Puccini: A Listener's Guide

Puccini: A Listener's Guide

by John Bell Young


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(Unlocking the Masters). In this comprehensive exploration of Puccini's most beloved operas, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, John Bell Young celebrates some of the most moving music ever composed. In clear-cut, concise, but also entertaining prose, the author conveys the poignant stories that inspired these great works, elaborating their musical as well as dramatic content. An ideal companion for experienced opera devotees as well as those who are discovering opera for the first time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486799964
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 03/15/2016
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

John Bell Young is an American concert pianist, music critic, and author.

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A Listener's Guide

By John Bell Young

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 John Bell Young
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-81055-3


Giacomo Puccini: An Overview

Whatever it is about Puccini's music that stirs the passions to the extent it does may never be known. If, as Heraclitus so ably put it, the truth is nowhere — it has no location — then it may be a very long time indeed until anyone can come up with a satisfactory explanation. While Puccini's music, which expressed itself almost exclusively in opera, is celebrated by an overwhelming majority of listeners for its opulent melodies, dramatic efficacy, and harmonic originality, it is often maligned by others who see in it little more than cheap entertainment, a potpourri of popular tunes masquerading as through-composition and geared for the masses.

To come to grips with Puccini, and the possible reasons for the disparity of taste that would either extol him as a great composer or marginalize him as merely an early progenitor of pop music — which, as we shall see, he most certainly was not — it might be a good idea to reconsider some very common assumptions about music itself, and particularly in relation to the average, if nonexpert, music lover. So let us digress for a moment and see where that takes us.

Certainly, it is true that in the 115 years or so since the publication and premiere of his first major success, Manon Lescaut, Puccini's operas have rarely if ever failed to enthrall audiences; they have always been, and remain, popular. In the world of classical music culture, popular is a dirty word, one that has long been pejorative, though perhaps less so nowadays than it once was. The idea, long since reified as common wisdom, that the technical and aesthetic complexities that inform classical music can be fully appreciated and understood only by those who study it, still has currency and is not entirely without merit. Great music, or any music for that matter, rewards those who reward themselves through getting to know it better. And while that can be accomplished by means of diligent study, practice, and experience, objective study ought not exclude the equally important discipline of listening.

But for now, in order to disavow ourselves of any prejudice in relation to Puccini's music, we would do well to consider the entire notion of popularity, especially as it relates to classical music. Some people find the fact that his operas appeal to such a broad spectrum of people, across so many cultures and nationalities, to be troubling, as if Puccini's success in communicating with audiences were merely formulaic. Great art, in the minds of some, is great only by virtue of its immanent complexity. If everyone can understand and is moved by a musical composition — so this mindset would have it — then it can't possibly be worthwhile, and certainly not "serious," which is to say, intellectually viable, genuine, and aesthetically substantial. This conclusion may arise because the notion of "popular" presumes, for one thing, a lack of complexity within the artwork itself, as if the bundle of ideas, structures, technical strategies and procedures, traditions, and, for lack of a better word, laws that govern a "serious" musical composition are all that matter.

Granted, in a civilized society, art is and always has been the measure of socialized values, a reflection of a culture's standards, beliefs, and aspirations. Without moving into a discussion that would go far afield of this work, suffice it to say that art, at its best, codifies that which cannot be expressed any other way. Indeed, in a language that is not exactly a language (which is to say that music is capable of expressing only itself — it cannot, like words, convey specific information about anything outside itself) — music codifies ideas, states of mind, and feelings. This it does by means of an exceptionally rich and sophisticated compositional vocabulary. What's more, it does so on its own terms, without having to rely on anyone's wholly subjective impressions or reactions to its unique message or inner workings. Music simply is what it is: ineffable, ungraspable. Our response to and perceptions of music, while contributing to our individual experience, are not equal to it.

Music has the power to inspire anyone who cares to listen, and if it does so through association with extramusical phenomena, so be it. Certainly, trained musicians may experience music on a number of levels that the average person may not; a musician can hear across a composition, no matter its genre, be it a Chopin prelude or Wagner's Ring, and detect within a compositional edifice many, if not all, of its parts and the relationships of these parts to each other. If musicians have any advantage, it lies in their ability to grasp what is substantial or novel about a work's harmony, rhythm, architecture, and counterpoint, how these are organized, and what they engender. In other words, the expert listener is both capable of and satisfied with the act of interpretation.

That's just fine, but is it fair or even smart to suggest that because a musical composition, no matter its genre or complexity (and Puccini's music, by the way, is nothing if not complex in compositional as well as dramatic categories), has the ability to speak to its audience and to move them, the work is somehow inadequate or unintelligible? Is our principal obligation as listeners, and even as professional musicians, to evaluate, analyze, and think about music in a manner that segregates our listening apparatus from our gut feeling?

