Puccini, Giacomo


The leading composer of the day in Italy, and probably the greatest living opera-writer. Born at Lucca. For five generations members of his family have held positions of varying importance in the musical affairs of Italy. Michele, the present Puccini's father, was the pupil of his grandfather, Antonio, of Mattei, Mercadente and Donizetti, and, after returning to Lucca, was appointed inspector of the then new Institute of Music. He composed an opera, and several masses, but was better known as a teacher. He died in 1864, when Giacomo was but six years old, leaving the mother to raise a large family.

Giacomo was too wayward to be successful in his studies, and an uncle's severe training also failed to make him a singer; but his mother felt that he was to be a musician, and managed to send him to the Pacini Institute, where Angeloni was his teacher. Having become a fair organist, Puccini went from village to village, often scandalizing the priests by playing original variations on opera airs during the service. In 1877 a competition took place at Lucca, on a setting for the cantata Juno, and Puccini entered. When his work was rejected he did not despair, but had it performed on his own account, and it met with success. He now decided that he must study at Milan, and his mother, unable to meet the whole expense, applied for help to Queen Margarita. The Queen subscribed enough for the first year's tuition and his uncle provided for the other two years, but Giacomo and his brother, with whom he lived, had a hard struggle. Some of their experiences were used as details in La Boheme. He did not immediately succeed in passing the examination, but in October, 1880, he entered the Conservatory, the highest of all the candidates. He made such progress that on being graduated his composition, a Sinfonia Capriccio, showed strength surprising, even to his teachers, Bazzini and Ponchielli. In this, his first work of any consequence, are found the freedom, boldness and grasp of resources, which have characterized his later works. It was produced by Faccio and met with great approval.

Directly after this success Ponchielli suggested that he write an opera, and introduced him to the librettist, Fontana. The Sozogno competition was drawing to a close, so they decided upon Le Villi for a oneact opera. Puccini's writing is almost undecipherable and it was perhaps for this reason that the score was returned unread. Nevertheless, with the assistance of Arrigo Boito and other friends, he was able to produce it at the Teatro dal Verme, May 31, 1884, the Conservatory pupils taking the roles, and its signal success prompted the Ricordi Company to buy the score. It was presented in its present revised form (two acts) at La Scala, Jan. 24, 1885, and given for the first time in England by the Rousby Company at Manchester.

Shortly after the production of Le Villi, Puccini's mother died, and besides the great sorrow which this loss brought him he had to bear even harder pinchings of poverty. Under these circumstances Edgar, a gypsy opera similar to Carmen, was written, again on a libretto by Fontana, and on April 21, 1889, it had its initial performance at La Scala. The music shows an advance over Le Villi, but the opera lacks sufficient interest to keep the stage, though it holds its place in Puccini's affection. The blame is laid on the libretto, which is even more impossible that De Musset's drama, La Coupe et les Levres (Twixt cup and lip) on which it was founded. His next opera, Manon Lescaut, was introduced at the Reggio Theatre at Turin, Feb. 1, 1893, and by its success assured Puccini's position. A string of detached scenes from Abbe Prevost's romance, which had already been the foundation of an opera by Auber, in 1856, and by Massenet in 1884, were adapted for the libretto by Puccini and Ricordi. Auber's opera is now nearly forgotten, but comparisons continually arise between Puccini's work and Massenet's, from which it differs widely in spirit and considerably in the selection of scenes. Puccini visited England for the first time for the initial performance of this work in London at Covent Garden, May 14, 1894. More popular is La Boheme, based on Henri Murger's novel, Vie de Boheme.. This opera was given at Turin, Feb. 1, 1896. Puccini went to England to rehearse the players for its first performance there by the Carl Rosa English Opera Company at Manchester, April 22, 1897. The following October it was presented at Covent Garden. A good deal of the score was written at Castellaccio, near Pescia, where Puccini stayed for a time  before settling on a site for his villa at Torre del Lago, which was built in 1900. Puccini, now master of his resources, produced in this work a score marked by continuity and polish, which has in it an unmistakable atmosphere of Bohemian life with its charm and pathos. In 1898 Puccini visited Paris for the first performance of this opera there, and at that time made arrangements with Sardou to use his play, La Tosca, for an opera. La Tosca is intensely dramatic and tragic almost to excess, and in it, perhaps better than in any other work, does the music fit the varying moods in the story, so much so, indeed, that the main interest lies in the action. It is the only one of Puccini's works called an opera. The first performance was at Costanzi Theatre, Rome, Jan. 14, 1900. July 12 of the same year it was presented at Covent Garden. It was played for the first time in New York at the Metropolitan Opera House, Feb. 4, 1901, and not long after was given in English by the Henry W. Savage Company at Buffalo. In orchestration this opera shows an advance over La Boheme, in symphonic fulness and a greater use of representative themes; that is, themes characteristic of certain individuals which always accompany their appearances.

