Italian Language Blog

Buon Compleanno Maestro! Posted by on Dec 11, 2008 in Culture

Il Mondo della Lirica (the Opera world) is getting ready to celebrate the 150th birthday of Giacomo Puccini author of many famous Italian operas such as La Bohème, Madame Butterfly, Tosca and Turandot. Reading his biography I discovered an interesting, lively character, and decided to write a little blog to add my small contribution to the celebrations. This is not by any means an exhaustive biography, simply a sketch of the great composer.

Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca (Tuscany) on 22nd December 1858, into a family with a history of five generations of musicians. His father died when Giacomo was five year old leaving his uncle Fortunato Magi to educate him musically without success, describing the young Giacomo as lazy and untalented. Things improved when Puccini went to study with Carlo Angeloni, who had been a pupil of Michele Puccini, Giacomo’s father, and at the age of fourteen Giacomo became the organist of the Duomo di Lucca (Lucca’s Cathedral). He had a reputation as a scavezzacollo (daredevil), and legend has it that he stole and sold pipes from the organ to make some money. In 1876 Puccini walked the 20 km that separate Lucca from Pisa to see a performance of Verdi’s Aida and he was so enthusiastic about was he saw and heard that he decided to become an opera composer.

From 1880 to 1883 he studied composition in the Conservatorio di Milano (Milan Music Academy) with Amilcare Ponchielli and Antonio Bazzini, and he shared a room with Mascagni (future composer of the opera Cavalleria Rusticana). In 1883 Puccini entered his composition Le Villi into a competition for a one-act opera, and although he did not win, the opera was performed in 1884 at the Teatro dal Verme, where it caught the attention of the music publisher Giulio Ricordi. Ricordi commissioned a new opera, Edgar, which took Puccini four years to complete. It was performed in 1889 at the Teatro alla Scala to no great acclaim. Success finally arrived in 1893 with the opera Manon Lescaut, which also marked the beginning of his co-operation with the librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who worked with Puccini on his next three operas: La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), and Madama Butterfly (1904). Illica would create the outline of the story and discuss it with Puccini until reaching the final format. Giacosa would then write the verses to fit with the music. Giulio Ricordi, who had become a paternal figure for Puccini, would often sort out the controversies between the librettists and the composer brought about by Puccini’s habit of changing the plot.

Meanwhile Giacomo Puccini had fallen in love with Elvira Bonturi, wife of the Lucchese merchant Narciso Gemignani and from 1886 to 1887 they lived in Monza near Milano, where their only son Antonio was born. In 1891 the family moved to Torre del Lago, a small village on the coast near Lucca, where in 1900 the composer bought some land and built a villa. The area around Torre del Lago is covered in scrubby marshland, and rich in wildlife and was therefore a perfect environment for Puccini who was a very keen hunter. He was also a great lover of cars, and is said to have been the brain behind the construction of the first Italian off-road vehicle. In fact he asked Vincenzo Lancia (of the Lancia cars) to build a vehicle that would travel over rough terrain, and a few month later he was presented with a reinforced car with ruote artigliate (literally clawed wheels). Puccini was so pleased with the car that, despite the great expense, he later ordered two more vehicles.

Puccini was an enthusiastic cigar smoker and in 1924, whilst working on the opera Turandot, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. His doctors recommended the new ‘radiation therapy’, which was offered in Brussels (Belgium). Puccini went to Brussels with his wife and son where, sadly, he died on 24th November 1924 due to post-surgery complications. News of his death reached Rome during a performance of La Bohème. On hearing of the great composer’s death the orchestra immediately stopped the opera and began playing Mozart’s Funeral March to a shocked audience.

His last opera Turandot was left unfinished, and was completed by Franco Alfano under Arturo Toscanini’s supervision, based on sketches left behind by the composer and copied by Guido Zuccoli, who used to transcribe Puccini’s almost illegible work. But on the night of the premiere in April 1926 Arturo Toscanini, who was conducting the opera, stopped the orchestra at the point where Puccini had completed the score (that is, after the funeral march following Liù’s death). Turning to the audience he announced: “Here the opera finishes because the Maestro died”.

The Maestro is buried in a private chapel in the Villa Puccini at Torre del Lago, which is now owned by his granddaughter Simonetta Puccini and it is open to the public. The house in Lucca where he was born is also a museum.

Every summer, between July and August, there is an open-air Puccini Festival on the shores of the Lago di Massaciuccoli in Torre del Lago.

If you would like to know more about Puccini or the places and events mentioned in this blog visit the following links:

Buon Compleanno Maestro!

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