Composer (1858 - 1924)
Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in 1858 and was the most important Italian composer in the generation after Verdi. He descended from a long line of musicians, conductors and composers. It was assumed he would inherit the talent and interest to continue in his family's chosen craft. At the early age of six years, upon his father's premature death, he fell heir to the position of choir master and organist at San Martino Church and professor of music at Collegio Ponziano. His mother had high hopes for him and entrusted him to her brother Fortunato Magi for musical instruction and to study piano. The results of the training were not entirely positive. He was by no means a child prodigy.
In 1876 young Giacomo walked to Pisa, which was 13 miles away, to see a production of the latest opera by Verdi, 'Aida'. This decided his future for him as he was entranced by the opera. In 1880 Puccini moved to Milan to study in the Milan Conservatory for which he was granted a scholarship from Queen Margherita and his uncle, Dr Nicolao Cerù, also financially assisted him. Here he studied from 1880 to 1883, with Antonio Bazzini and Amilcare Ponchielli. During this period, he frequented many theatres where he met Alfredo Catalini, a member of the Scapigliatura, who introduced him to Arrigo Boito, Franco Faccio and Marco Praga. In July 1883, Puccini ended his studies with an instrumental piece, the Capriccio sinfonico, which was performed by the student orchestra under Franco Faccio, revealing for the first time his talent for melodic invention and colourful orchestration.
While Puccini was still a pupil in the conservatory he decided to enter a competition for a one act opera advertised by the publishing firm of Edoardo Sonzogno in its house journal 'Il teatro illustrato'. Through Ponchielli's intervention Puccini won as librettist Ferdinando Fontana, who suggested to him a subject with fantastic supernatural features. He failed to win the competition, but with the intervention of Arrigo Boito, composer and librettist and Marco Praga, playwright, it was staged in the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan under the title of Le Willis (which subsequently became Le Villi, following various modifications and the advice of the Ricordi Editing House), on May 31st, 1884. The publisher Giulio Ricordi was very interested and commissioned a second opera. This opera, Edgar, was unsuccessful but sealed Puccini's lifelong association with the house of Ricordi.
Manon Lescaut, Puccini's next opera, was based on Abbé Prévost's 18th century novel. The libretto of the opera was written with the collaboration of various librettists, among which Ruggero Leoncavallo and the librettist couple, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The latter two, together with Giulio Ricordi, worked with Puccini on his next three operas: La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Manon Lescaut was staged for the first time at the Teatro Regio in Turin on February 1st, 1893 (eight days before Verdi's Falstaff) and was his most successful piece of work. Puccini was suddenly established as a wealthy composer, even abroad, and artistic successor to Maestro Giuseppi Verdi. This opera was followed by La Bohème in 1896 which was considered to be Puccini's masterpiece but, although successful, it was not received as enthusiastically as Tosca which was staged in Teatro Costanzi, Rome in 1900. Following this came Madama Butterfly based on David Belasco's one act play, which was performed for the first time on February 17th, 1904 in Milan and was received with hostility much to the dismay of the composer. However, he knew that changes had to be made and after modifications, the reborn Madama Butterfly was an instant success two months later in the Teatro Grande in Brescia.
In 1904 Puccini married Elvira Gemignani, the widow of a Lucca merchant, who had borne him a son in 1896. The couple had lived together since 1886. The Puccini family lived in their house in Torre del Lago from 1891 until 1921. At the beginning of the 1900s the composer was often abroad to supervise the staging of his works.
The first ten years of the century proved to be very tormenting for Puccini's private life and a series of failed projects with regard to music were the result. In 1903 he was the victim of one of the first automobile accidents in Italy and was seriously injured. Also, in 1906 one of Puccini's librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa, died leaving him only with Luigi Illica, who did not satisfy the composer when he, the librettist, worked alone. These were the main reasons for the long period before his next opera which was La Fanciulla del West, based on a stage play by David Belasco, The Girl of the Golden West. He happened to see it in New York in 1907, where he was attending a Puccini festival at the Metropolitan Opera. Puccini's opera had its world première at the Metropolitan Opera on December 10, 1910, which had Belasco himself as the stage director and Arturo Toscanini as orchestra conductor.
In 1909 Puccini's wife Elvira embroiled the house in scandal, accusing Puccini of having an intimate relationship with their maid. Elvira publicly denounced her and consequently, due to extreme stress, the maid committed suicide. A court case pursued and established the girl's innocence. The Puccinis separated and finally reconciled but the relationship was never the same again. The publicity affected Puccini deeply and he was in emotional turmoil. Then in 1912, Giulio Ricordi, Puccini's dedicated and able editor, died, leaving the composer without the person who was capable of recognizing his qualities and directing him down the right road. Serious differences with Giulio Ricordi's son Tito, who became director of the company after his father's death, resulted with Puccini finally accepting a lucrative offer by the directors of the Vienna Karltheater in 1913. He began writing La Rondine, but it was not staged until March 27th, 1917 in Monte Carlo. It was not one of Puccini's best works but it was warmly received. While working on it Puccini began the composition of the so-called Il trittico, three one-act operas Il tabarro based on the libretto by Giuseppe Adami, and Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi based on librettos by Giovacchino Forzano.
During his life Puccini took an active role in his operas, involving himself in many matters relating to their production and the selection of the singers, conductors and venues. He travelled the world to make sure everything was carried out correctly. These travels helped publicize his works. The great maestro's participation in rehearsals and presence at performances added a lot to the public's interest. Puccini was interested in quality as opposed to quantity and he wrote just twelve operas as opposed to Verdi's 28. Influences from German, French and Austrian composers can be noted in some of his music but he never strayed too far from his melodic Italian roots or from influences from his native Tuscany.
In 1920 Puccini began working on what was to be his last opera, Turandot. This was inspired by the theatre fable by Carlo Gozzi. Puccini moved to Viareggio while it was being composed but in the autumn of 1924, when the completion of the opera was missing only the finale of the final act, Puccini's health deteriorated due to a tumour in his throat and he was obliged to suspend his work to undergo an operation. He received treatment in a clinic in Brussels which appeared to be successful but his heart weakened under the strain.
Puccini died on November 24th, 1924. Turandot remained unfinished. Its completion was left to his colleague, Franco Alfano, who based the finale on drafts which Puccini had carried with him on his last trip. It was the last opera to rank as an internationally accepted standard repertory piece. The first posthumous performance of the opera at the Scala Theatre in Milan on April 25th, 1926, was directed by Arturo Toscanini, the Director who was among the few to have assisted in the carrying out of the final project of the author. He suspended the performance at the point in which the composer was forced to interrupt his work.
Following Puccini's death, all of Italy, as well as fans from all over the world, went into mourning. He was originally interred in Milan but in 1926 his son Antonio had his remains transferred to Torre del Lago to a little private chapel in the lakeside villa where he wrote his masterpieces. Torre instantly became a place of spontaneous pilgrimage and people travelled from near and far to see the house where the most popular composer of the 20th century had lived and worked.