Giacomo Puccini: 10 (little) things you (may) not know about the composer
His works (Tosca, La Bohème, Madame Butterfly) are known all over the world, and yet we know little of his life and personality. Here are 10 (little) things you (may) not know about the composer.
The name Puccini brings instantly to mind three of the biggest works of the vocal repertoire: La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madame Butterfly (1904). Three immensely dramatic operas, and three important works for anyone with an interest in the operatic genre.
But what do we know about the composer behind the works? Very little, it would seem... This is largely due to the fact that his life was (fortunately for him) far less dramatic than the lives of his operatic characters. Less dramatic perhaps, but no less surprising and novelistic.
Here are 10 (little) things you (may) not know about the composer with one of the most stylish moustaches in music history...
A family tradition
Giacomo Puccini was born on 22 December 1858 in Lucca (Tuscany), to a long line of musicians. His father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather were all important local composers, and Giacomo's mother soon noticed the precocious musical talents displayed by her son Giacomo.
The youngest Puccini began his musical education at a very young age, and often played the organ in the local churches. In 1864, the father Michele Puccini died prematurely and the young Giacomo suddenly became the latest and last representative of the long line of Puccini musicians, with great expectations from those around him...
Ever so slightly lazy
However, the young Giacomo Puccini was not the most motivated of individuals, quite the contrary... Both at school and at the Instituto musicale, he displayed an undeniable laziness. As he grew up, he become increasingly distracted by the countless pleasurable attractions that his native city Lucca had to offer.
Lazy but no less brilliant: ever since he heard Verdi's Aïda for the first time in Pisa in 1876, Puccini knew he wanted to become a composer. Four years later, he obtained a scholarship and left for Milan to further his musical education at the conservatoire. There he was amongst the best and the brightest, but his professor still remarked: "I would be completely satisfied with him as a student if only he was regular in his work".
A bohemian in Milan
No, Puccini did not walk around the streets of Milan as a student with an open shirt and ruffled hair. Though Puccini could be described as scapigliato (dishevelled in English), this was more in a figurative sense, intellectually dishevelled: he was even a member of the Scapigliatura movement.
The Italian Scapigliatura modelled itself upon the French _Vie de Bohème..._at least upon its descriptions in the eponymous novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henry Murger. Members of this movement rejected bourgeois conservatism and sought to overthrow the rules and codes of artistic creation.
Whilst Murger's novel Scènes de la Vie de Bohème inspired one of Puccini greatest operas, the Scapigliatura movement on the other hand allowed the composer to make a variety of acquaintances and friends, most notably the composer Arrigo Boito, who would allow Puccini in 1884 to stage his very first opera (Le Villi, in Milan).
Don Giacomo, the seducer
Giacomo Puccini seduced many a woman during his lifetime. This Tuscan Don Juan did not even wait for fame before winning over the countless hearts that surrounded him: in the 1880s, barely twenty years of age, he met a married mother of two, Elvira, with whom he soon absconded.
In 1884, they lived together far from the bustling city life and gossip, in Torre del Lago. They spent here most of their time together, and waited almost ten years before finally being able to marry (following the death of Elvira's first husband). Their marital life, however, was far from peaceful: Signora was famous for her strong temperament and jealousy, whilst Signore was an incorrigible flirt…
Life of a hermit
Torre del Lago, a small quiet Tuscan village situated between the Mediterranean sea and the lake Massaciuccoli. It is here that Puccini chose to settle down. Why did the composer choose to remove himself so from urban life? Puccini was often described as an orso (a bear), uncomfortable in good society and nervous. There was also a financial aspect to consider: before the success of Manon Lescaut in 1893, the composer was forced to live somewhat modestly.
However, though success and wealth soon arrived following Manon Lescaut (1893), La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madame Butterfly (1904), Puccini chose to continue his reclusive lifestyle. At Torre del Lago, he was able to compose in peace and welcome with open arms (when necessary) the journalists hoping to discover the composer's environment.
A thick skin
"You will see that I'm right", wrote Puccini in 1904 following the disastrous premiere of Madame Butterfly. Violently booed at Milan's Teatro alla Scala, the composer was nonetheless proud of his opera, and rightly so: the work has since become one of the most celebrated operatic works in music history.
Four years earlier, Tosca had been strongly criticised by the Italian press, and even before that La Bohème was also the subject of numerous criticisms. However, the composer's tenacity paid off and Puccini's music always triumphed eventually, finding a keen public both in Italy and abroad: Puccini became a new ambassador for Italian music, after Verdi.
Puccini, the dark side
A proud an elegant man on the outside, Puccini was nonetheless full of deep and incessant doubts. "I need a friend so much, and I don’t have one [...] Only I understand myself, and this gives me grief", wrote Puccini to his librettist Luigi Illica in 1903.
Time brought growing success and international fame for Puccini, but also countless worries and fears. When a Roman newspaper erroneously reported the death of Puccini in 1921 (having mistaken him for the recently deceased poet Fucini), the composer became even more anxious, increasingly aware of death and his own mortality.
Not the most voracious of readers
Many of Puccini's compositions were inspired by literary works: Manon Lescaut (1893) by the eponymous novel by Abbé Prévost, La Bohème by the work of Henry Murger… These two great references could lead some to think that Puccini was a fine connoisseur of literature.
In reality, however, Giacomo Puccini read very little, if at all. He was often lacking in inspiration, constantly looking for new subjects. Many of his ideas came from the stage, from living works, as can be seen in many of his other works: Tosca (1900), Madame Butterfly (1904), La Fanciulla del West (1910), Turandot (posthumous premiere 1926), were all based upon theatrical works.
Don't mention the war
Born in 1858, died in 1924, Giacomo Puccini crossed countless political crises during his lifetime, most notably the end of Italian unification, the birth of the Italian Kingdom, and even the rise of fascism and even the famous March on Rome by Benito Mussolini.
On the subject of the various political crises plaguing his country, Puccini remains silent. Even the most political of his works, Tosca - depicting the abuse of power by Scarpia, the chief of police - was reduced and stripped down to its core, to become finally a romantic drama. And though the opera criticised absolute monarchy, it conformed above all to the notion of verismo, in other words realism, to portray a just (but often cruel) representation of reality.
Turandot, chicken bones and a sore throat
1920. Giacomo Puccini is celebrated throughout the world. His music has taken him to countless new countries and his works have been performed in Paris, London, New York, Buenos Aires… Despite his success, he struggled nonetheless to complete his next great opera, Turandot, writing "I fear that Turandot will never be finished" in a letter to his editor Adami, a letter that sadly proved to be premonitory.
1922. Whilst travelling through Germany, Puccini accidentally swallowed a chicken bone. An invasive procedure was deemed necessary in order to remove it. Though this story may seem purely anecdotal, for some it is the beginning of the end for Giacomo Puccini, an event which would eventually lead to his death two years later.
1923. Puccini began suffering from a constant and painful cough. After countless medical consultations, he was finally diagnosed with throat cancer. The composer sought the advice and treatment of the best specialists, located in Bruxelles. He died, however, several months later, on 29 November 1924, Turandot unfinished...
MARNAT Marcel, Giacomo Puccini, Fayard, 2005.