It seems to me that if we favor the division of labor in art to such an extent where we abstract the artwork itself — which is already an abstraction — from our enjoyment and experience of it emotionally, we do ourselves a disservice. That is not by any means to suggest that we should abandon our pursuit of knowledge, or fail to move into the interior workings of a composition as a means of enlightenment, intellectual stimulation, and thoughtful interaction. But the moment we shrink away from music precisely because it moves in on us, exploiting our emotional responses for reasons and in ways that remain mysterious, we begin to miss the point altogether. After all, Beethoven's Ninth or Mahler's Third excites our imaginations, stimulates our gray matter, and compels us to think about what we are listening to and how we are listening to it. But these works also move us, sometimes to laughter or tears; their power is precisely such that they can toss and buffet us, like so many leaves in a brisk wind or gentle breeze, exposing us to the elements of art that we cannot always, and need not always, explain.

The operas of Puccini elicit precisely these kinds of emotional responses, and those who find it reasonable or even pleasurable to demean these works because they reach deep into the hearts of those who hear them, no matter their station in life or experience, have little if anything to gain from those opinions. Perhaps it has something to do with immediacy; music that takes hold of anyone, on first hearing, with such inexorable power is viewed as suspect in some quarters, and nowhere more often than in academia. That's hardly surprising, of course, among those who devote their attention to talking, writing, and thinking about music — sometimes rather than making it. That's not a critique so much as it is an observation, because the fact remains that, without intelligible, probative analysis, and immanent critique, music would not have gotten much farther along than blowing into bones.

My point is precisely this: let's not miss the point. As Stella Adler, the actress and celebrated drama coach, once told me over lunch at her home as I pressed her for ideas about the dramatic arts, "Let the given circumstances of the situation you find yourself in onstage move in on you." A more apt expression of intent and reason for making art in the first place I cannot imagine.

The man and his music

Few if any composers have a name quite as long as Puccini's. Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was a born musician, almost literally. His father, Michele Puccini (1813–1864), was a composer, an organist, and the choirmaster of the Cathedral of San Martino in the Tuscan city of Lucca, where the Puccini family had roots going back to the early eighteenth century. Michele was also the director of a music school, the Istituto Pacini, in Lucca. Giacomo's great-great-grandfather and eponym, Giacomo (1712– 1781), was likewise an organist, while his grandfather Domenico Puccini (1772–1815) was a reasonably successful composer of operas.

Puccini was not quite six years old when his father died in 1864. His mother, Albina, intuited the boy's musical gifts early on and sent him to his uncle Fortunato Magi for piano and voice lessons. At sixteen, Puccini enrolled full-time in the Istituto Pacini, where he studied composition with Carlo Angeloni. Puccini had already established himself as a proficient organist and kept himself employed in local churches. Even then, he had a sense of humor. Already enamored of one of Italy's favorite pastimes, the opera, he was known for improvising medleys on famous operatic tunes and throwing these, like so much extra pork, into his hymns, a feat that, while remarkable, did not exactly win him friends among the clergy. Indeed, Puccini was so enthralled with opera that, in order to see a production of Verdi's Aida, he actually walked to Pisa, some nineteen miles from Lucca, which in those days would have been quite an exercise.

He graduated the Istituto in 1880, an occasion marked by the composition and debut of his Messa di Gloria (its original title was Messa a Quattro Voci), for mixed chorus, tenor and baritone soloists, and orchestra. It was a smart choice, given his pedigree and the fact that Lucca had long had a reputation as a center for the composition and production of sacred music. His Messa was a critical and public success, and though it hardly made him famous, it got him noticed.

Upon being graduated from the Istituto, Puccini had a dream come true: with a stipend from Queen Margherita, he moved to Milan, where he studied composition with Amilcare Ponchielli and Antonio Bazzini. He submitted his first opera, Le villi, for a competition but failed to win, as his work was deemed ineligible, for reasons, it seems, of legibility! Fortunately, the work attracted the attention of a few prominent individuals, including the composers Boito and Catalani, and an important journalist, Marco Sala. With their support, Le villi had its premiere at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan in May 1884.

The success of Le villi, while not overwhelming, brought Puccini a certain local acclaim and also the interest of Giulio Ricordi, the influential music publisher, who found in Puccini the rightful musical heir to Verdi. With this, Puccini, who would form an impenetrable personal and professional bond with Ricordi until the day he died, and with the Ricordi firm until the day Puccini himself died, was on his way. Ricordi provided him with a reasonable stipend, enough to keep him going while he composed his next opera, Edgar, which was not a success. Ricordi, who had a nose for the crème de la crème in music, did not abandon him on that account; on the contrary, he drew closer and supported Puccini all the more.