The success of Madame Butterfly, his latest opera, has been almost phenomenal, yet when first produced at La Scala, Feb. 17, 1904, it met such disapproval that Puccini withdrew it after the first night, without giving the people a chance to change their minds. Madame Butterfly was retouched and brought out with great success at Brescia, May 28, and since then has had an unabated triumph. In July, 1904, it was presented at Buenos Ayres; then at Montevideo and elsewhere in South America, at Alexandria in Egypt, again at Milan, at Turin, Naples, Palermo and Budapest, and for the first time in America at Washington, D. C, October 15; and at the f close of 1906 at the Opera Comique in Paris. Puccini visited New York in January, 1907, to superintend its initial performance there, as well as to be present at the Puccini cycle, consisting of Manon Lescaut, La Boheme, La Tosca, and Madame Butterfly, given by the Metropolitan Company. The Savage Company has toured the United States with Madame Butterfly exclusively, and everywhere it is enthusiastically received. Puccini calls it a Japanese tragedy, and he has used some actual Japanese melodies obtained through the Japanese ambassadress at Rome to add local color, but it is essentially as Italian as La Boheme. The plot is hardly adaptable to music, but, to quote Baughan's criticism, "The composer has overcome many of the difficulties with much   cleverness. When the stage itself is not musically inspiring, he falls back on his orchestra with the happiest effect. The gradual smirching of this butterfly's brightness until in the end she becomes a wan little figure of tragedy is subtly expressed in the music. It is not deep music indeed, it should not be but it has all the more effect because it is thoroughly in character."

It is said that Illica is at work on the librettos for The Girl of the Golden West, after Belasco's play, and Marie Antoinette. "My next plot," Wakeling Dry reports Puccini to have said, " must be one of sentiment to allow me to work in my own way. I am determined not to go beyond the place in art where I find myself at home." And even this statement was hard to get from the modest and retiring composer. Puccini's rank seems destined to be a high one. The works he has already produced show him to be much superior to Mascagni and Leoncavallo, and, indeed, worthy to be the successor of Verdi, as that master predicted. In his music he combines the old and truly national characteristic of Italian Opera with modern dramatic power and orchestral coloring, and his mastery of the light lyric style makes him very popular in the present day. At New York during the season of 1907 his four later operas were given twenty-one times, while eight of Wagner's had only twenty-four performances.

Puccini married Elvira Bonturi, of Lucca, and their son, Antonio, was born in 1886. The composer spends most of his time at Torre del Lago, where wild ducks and other game is plenty, and delights in a "shoot" and in sailing the lakes in his American motor-boat, Butterfly, in which he conceives many of his ideas. He also has a villa at Chiatri Hill, across the lake from Torre del Lago, and a house in Milan, in which city he teaches composition at the Conservatory. He is a member of the committee which is preparing for the one hundredth anniversary of this Conservatory. For a most interesting account of Puccini and his works see Wakeling Dry's Giacomo Puccini, published in 1906, one of the Living Masters of Music series.