Puccini. When he reached the age of 14, he began working as organist at San Martino.
It is said that around 1876, Puccini, then about 18, walked 13 miles to a theater in Pisa to hear Aida, the great Verdi opera, and immediately decided to become an opera composer as well. Serious study, however, would be needed, and with this in mind he secured a stipend from a grand-uncle, and then a scholarship to the Conservatory in Milan. He arrived in late 1880, and studied diligently for the next three years. He learned composition in the class of Amilcare Ponchielli, the composer of the opera La Gioconda. Ponchielli’s lighter style was a great influence on Puccini.
The first of Puccini’s works to be performed was Capriccio sinfonico, a piece written for his examinations, at the Conservatory in 1883. It was also accepted for publication, and premiered later that year at the famed La Scala with an orchestra. Completed in 1778, La Scala is considered the virtual heart of Milan and is one of the world’s top opera venues. Upon graduation, Puccini decided to enter an opera competition for young Italian composers sponsored by music publisher Sonzogno. Ponchielli found a librettist to help, but the entry, Le Villi, did not fair well; however, other influential Milanese music-lovers secured it a production at the Teatro del Verme theater in May of 1884. It premiered at La Scala the following year.
Around this time Puccini met a Lucca woman named Elvira Gemignani. She eventually left hermerchant hus-
Born Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini, December 23, 1858, in Lucca, Italy; died in Brussels, Belgium, following cancer surgery and a heart attack, November 29, 1924; son of Michele Puccini (a teacher and composer); companion of Elvira Gemignani after 1886; children: (with Gemignani) Antonio. Education: Studied at the Milan Conservatory, 1880-83.
Became church organist in Lucca, Italy, at age 14; began writing church music at 17; public premiere of his composition, Capriccio sinfonico, Milan, 1883; first opera, Le Villi, premiered at Teatro del Verme, Milan, May, 1884; the 1889 opera Edgar premiered at Milan’s La Scala opera house, April, 1889; premiered Manon Lescaut, 1893.
band for Puccini. Though they never married, they had a son in 1886 and spent the rest of their lives together. Puccini’s first early successes in Milan led to a commission from La Scala to write an opera. He was given an advance and a stipend, and wrote Edgar, which was a complete failure at its premiere in April of 1889. His third attempt fared much better: Manon Lescaut was deemed a great success at its premiere in Turin’s Teatro Regio theater in February of 1893. Based on a well-received French novel and play, its London production caused the playwright and drama critic George Bernard Shaw to hail Puccini as the successor to Verdi.
Manon Lescaut was produced in Philadelphia and then Paris. While in Paris Puccini began writing an opera based on the book Scenes de la Vie de Bohème by Henri Murger. He then heard that another Italian composer, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, was writing a similar work, and finished his quickly. The result was La Bohème, which premiered at the Teatro Regio in February of 1896. Set in Paris’s Left Bank in the 1830s, it tracks the romances of a group of young bohemians. It premiered to mixed reviews, but was restaged in Palermo later in 1896 and fared much better; the audience refused to leave the concert hall until the final death scene was repeated for an encore. La Bohème would be the first of Puccini’s works in the verismostyle, a backlash against heavy symbolism and mythological themes common to most operas of the era. Taken from the Italian root for “truth” or “reality,” verismo operas were set in the present or recent past, and featured accessible themes and characters. Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci was one of the first in this style.
The success of La Bohème would earn Puccini the lifelong enmity of Leoncavallo. It also made him famous and exceedingly wealthy. With the earnings he built a villa on Florence’s Lake Massaciuccoli that he named Torre del Lago. Puccini was famously handsome and charming, but he also possessed a melancholic side that he drew on to give depth to his characters. He was wholly uninterested in religion or politics, and enjoyed racing sports cars on his property and gambling at cards.
Puccini wrote slowly. His next work, Tosca, premiered four years after La Bohème at the Teatro Constanzi theater in Rome in January of 1900. Set in the same city exactly one hundred years before, its title character was an opera singer attempting to bargain for the release of her political dissident lover in a time of Napoleonic political strife in Rome. Her foe was the sadistic aristocrat police chief who wanted to see Tosca humiliated. The work premiered at the New York Metropolitan Opera a year later, and quickly became a classic.
The composer was nearly killed in automobile accident in 1903, but managed to finish one of his most popular works during his convalescence. Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala in February of 1904, but its storyline—a Japanese woman who falls in love with an American navalofficer—brought jeers from the audience. It is believed that hecklers were hired by composers who were jealous of Puccini’s success.
