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Composer of the month #13
December 27th, 2020
Each month, we are happy to receive a new famous composer who imposed their mark on music history by their influence on the world and what they achieved during their life. In these interviews, they talk about their work and history. They also have the generosity to offer you free sheet music of some of their most iconic pieces for your Newzik library! This month, we're proud to receive Italian composer Giacomo Puccini.
Giacomo was kind enough to prepare a complete setlist for Newzik's subscribers, with all the music we discussed with him. If you are already a Newzik subscriber, go ahead and download it right away!
If you are a free user, choose only the parts you want later in the interview (mind the 15-file import limit of your free account). Subscribe to Newzik for unlimited import! Finally, in case you’re not a Newzician yet, get Newzik for free on the App Store to download these free scores from Giacomo Puccini!
“You will see that I am right”. This is what I wrote the day after the first representation of Madama Butterfly. Even if I left the Scala in Milan to hissing from the spectators who found my opera stodgy, I remain very proud of this performance.
This audience did not deserve my music: during this scene featuring bird warbling, they laughed as if they were poultry and rabbits.. It goes without saying that t I did not have a very good evening. Don't mistake my words for some bragging. Whether it is Tosca, or La Bohème, my operas have always been victims of harsh criticism. Nevertheless, they always found their audience, and in any case, I became the new ambassador of Italian music, after Verdi.
The problem with that is that I never really liked to work. So, when I face critics about my operas, the least I could do would be to try and improve them - even though, again, criticism is often wrong. But it is additional work. Since I was a child, I’ve always been described as “brilliant but a bit lazy”. When I grew up, I would rather have fun in my hometown, Lucca, than study at my school desk. Then, in Milan, when I started studying composition, I was among the best students, but my laziness did not get any better. My teacher Amilcare Ponchielli wrote about me: "I would be totally satisfied if he would be more regular in his efforts."
Tosca is an opera in three acts, based on a booklet of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosca, after Victorien Sardou’s play. Puccini took more than ten years to obtain the author's permission for this adaptation. Puccini is famous in particular for his penchant for “Verismo”. Verismo is an Italian artistic movement close to French realism, which highlights the “poetry of the real”: the fact that the author must be inspired by and stay true to nature.
The operas from this movement draw their plots from everyday life and the hero is often a common man, a "simple man", the opposite of the mythical Wagnerian hero. Tosca fits rather well with this style. The beginning of the third act is marked by the sound of the bells of Rome. We also hear a true shepherd's song in Roman dialect, with sheep bell sounds in the background. The voice of the singer who interprets Tosca is also typically verist: a powerful soprano in the medium range, valiant in the high register and dense in the low. However, in Tosca we find certain influences of Wagnerian drama, with the use of leitmotifs and chromatic harmony.
As a student in Milan, I lived a real bohemian life. People often think that I walked around with my shirt open and my hair in a mess, but I was called a “scapigliato” (ruffled in Italian): I was part of the intellectual movement called the Scapigliatura. Although – like many from the bourgeoisie – I rejected the movement’s conservatism. Each of us, in our own artistic field, wanted to overthrow the codes of creation. Bohemian life, in short.
Not only did this movement inspire one of my most famous operas, La Bohème: above all, it also allowed me to meet some of my dearest friends and supporters. Composer Arrigo Boito, to name one, helped me create my very first opera in 1884, Le Villi.
1884, what a beautiful year! In parallel with my bohemian life, I also had my seductive side. That year I ran away with Elvira to Torre del Lago, far from the city and its gossip. She was a married woman with two children. I liked her strong character. Unfortunately, this strong character and her jealousy did not succeed in making me a faithful companion: our life together was not easy.
Musetta’s Walts - La Bohème “Quando Me’n Vo”
"Quand Me'n Vo" is a slow waltz sung by the character of Musetta in the very famous opera La Bohème. Musetta sings this aria in front of her Bohemian friends, hoping to regain the attention of her old lover Marcello.
More generally, the opera is based on Henry Murger's book Scenes from the Life of Bohemia and its theatrical adaptation “Scènes de la vie de bohème”. This work is iconic of the Scapigliatura movement. Puccini shows a real love story, with an innate and unconscious romanticism far removed from the marriages of interest led by the bourgeoisie. From a musical point of view, Puccini voluntarily departs from traditional Italian lyricism. He proposed a new vocal technique that he called "conversation in music": halfway between the old recitative and the parlato (which he had developed in “La fanciulla del West”).
