(born Lucca 22 December 1858; died Brussels 29 November 1924)
Born into a family of musicians and composers, Puccini became the leading Italian opera composer of his generation. His most popular works are among the most frequently performed and best-loved operas in the entire repertoire and include La bohème, Tosca and Madam Butterfly.
Puccini's Musical Style
Puccini was the leading exponent of the genre of opera known as ‘verismo’ – Italian for ‘realism’. Verismo is characterised by a story rooted in real life (rather than that of the gods or mythology), where the music and drama are seamlessly matched and often describe a story of passion and romance.The style was made popular by the success of Mascagni’s Cavelleriarusticana (1890) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci(1892).
Big, beautiful and unabashedly romantic, Puccini’s effortless lyricism is the hallmark of his style. His writing was influenced by two nineteenth-century operatic giants – Verdi and Wagner. Like Wagner, Puccini often uses musical ideas – motifs – to denote characters or ideas. He also responded to the music of his contemporaries and some of the newer ideas of Debussy, Richard Strauss and even Stravinsky can be found in his music.
All Puccini’s operas are noted for their superb stagecraft. He claimed that he could compose only when he was able to visualise his characters in his mind’s eye, considering their position on stage and their motivation. His operas often showcase his wonderful ability to unite music, words and drama into a single moment.
Although most of his works focused on tragedy (the heroine dies in bohème and Butterfly, and in Tosca both the hero and heroine as well as their nemesis die), he also produced a popular comedy, Gianni Schicci. He died before completing his final opera, Turandot, which was subsequently finished by Alfano, and premiered at La Scala in 1926.
It was probably inevitable that Puccini would become an opera composer – he even claimed that that God had ordered him to ‘write only for the theatre.’
His hometown of Lucca (where he later spent his summers each year) had three theatres presenting opera and a strong tradition of spoken drama, including the latest Italian and French plays. His exposure to a wide range of dramatic literature from an early age gave Puccini a flair for being able to spot the operatic potentials of plays. This remained true even in later life where he drew operatic influence from plays written in languages he didn’t understand (such as the source play for Madam Butterfly).
His career was carefully managed by the publisher Giulio Ricordi, who advised him on possible subjects, found librettists and smoothed over any creative differences. Unlike his contemporaries, Puccini produced work at a relatively slow rate – about one every four or five years. This was mainly due to the care he took in choosing subjects, and like Verdi before him, the exceptional demands he placed on librettists to improve the libretto. Once the text was settled he generally composed fluently, though he was prepared to revise later if necessary (as in the case of Butterfly).
When not composing or away supervising performances of his operas, where his involvement demanded the highest possible standards, he loved nothing better than shooting wildfowl near his home at Torre del Lago, whilst also retaining a passion for cars and boats.