On the advice of his friend, the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, Puccini revised Madama Butterfly, and a new version premiered in Brescia in May of 1904 to a much better reception. For its Metropolitan Opera premiere, Puccini traveled to the United States for first time in 1906. The Met commissioned his next work, La Fanciulla del West, (“The Girl of the Golden West”), set during the California gold rush of the 1840s, but Italian singers play-acting as Wild West characters failed to enchant audiences or critics. Enrico Caruso sang at its Met premiere in 1910, but La Fanciulla was soon forgotten.
For a time, Puccini stopped composing as the result of personal misfortunes. A scandal in his household was salaciously chronicled in the press: a servant girl died, and at first her death was thought to be a suicide. But reports that Elvira Gemignani had accused her of a relationship with Puccini surfaced. An autopsy ruled the death suspicious and implicated Gemignani, but later evidence suggested that the Gemignani family had actually harassed the girl.
Puccini’s next work, La Rondine, premiered at Monte Carlo in March of 1917. He then premiered a trilogy of one-act operas, II Trittico, at the Metropolitan Opera in December of 1918. Its American premiere was largely the result of the war in Europe, just recently ended. II Trittico consists of the drama II Tabarra (“The Cloak”), the religious piece Suor Angelica, and the comic work Gianni Schicchi.
Puccini and his family moved from Torre del Lago and settled in Viareggio. It was there that Puccini began work on Turandot, his final opera. In 1924 he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and underwent radiation treatment in Brussels. While there, he suffered a heart attack on November 29. The announcement of Puccini’s death halted a performance of La Bohème at La Scala. Benito Mussolini gave a eulogy at his funeral. He was buried at Torre del Lago.
Turandot premiered at La Scala in April of 1926, conducted by Toscanini. On that night, the action and music froze just where Puccini had left it, and Toscanini turned to the audience with tears in his eyes and said, “Here the Maestro put down his pen.” Like Madama Butterfly, Turandot employs an Asian setting and female lead, and remains one of Puccini’s most enduring works. A composer named Franco Alfano was later hired to complete the third act. In September of 1998, Turandot was staged in Beijing, China, in a $15 million production conducted by ZubinMehta that attracted opera fans from around the world.
La Bohème later became the basis for the hit musical Rent, which premiered on Broadway to massive box-office receipts in 1996. Its creator, Jonathan Larson, used the setting and action of Puccini’s work and gave it an even more “verismo” feel by placing it in contemporary New York City, specifically the artists’ enclave of the East Village.
Manon Lescaut, Deutsche Grammophon, 1987.
Tosca, Deutsche Grammophon, 1992.
Turandot, BMG/RCA Victor, 1996.
Madama Butterfly, Vox, 1996.
Favorite Puccini: 20 Best-Loved Arias, EMI Classics, 1996.
La Bohème, Opera d’Oro, 1997.
The Best of Puccini, Naxos, 1997.
Plotkin, Fred, Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera, Hyperion, 1994.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 1980.
Fortune, October 12, 1998, p. 44.
Opera News, March 1999, p. 82.
Rolling Stone, May 16, 1996, p. 54.
Stereo Review, April 1996, p. 100.
Time, March 4, 1996, p. 71.
PUCCINI, GIACOMO (1858–1924), Italian operatic composer.
Giacomo Puccini's popular operas were long dismissed as "ear candy," in contrast to the work of contemporaries perceived to be more serious, such as Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. Almost a century after his death, Puccini is now widely recognized as a meticulous musical craftsman of the first rank.
Born on 22 December in Lucca, the sixth child and first son of Michele Puccini and Albina Maggi, Puccini was heir to a family tradition of church musicians and composers. His father died on 23 January 1864, when Puccini was five years old. His father's job of maestro di cappella and organist in the parish church was held in trust for the boy until he was old enough to assume the office. At the time of his father's death he was the only male in a family of six females, until three months later when his brother Michele was born. Puccini would be a dedicated womanizer throughout his life, a characteristic that many critics see as influential in his musical career.
After he composed several pieces of religious music, he was admitted to the conservatory in Milan in autumn 1880. His first operatic effort was Le willis, a one-act "opera-ballet" ghost story, written for a competition that he failed to win (perhaps due to his illegible handwriting). The opera, expanded to two acts and its title changed to Le villi, was performed the following year, and its success won him a contract with Giulio Ricordi (of Ricordi and Sons), who would remain his publisher, friend, and sometime collaborator. In 1884 his strong-willed mother, Albina, died, and Puccini eloped with his pupil, a married woman, the equally strong-willed Elvira Gemignani. The couple, whose relationship was stormy, had one son, Antonio, and married in 1904, after the death of Gemignani's husband.
