b Lucca, December 22, 1858; d Brussels, November 29, 1924
Puccini was born into a family of court composers and organists in the historic city of Lucca, Italy. With a strong feeling of tradition in the Puccini family, it was expected that Giacomo would assume his deceased father’s position as maestro di cappella when he came of age. By 14 he already was playing organ in a number of the town’s churches. At age 18 a performance of Verdi’s Aida inspired him to devote his life to opera. In 1880, Puccini began composition studies with Amilcare Ponchielli at the Milan Conservatory of Music. There he was introduced into the professional artists’ circle, to which he would belong for the rest of his life.
Puccini was not a prolific composer. Unlike most of his contemporaries, there were long intervals between his operas, partly because of his fastidiousness in choosing and modifying his subjects. Often he would abandon them after only several months. His constant demands for modifications of the texts frequently delayed the progress of his projects. Much of Puccini’s time, too, was spent hunting in the marshes around his home and traveling abroad to supervise revivals of his works.
Puccini’s first work for the stage, Le villi, was originally submitted to a contest sponsored by the music publisher Edoardo Sonzogno. The one-act opera did not receive even honorable mention, but Puccini was certain of its merit. He and librettist Ferdinando Fontana began to canvass the opera to the broader circle of the Italian intelligentsia. One of these individuals was the highly influential Arrigo Boito (at that time in correspondence with Verdi about the preparation of the libretto for Otello), who was instrumental in getting Le villi staged.
The reception to the new work was mixed, but the revised two-act version was staged in a number of cities outside of Italy, a remarkable feat for a virtually unknown composer. Puccini’s next opera, Edgar, was a resounding critical failure. However, the astute publisher, Giulio Ricordi, found fault in the libretto only, yet promise in the music. He pitted himself against the shareholders of his publishing house, who demanded that Puccini be released from retainer. Ricordi’s confidence was rewarded with Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s first true success.
During the 1890s, Puccini began working with Luigi Illica, who worked out the scheme and drafted the dialogue, and with the poet and playwright Giuseppe Giacosa, who put Illica’s lines into verse. Although they had participated in Manon Lescaut (as part of a string of several librettists), their first real collaboration was La bohème in 1896, followed four years later by Tosca and then Madame Butterfly four years after that. Giacosa died in 1906, putting an end to the successful team that produced three of Puccini’s most enduring works.
Puccini’s later operas were quite varied in their styles and subjects. La fanciulla del West, set in the American West, is notable for its advanced impressionistic orchestration and composition. La rondine was designed to be a sentimental musical comedy in the Viennese style. Il trittico was a mixed bag of one-act operas: Il tabarro, a tip-of-the-hat to Italian verismo; Suor Angelica, a nun embroiled in a battle for the future of her illegitimate child; and most popular of the three, Gianni Schicchi, a comic masterpiece that features Puccini at his most exuberant.
Turandot was Puccini’s last (and arguably his greatest) opera. Unfortunately, he died before completing it. Another composer finished the job, but at the premiere Arturo Toscanini set down his baton and refused to continue past Puccini’s last note.
Puccini has been much maligned for his flirtation with popular culture, but he had an uncanny feel for a good story and a talent for composing enthralling yet economical music. Like many of his contemporaries, he constantly was experimenting with tonality and form, though his experiments were always subtle and without controversy. Having produced only 12 operas, the composer’s personal life was plagued with self doubt and laborious perfectionism. Still, Puccini profoundly influenced the world of opera with a deep understanding of music, drama and humanity.