About the Composer

Let's learn more about Puccini!

The following biography first appeared on San Francisco Classical Voice. https://www.sfcv.org/

Vital Statistics
Born: Dec. 22, 1858, Lucca, Tuscany
Died: Nov. 29, 1924, Brussels, Belgium
Nationality: Italian
Period: Romantic
Performed As: Organist/pianist (not publically)
During Lifetime: Many staples of 20th-century life were invented: the telephone, phonograph, radio, ocean liner, gasoline-powered automobile, airplane, light bulb, and so on. The repertory system in opera came into being, along with an established canon of masterworks. The operas of Wagner and of French composers like Charles Gounod and Georges Bizet were first produced in Italy.

Biographical Outline
  • The Family Business: Puccini comes from a family of musicians going back four generations in Lucca. He is named for all of them. (His middle names: Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo, that is, Michael Jr.) He takes his first formal music lessons with his uncle, Fortunato Magi.
  • Student years, 1880-1883: Puccini attends the Conservatory in Milan. In addition to studies, he meets Milan's leading Bohemian artists, including the conductor Franco Faccio. Faccio premieres Puccini's Capriccio sinfonico, which also succeeds in Turin under his baton.
  • First opera, 1883: Puccini enters a competition for one-act operas, run by the publisher Eduardo Sonzogno. His entry, Le villi (The Willies), is rejected but is snapped up by Sonzogno's rival, Giulio Ricordi, who becomes Puccini's friend and advisor, as well as publisher. Le villi is performed in May, 1884 after a private subscription raises funds for the production. It is a success.
  • Bohemian life, 1884-1889: Puccini fathers a child with the wife of a grocer, Elvira Gemignani, neé Bonturi. Their relationship continues until her husband's death allows them to marry, in 1904. Puccini produces Edgar, the only failure of his career.
  • Leader of the pack 1893-1900: Puccini produces three major hits, which become cornerstones of the international repertory and place him, figuratively, at the head of the giovane scuola (the young school of composers, including Pietro Mascagni, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano and others). The operas are Manon Lescaut (1893), La bohème (1896), and Tosca (1900). With the profits, Puccini builds a villa in Torre del Lago on Lake Massaciuccoli, outside Lucca.
  • Incidents and scandals, 1903-1909: Puccini has a near-fatal automobile accident, but recovers in time for the Milan premiere of Madama Butterfly (1904), a monumental success in a slightly revised version, three months later. Puccini then is commissioned to write an opera for New York's Metropolitan Opera. But while working on La fanciulla del West (The girl of the golden West), Elvira suspects her husband of having an affair and drives the poor woman to suicide. Puccini pays compensation to the family as a settlement, to prevent Elvira from being jailed.
  • International hero, 1910-1918Fanciulla is given its premiere in New York in 1910 and is successful enough to warrant his return with Il trittico in 1918. A year earlier, La rondine (The swallow), Puccini's experiment in comic opera, appears. It was originally scheduled for performance in Vienna, at the Carltheater, which had commissioned it, but the protracted conflict of World War I forces its premiere to take place in Monte Carlo instead.
  • Incomplete finale: Puccini spends the last five years of his life working on Turandot, his most ambitious opera. Suffering from throat cancer, the result of smoking, he undergoes experimental radiation treatment in Brussels but dies of a heart attack the day after the operation.

Fun Facts
  • Mechanical man: Puccini loved modern technology. He kept up a regular correspondence with inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931), who was a good friend. He also loved fine motor cars and speedboats.
  • Pursuits: Puccini preferred the country to the city. He enjoyed hunting. He was also a philanderer, and the scandal with his maid appears to have been much more complicated than reported in most biographies.
  • Collaborators, I: Arturo Toscanini was a young conductor when he undertook the premiere of La bohème in Turin. Later, as music director of the Metropolitan Opera, he gave the first performance of Fanciulla. He was heavily involved in the completion of Turandot, but on opening night at La Scala, he didn't play the ending, putting down his baton where Puccini had left off.
  • Research: For Madama Butterfly, Puccini asked for help from the wife of the Japanese ambassador to Italy, who was staying in nearby Viareggio. In an undated letter, he writes, "She told me many interesting things and sang some native songs to me. She has promised to send me some native Japanese music. I sketched the story of the libretto for her, and she liked it, especially as just such a story as Butterfly's is known to her as having happened in real life." In fact, he used three folksongs she sang for him in the score.
  • Collaborators, II: Puccini was inspired by the soprano voice. Most of his operas are named after their heroines, and many of the great sopranos of his era contributed important portrayals in performances during his lifetime. Several sopranos, including Rosina Storchio, the first Butterfly, and Gilda dalla Rizza, the first Magda in La Rondine, were among Puccini's intimate friends.

Recommended Biographies
  • Mary Jane Philips-Matz, Puccini: A Biography (Northeastern, 2002). Detailed account of the composer's life, but lacks discussion of the works.
  • Julian Budden, Puccini: His Life and Works, The Master Musicians (Oxford, 2005). An excellent life-and-works volume, though somewhat scholarly. The book concentrates on the works, leaving out many personal biographical details.
  • William Berger, Puccini Without Excuses (Vintage, 2005). Well-written introduction to the composer's operas.
  • The Puccini Companion, Simonetta Puccini and William Weaver, eds. (W.W. Norton, 2000). Readable essays on a variety of biographical topics.
Explore the Music
  • Melodic Genius: Puccini united his gift for unforgettable melody with a strong sense of operatic dramaturgy and genius with the orchestra. Four of his operas (Bohème, Tosca, Butterfly, Turandot) are consistently among the most performed operas in the world.
  • Wagnerian: Puccini was introduced to the music of Richard Wagner at the Milan Conservatory, and a few years later he went to two Wagner Festivals in Bayreuth, Bavaria. He showed a thorough understanding of the uses of the "leitmotif" system in Manon Lescaut.
  • French studies: The French operas of Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet, Jules Massenet, and others were tremendously influential on Puccini. It's not an accident that Manon Lescaut had already been set as an opera by Jules Massenet.
  • Orchestra revival: Puccini was a master orchestrator, a craft that was often disparaged in Italian opera. His use of the orchestra to express setting, dramatic situations, and characters' feelings is extraordinary, even among his generation of Italian composers.
  • Puccini the Modernist: Puccini’s score for Turandot is his most complex and harmonically adventurous. Many musicians and lovers of the opera are dissatisfied with Franco Alfano’s ending, so in 2002 a new ending, commissioned from famous modernist composer Luciano Berio, was unveiled. It has not, so far, found a popular following.

Recommended Websites

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