In the summer of 1891 Puccini moved to Torre del Lago, which would be his home for most of the rest of his life. His first enduring hit, Manon Lescaut (1893), based on the novel by Abbé Prévost, was an immediate sensation. By the end of 1893 Puccini set to work on an adaptation of Henri Murger's Scènes de la vie de Bohème, an episodic collection of sketches of love among the desperately poor "Bohemians" of early-nineteenth-century Paris. In Puccini's hands, Murger's stark tales become a paean to the bittersweet joys of youth. La Bohème (1896) would be the first of his trio of greatest hits (with Madama Butterfly and Tosca).
As early as spring of 1889 he had resolved to set Victorien Sardou's lurid melodrama La Tosca to music. It would be more than ten years before the project reached fruition in his powerful depiction of love and death in Napoleonic Rome, Tosca (1900).
The following year he turned to an "American" subject, based on David Belasco's dramatization of a Luther Long story. Madama Butterfly (1904) was the only one of his operas to meet with substantial initial hostility, but a revised, three-act version soon joined his other operas in the standard repertoire of opera houses around the world.
With fame and prosperity assured, he struggled for several years to find the right subject for his next opera. He considered several, including a version of Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame and an opera about the trial and execution of Marie-Antoinette, but finally settled on another Belasco play, Girl of the Golden West, which became his seventh opera, La fanciulla del west (1910).
In 1914, as the world stumbled into a war that he would substantially ignore, Puccini turned to La rondine. More of an operetta in the Viennese style than an opera, this proved to be the least popular of his mature works.
He had long considered composing a trilogy, and as early as 1915 he had begun work on the tragedy Il tabarro, which would become one of three one-act operas to make up his Trittico (1919). The other two are Suor Angelica (a romance) and Gianni Schicchi (a comedy).
Le villi, libretto by Ferdinando Fontana. Premier: Turin, Teatro Regio, 26 December 1884. A one-act version had its premier in Milan, Teatro dal Verme, 31 May 1884.
Edgar, libretto by Ferdinando Fontana. Premier: Milan, La Scala, 21 April 1889.
Manon Lescaut, libretto by Marco Praga, Domenico Oliva, Luigi Illica, and Giuseppe Giacosa. Premier: Turin, Teatro Reggio, 1 February 1893.
La Bohème, libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Premier: Turin, Teatro Reggio, 1 February 1896.
Tosca, libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Premier: Rome, Teatro Costanzi, 14 January 1900.
Madama Butterfly, libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Premier: Milan, La Scala, 17 February 1904; a revised version had its premier in Brescia, Teatro Grande, 28 May 1904.
La fanciulla del west, libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangari. Premier: New York, Metropolitan Opera House, 10 December 1910.
Il trittico: Il tabarro, libretto by Giuseppe Adami; Suor Angelica, libretto by Giovacchino Foranza; Gianni Schicchi, libretto by Giovacchino Foranza. Premier: New York, Metropolitan Opera House, 14 December 1918.
Turandot, libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni; completed after Puccini's death by Franco Alfano. Premier: Milan, La Scala, 25 April 1926.
His last—and many believe his greatest—opera, Turandot, first appears in his letters early in 1920; it was complete except for the last scene when the composer died of throat cancer, on 29 November 1924.
Puccini's operas are characterized by strong melodic lines, meticulous musical craftsmanship, and plots that usually include a sadomasochistic undercurrent typical of the fin de siècle. His operas are much beloved by audiences and figure prominently in any list of the most popular operas of all time.
Ashbrook, William. The Operas of Puccini. New York, 1968. Based on his study of the autograph scores as well as the literary sources of the operas.
Carner, Mosco. Puccini: A Critical Biography. 1st U.S. ed. New York, 1959. Still the standard biography of the composer, presenting a complete if sometimes excessively Freudian interpretation of his life and work.
Gara, Eugenio. Carteggi pucciniani. Milan, 1958. The most complete collection of Puccini papers, including more than nine hundred items to, from, and about Puccini.
Hopkinson, Cecil. A Bibliograpy of the Works of Giacomo Puccini, 1858–1924. New York, 1968. A detailed list of published Puccini scores, including nonoperatic works.
Marek, George Richard. Puccini. London, 1952. An earlier, and still valuable, biography.
