Giacomo Puccini

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.

Further Reading on Giacomo Puccini

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.

Additional Biography Sources

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.