But with the premiere of his third opera, Manon Lescaut, at the Teatro Regio in Turin in February 1893, Puccini's bright future became a fait accompli. With the royalties and revenues he earned from its publication and many productions throughout Europe, he became a wealthy man, but he also remained a frugal one; in his student days in Milan, as he occasionally reminisced, he sometimes had to make do in a way not unlike one of the characters in La bohème, burning manuscript paper to keep warm. He never wanted to find himself in that situation again, and he never did. In 1891 he rented rooms at Torre del Lago and in 1900 built the magnificent villa that would become his permanent residence.

Success upon success followed. La bohème, likewise produced at the Teatro Regio, was given its premiere on February 1, 1896, attaining to even greater international acclaim than Manon Lescaut and thus increasing his fortunes all the more. Tosca, based on a play of the same name by Victorien Sardou, was next in line and had its notable premiere on January 14, 1901, at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Madama Butterfly followed, but its opening night at La Scala on February 17, 1904, was a dismal failure; the Milanese crowd, or at least the part of it that took its seats in the rafters, booed and hissed. This rejection was likely due to a long-simmering feud between Ricordi and rival publisher Edoardo Sonzogno, who battled each other for dominance. Sonzogno, it seems, used the occasion of Madama Butterfly to fuel the antagonisms of some sectors of the public, particularly young composers who had been marginalized by Ricordi in favor of his star client, Puccini. The music-publishing world in those days pretty much controlled which composers became successful, and it influenced to a perhaps unhealthy degree the revenues that an opera house could take in. A few months later in May 1904, Puccini's revised version of Madama Butterfly was given a second chance in Brescia, where it became an immediate hit.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York played host to the premiere of La fanciulla del West on December 10, 1910, to largely favorable but not unanimously stellar notices. Certainly, the public loved it. Musically, it was one of Puccini's most original creations, but the critical reaction was not exactly what he had hoped it would be. In 1916 he completed his comic opera La rondine, the composition and production of which were delayed by the onset of World War I. Its debut in Monte Carlo on March 27, 1917, was something of a personal triumph, given the work's genesis; it was commissioned by an Austrian publishing house that sold the rights back to an Italian — Edoardo's son, Lorenzo Sonzogno — as the political situation in Europe, particularly between Germany and Italy, made its production something of a burden.

The year 1918 saw the Metropolitan Opera production of his triple bill Il trittico, which included three one-act operas, Il tabarro, Gianni Schicchi, and Suor Angelica. Only two years later, Puccini set to work on his last opera, Turandot, which he would not complete; he finished only the first two and a half acts, up to Liù's funeral cortege. Puccini developed cancer of the throat and died in Brussels in November 25, 1924. Turandot was completed by his student Franco Alfano and had its premiere at La Scala in Milan on April 25, 1926, under the direction of Arturo Toscanini, a conductor with whom Puccini had a long and stormy relationship.

Puccini's personal life could sometimes be as dramatic and entangled as any of his operas. In 1886 he met Elvira Gemignani, who at that time was married to a Luccan businessman. Puccini, who throughout his life remained a womanizer unable to keep himself from getting embroiled in affairs, became enamored of Elvira, a tall, dark-eyed beauty, and they entered into a serious relationship. As her husband would not grant her a divorce, she was compelled to live with Puccini without the legal and, perhaps more significant at that time, social benefits of matrimony. She had two children, one of whom, her daughter Fosca, was entrusted to her care upon her separation from her husband. In 1886 she bore Puccini a son, Tonio, who would some years later make a failed attempt at suicide over a soured love affair of his own. When Elvira's husband Gemignani died in 1904, she and Puccini were finally able to wed.

The union would survive many rough roads and last until Puccini's final breath. It was not an easy affair, though. Like Tosca, Elvira had a jealous streak a mile long, and probably with good reason, given the number of affairs her husband saw fit to have. But she was in part responsible for their problems, as she was unable to control her temper. She never cared for Puccini's passions, which included hunting, boating, cars, and card games. She could be difficult when with his friends or family, and her wildly suspicious nature inspired her worst, and perhaps psychotic, behavior.


Excerpted from Puccini by John Bell Young. Copyright © 2008 John Bell Young. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Giacomo Puccini: An Overview,
Chapter 2. Manon Lescaut,
Chapter 3. La bohème,
Chapter 4. Tosca,
Chapter 5. Madama Butterfly,
Chapter 6. La rondine,
Chapter 7. Il trittico: Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi,
Chapter 8. Turandot,

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