Weaver, William, and Simonetta Puccini, eds. The Puccini Companion. New York, 1994. Essays on all things Puccinian, including two valuable bibliographic essays.
Susan Vandiver Nicassio
The Italian composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was the most successful follower of Verdi, continuing the line of Italian operatic composers into the 20th century.
Born in Lucca on Dec. 22, 1858, into a family whose members had composed operas of local success for several generations, Giacomo Puccini learned the rudiments of music from the best local teachers, served as a church organist, and composed sacred choral works while still in his teens. A pension in 1880 from Queen Margherita made it possible for him to go to Milan for study at the conservatory. His most important teacher was the composer Amilcare Ponchielli, who encouraged him to write his first opera, Le Villi, in 1884. The work was entered in a competition sponsored by the Teatro Illustrato but received no recognition there; it was performed with such success at one of the smaller Milanese theaters that it was put on the stage at the famous La Scala opera house in 1885.
Edgar, done at La Scala in 1889, was a failure, but Manon Lescaut, performed in Turin in 1893, was favorably received and soon became a popular work throughout Italy and abroad. Puccini's first spectacular triumph came in 1896 with La Bohème, to a libretto by Giacosa and Illica, premiered in Turin. Its touching portrayal of episodes in the lives and loves of students in Paris and the simplicity and accessibility of the music in gay, romantic, and pathetic scenes excited and moved audiences from the first performance on, and its popularity has continued to the present day in all countries that enjoy opera.
Tosca, again to a libretto by Giacosa and Illica, which was given in Rome in 1900, was a more serious and melodramatic work, with relatively few moments of lyricism, but it was almost as successful and has also become a mainstay of the standard repertory. Madama Butterfly, set in Japan, was the first work in which Puccini used scales and melodies of non-Western music. It was poorly received at the first performance at La Scala in 1904 but has since become every bit as popular as La Bohème and probably for the same reasons: there are long passages of lush and sentimental music, tunes that are easy to remember, effective scenes of pathos, and well-calculated bits of stage business. Madama Butterfly was also his last completely successful work.
Welcoming the opportunity to visit America, Puccini wrote a new work for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City: The Girl of the Golden West (La fanciulla del West). The first performance, in 1910, was received with the expected enthusiasm, but the opera was not so well received later and is rarely performed today. He endeavored to capture the local color of the American West; there are scenes of gambling and saloons and an attempted lynching, and some of the tunes try to sound like American songs. But in the end the music sounds just like Puccini, and not Puccini at his best.
A comic opera, La Rondine, given in Monte Carlo in 1917, has not held the stage. The following year Puccini wrote three one-act operas, Il trittico, designed to be done together as an evening's entertainment, and premiered in New York. The first, Il tabarro, is melodramatic, much in the style of parts of Tosca; Suor Angelica, set in a convent and written for women's voices, is lyric and subdued; and Gianni Schicchi, the most successful and often done separately, is his best comic work, rapid-paced with some fine moments of contrasting lyricism.
Death took Puccini before he could complete his last work, Turandot. He was nearing the end of the work when he was stricken by throat cancer and taken for an operation to Brussels, where he died on Nov. 29, 1924. The opera was completed by Alfano and first performed at La Scala, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, in 1926. It has some fine lyric moments and unusually effective dramatic ones, and in some places it makes more effective use of such pseudo-Oriental devices as pentatonic scales than did Madama Butterfly, but the work as a whole lacks some cohesion and has not been as perennially popular as some of his earlier operas.
Puccini's strengths are his delicate and sensitive handling of both voices and orchestra in lyric and pathetic scenes and occasionally in lively scenes as well and his ability to write melodies that audiences learn quickly and apparently never tire of hearing. His best scenes are those for one or two characters; ensemble writing in his operas rarely approaches the excitement common in the works of such predecessors as Gioacchino Rossini and Giuseppe Verdi.
Music was undergoing dramatic stylistic changes in the last decades of Puccini's life with the works of such men as Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Béla Bartók. Puccini clung to the harmonic and melodic language of the late 19th century. The problem of reconciliation between radical changes of musical language and the venerable form of opera has been a thorny one, and it should be noted that the last operas to be truly successful in terms of wide acceptance by audiences and retention in the repertory are those of Puccini and Richard Strauss, two men who remained on the periphery of the widespread innovation so characteristic of the first decades of the 20th century.