In spite of everything, life in Torre del Lago suited me rather well. On the one hand, I'm someone who is quite uncomfortable in society, even anxious. People said I was boor. It was also a financial question, since I had not found success at the time: my opera Manon Lescaut only arrived in 1893. However, even with the fame and wealth that I acquired thanks to La Bohème, Tosca or Madama Butterfly, I remained in Torre del Lago, far from the city, as a hermit. I could compose serenely and of course my arms were still open to journalists wishing to discover my world.
I think that this strong wish to get away from society is linked to my childhood. I was born in 1858, in a family of seven children. I am the first boy: five older sisters and a younger brother. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were important local composers - so I’ve been raised in music from the very beginning. Then in January 1864, I lost my father. I suddenly became the last heir of the line of Puccini composers. Especially because of my pronounced disposition for this art. I felt very quickly the family pressure. I think that leaving the urban bustle of Milan for Torre del Lago was my way of escaping this.
Another lyrical drama gave Puccini his first real success. This is his third opera, built in 4 acts and based on the history the chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut.
It is important to remember that Puccini is working on a project already dealt by Massenet before him. His objective was to do something different from his French colleague and we can say that he succeeded. Even if he lets archaic elements reminiscent of the French style of the 18th century, it remains very punctual. More generally, the musical treatment of the narrative focuses on highlighting the tragic impossibility of love between Manon and Des Grieux. This work must be compared with the treatment that Massenet or Daniel Aubert makeof this same work. It’s a key to understand the depth and originality of Puccini's creation.
In 1903, my fame was already well established. In spite of everything, I was deeply unhappy. Still looking proud and elegant, I was haunted by dark dreams and painful questioning. "I need a friend so badly, but I have any. I am the only one who understands who I am, and that makes me suffer so much" I wrote to my librettist Luigi Illica. That same year, a car accident made me lame and I realized the thought of dying terrified me.
I faced many failures. Even if I tried to hide it, being booed during the creation of Madama Butterfly hurt me deeply. Then in 1906, one of my dear librettists, Giacosca, died. I then embarked on a "lyrical western" project which, despite an initial success, was very quickly criticized. Then my operetta, La Rondine, didn't help - a rather mediocre work in reality. Then I composed Le Triptyque, a suite of operas in which I followed an episode of horror, a sentimental tragedy, and a farce, which met with mixed success.
Nessun Dorma is an aria from Giacomo Puccini's ultimate opera, Turandot. It is sung by the character of Calaf, a tenor, at the beginning of the third act. Eaten away by loneliness, the character waits, so impatiently, for the day when he will be able to win the love of Turandot.
The tenor's lyrical flight ends on two "Vincero!", the first on a Si, the second on an La, two fairly high notes for a tenor that will resonate in your mind long after the first listening. As the singer's passion continues to grow with repeated notes, the orchestra engages in a poignant counterpoint with bitter harmonies. This famous aria is a must in Puccini's music, a true witness to his immense compositional talent, signing there a melody that easily finds its way to the heart of the listener.
We are now in 1924. I have been diagnosed with throat cancer. As I write these words, I am trying to finish my opera Turandotas best I can : a tragic tale inspired by a Chinese legend where death is overcome by love. I know that this will be my final work, and that I will not finish it. So I grab a sheet of paper and turn it into a letter to the conductor Arturo Toscanini. With a trembling hand, I make my pen creak to write these words: "My opera will be given unfinished. Someone will then go on stage and say to the audience: here ends the Maestro's work, this is where it was when he died".
In 1926, when Turandot is on stage, Arturo Toscanini fulfilled the last will of Giacomo Puccini. The room, overwhelmed by emotion, let some long seconds of silence pass. Then, swallowing their tears, the audience rose to its feet and gave Puccini a final ovation, saluting his entire body of work. "You'll see that I'm right", he said. He hadn't lied. Even if his works did not always meet with unanimous approval, Puccini's compositions deserve their place in the pantheon of major works, and today he is an essential reference in classical music.
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