"I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion."
Giacomo Puccini was born on the 23rd of December, 1858 in Lucca, Tuscany. He was the son of a choirmaster and organist. Puccini, who was only five when his father died, was expected to follow in his father's footsteps as organist and choirmaster at San Martino. In 1872 he did begin his career as a local church organist.
In 1880, Puccini entered the Milan Conservatory of Music and became a student of Amilcare Ponchielli. Puccini was the man of his time. In the second half of the 19th century, the two greatest opera composers of the age, Verdi in Italy and Wagner in Germany, still had some of their greatest years ahead of them, and Puccini drew on the strengths of both. From the former, he inherited the great tradition of Italian opera, with its emphasis on expressive singing, and learned something from Wagner about the fusion of music and drama. In the realm of opera, few composers can compare with Puccini's ability to match a theme to a dramatic situation and touch the hearts of his listeners. "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen", One Fine Day", and "None Shall Sleep" are just three of Puccini's arias that have echoed around the world.
The heroes of Puccini's opera's tend to fall into two camps: either they are powerful and resourceful or, like the consumptive Mimì, tragic victims. The slave girl Liù in Turandot, is a good example - she sacrifices herself for love of her master, Calaf. The tragic character of Liù is Puccini's own invention. Puccini's wife Elvira was convinced her husband was having an affair with their 21-year-old servant, Doria Manfredi. She drove her away and harried her until the poor girl committed suicide. A post mortem was performed and proved that Doria was a virgin. This sordid affair haunted Puccini forever and resulted in the creation of Liù.
In Madame Butterfly another tragic heroine, Cio Cio San, takes her own life when her feckless American husband betrays her. The story of Madame Butterfly is based on historical fact. Puccini took the idea and the title for his opera from a play by the dramatist David Belasco. Belasco, in turn, had based his play on a magazine article that recounted the sad story of a real-life geisha girl, Tsuru Yamamura, who was jilted by her American sailor husband and tried to take her own life. In Puccini's opera, poor Butterfly does finally kill herself. The premiere of Madame Butterfly at La Scala in Milan was a disaster, largely because Puccini's rivals organised a hostile "claque" - a group of people hired to boo and hiss. Puccini then made improvements to his opera, which finally became a huge hit.
Puccini wrote with equal skill and sensitivity for the orchestra, making every note and chord - every instrument - highlight the drama. The combined effect of music and song is pure theatrical magic. His talent as a master of orchestration, is shown especially in Intermezzo from Manon Lescault. Based on a novel by the Abbé Prévost, a one-time Benedictine monk. Jules Massenet also turned the story into an opera, Manon. Puccini said "Manon is a heroine I believe in, and therefore she cannot fail to win the heart of the public". Puccini was a master of the new dramatic movement called verismo in Italian, meaning down-to-earth or true-to-life, as in La Bohème. He also understood how to write for the orchestra with all the skill of the "Impressionist" composers Debussy and Ravel, his younger contemporaries. Thus, Puccini recognised all that preceded him, yet still kept abreast of the times. Puccini never lost touch with his public; indeed, he was destined to be one of the last great composers with mass appeal.
Like many Romantics, Puccini loved being outdoors. For him, the Italian countryside was the only place where he could be truly creative. In 1900 he bought a country estate near Lucca, at Torre del Lago. He disliked the noise and bustle of the big cities or even large groups and, when opportunity allowed, would return to his peaceful country retreat near Viareggio. There, by the lake, he could focus on his work. As a great sportsman, he also was able to indulge in his favourite activities - hunting, fishing, or just driving around on his enormous estate.
Puccini spent his final four years working on Turandot. During this time he was deeply depressed. Many of his friends had died and, despite his fame, he felt that, "Maybe, or even without the maybe, I am no longer any good." Though composition sometimes went well, the libretto materialised slowly and Puccini often demanded cuts and rewrites. Act I, he complained, was more like a conference than a drama.
By March of 1924, he was suffering constantly from a throat condition, which was finally diagnosed as cancer. At a Brussels clinic, he underwent a gruelling operation that brought on heart failure, and on 29 November, he died. As his body was taken back to Milan, Italy plunged into mourning. At his funeral, Toscanini and the company of La Scala performed the Requiem music from his opera, Edgar.
Puccini died leaving Turandot unfinished, at Liù's death scene. Franco Alfano completed the score, but at the La Scala premiere in 1926, only Puccini's music was performed. After the death of Liù, the conductor, Toscanini, turning to the audience, declared, "The opera ends here; at this point Giacomo Puccini broke off his work. Death on this occasion was stronger than art." There was silence, then a cry of "Viva Puccini", and a passionate ovation.
contributed by Gifford, Katya