The Letters of Giacomo Puccini were edited by Giuseppe Adami (1928; trans. 1931). George Marek, Puccini: A Biography (1951), the most extensive work in English, is a subjective and romantic treatment of the composer. Puccini's operas are discussed in Max De Schauensee, The Collector's Verdi and Puccini (1962), and William Ashbrook, The Operas of Puccini (1968). For background material Donald Jay Grout, A Short History of Opera (1947; 2d ed. 1965), is recommended.
Brown, Jonathon, Puccini, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Carner, Mosco, Puccini: a critical biography, New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1977, 1974.
Greenfeld, Howard, Puccini: a biography, New York: Putnam, 1980.
Jackson, Stanley, Monsieur Butterfly; the story of Giacomo Puccin, New York, Stein and Day 1974.
Marggraf, Wolfgang, Giacomo Puccini, New York: Heinrichshofen: Sole selling agents, C.F. Peters, 1984.
Weaver, William, Puccini: the man and his music, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977. □
Puccini lacks the nobility of Verdi, but few opera composers can rival him in dramatic flair and skill. He is sentimental but it is a sentimentality to which millions are glad to respond. His sense of characterization was highly developed and his genius for orchestration enabled him with a few notes to hold an audience in the palm of his hand. Most of his operas contain a heroine in whom there are elements of the ‘little girl’, and there is a streak of sadistic cruelty which also marred the personality of the man himself. He continued to develop as an artist and to respond to contemporary influences, from Debussy to Schoenberg. Prin. works:OPERAS: Le Villi (The Willis) (first, 1-act, version, 1883; 2-act version, 1884); Edgar (4-act version, 1884–8; 3-act version 1892, rev. 1901, 1905); Manon Lescaut (1890–2); La bohème (1894–5); Tosca (1898–9); Madama Butterfly (2-act version, 1901–3; 3-act version, 1904; further cuts and rev., 1906); La fanciulla del West (1908–10); La rondine (The Swallow) (1914–16, rev 1918–19); Il trittico (Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi) (1913–18); Turandot (1920–6, last scene completed by Alfano).CHORAL: Messa di Gloria in A, for sop., ten., bar., ch., and orch. (1880).ORCH.: Preludio sinfonico (1876); Capriccio sinfonico (1883).CHAMBER MUSIC: Crisantemi, str. qt. (1890); 3 Minuets, str. qt. (1892, Nos. 1 and 3 rev. 1898).
Opera composer; b. Lucca, Italy, Dec. 22, 1858; d. Brussels, Belgium, Nov. 29, 1924. His ancestors for four generations were church musicians, and he was expected to carry on the tradition. After studies at the Lucca and Milan conservatories and two posts as church organist, however, he devoted himself almost entirely to opera composition. Of his 12 operas, Manon Lescaut (1892), La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madame Butterfly (1904), Gianni Schicchi (1918), and the unfinished Turandot are most popular. They are characterized by a melodious style, superb orchestration, idiomatic vocal writing, and a telling sense of theater. "Lax in his religious beliefs, if not actually an unbeliever" (Carner), he did, however, produce a Mass in A-flat (1880, published 1951 as Messa di Gloria ), nonliturgical and highly operatic throughout (the Agnus Dei was later used in Manon Lescaut ). An early motet for the feast of St. Paulina and an unpublished Requiem (1905) are his only other essays in church music, although he used religious ceremonies for dramatic effect in Tosca and Suor Angelica.
Bibliography: g. puccini, Letters, ed. g. adami, tr. e. makin (London 1931). a. bonaccorsi, Puccini (Milan 1950). g. r. marek, Puccini (New York 1951). m. carner, Puccini (London 1958). f. bonavia, Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. e. blom 9 v. (5th ed. London 1954) 6:987–991. a. w. atlas, "Crossed Stars and Crossed Tonal Areas in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, " 19th Century Music 14 (1990) 186–196; "Mimì's Death: Mourning in Puccini and Leoncavallo," The Journal of Musicology 14 (1996) 52–79. m. girardi, Giacomo Puccini: l'arte internazionale di un musicista italiano (Venice 1995). h. m. greenwald, "Verdi's Patriarch and Puccini's Matriarch: 'Through the Looking-Glass and What Puccini Found There'," 19th Century Music 17 (1994) 220–36. j. c. petty, "The Ravished Flower: A Major Poetics in Madama Butterfly, " The Opera Journal 30/4 (1997) 2–20. m. rosenthal-english, Giacomo Puccinis 'La fanciulla del West': Eine neue Opern-konzeption im Oeuvre des Komponisten (Berlin 1997). d. schickling, "Puccini's 'Work in Progress': The So-Called Versions of Madama Butterfly," Music and Letters 79 (1998) 527–537.
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