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Giacomo Puccini and “La Boheme”

Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (December 22, 1858–November 29, 1924) was an Italian composer, called “the greatest composer of Italian opera after Verdi,” whose operas are among the important operas played as standards. While his early work was rooted in traditional late-19th-century romantic Italian opera, he successfully developed his work in the realistic verismo style, of which he became one of the leading exponents. Born at Lucca in Tuscany, Italy, on December 22, 1858, he was one of seven children of Michele Puccini and Albina Magi. The Puccini family was established in the 1730s at Lucca as a local musical dynasty by Puccini’s great-great grandfather – also named Giacomo (1712–1781) who was maestro di cappella of the Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca. He was succeeded in this position by his son, Antonio Puccini, and then by Antonio’s son Domenico, and Domenico’s son Michele, father of theopera composer. Each of these men studied music at Bologna, and some took additional musical studies elsewhere. Puccini’s father Michele composed one opera and enjoyed a reputation throughout northern Italy.

It was anticipated that Michele’s son Giacomo would occupy that position as well when he was old enough. However, when Michele Puccini died in 1864, his son Giacomo was only six years old, and thus not capable of taking over his father’s job. His mother procured him a tutor at the Conservatorio Musici, and as a child, he participated in the musical life of the Cattedrale di San Martino, as a member of the boys’ choir and later as a substitute organist. Puccini was given a general education at the seminary of San Michele in Lucca, and then at the seminary of the cathedral. One of Puccini’s uncles, Fortunato Magi, supervised his musical education. Puccini got a diploma from the Pacini School of Music in Lucca in 1880, having studied there with his uncle Fortunato, and later with Carlo Angeloni, who had also instructed Alfredo Catalani. A grant from the Italian Queen Margherita, and assistance from another uncle, Nicholas Cerù, provided the funds necessary for Puccini to continue his studies at the Milan Conservatory, where he studied composition with Stefano Ronchetti-Monteviti, Amilcare Ponchielli, and Antonio Bazzini. Puccini studied at the conservatory for three years. By his seventeenth year he had begun writing small compositions. In 1880, at the age of 21, Puccini composed his Mass, later called Messa di Gloria, which marks the culmination of his family’s long association with church music in his native Lucca.

Puccini wrote an orchestral piece called the Capriccio sinfonica as a thesis composition for the Milan Conservatory. Puccini’s teachers Ponchielli and Bazzini were impressed by the work, and it was performed at a student concert at the conservatory. Puccini’s work was favorably reviewed in the Milanese publication Perseveranza, and thus Puccini began to build a reputation as a young composer of promise in Milanese music circles. After the premiere of the Capriccio sinfonica, Ponchielli and Puccini discussed the possibility that Puccini’s next work might be an opera. Ponchielli invited Puccini to stay at his villa, where Puccini was introduced to another young man named Fernando Fontana. Puccini and Fontana agreed to collaborate on an opera, for which Fontana would provide the libretto. The work, Le Villi, was entered into a competition sponsored by the Sozogno music publishing company in 1883. Although it did not win, Le Villi was later staged at the Teatro Dal Verme, premiering on May 31, 1884. Ricordi & Co. music publishers assisted with the premier by printing the libretto without charge. Giulio Ricordi, head of G. Ricordi & Co. music publishers, was sufficiently impressed with Le Villi and its young composer that he commissioned a second opera, which would result in Edgar which premiered at La Scala on April 21, 1889, to a lukewarm response.

On commencing his next opera, Manon Lescaut, Puccini announced that he would write his own libretto, but two men, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, came together to complete the opera. Manon Lescaut premiered at the Teatro Regio in Turin on February 2, 1893. Illica and Giacosa returned as librettists for Puccini for his next three operas, probably his greatest successes: La bohème which premiered at Turin in 1896, Tosca which premiered at Turin in 1900, and Madama Butterfly which premiered at La Scala in 1904. Meanwhile, on February 25, 1903, Puccini was seriously injured in a car accident during a nighttime journey on the road from Lucca to Torre del Lago. The car was driven by Puccini’s chauffeur and was carrying Puccini, his wife Elvira, and their son Antonio. Puccini was pinned under the vehicle, with a severe fracture of his right leg and with a portion of the car pressing down on his chest. The injury did not heal well, and Puccini remained under treatment for months and slowed the work on Madama Butterfly.

After 1904, Puccini’s compositions were less frequent. Puccini completed La fanciulla del West, based on a play by David Belasco, in 1910. The premiere of took place at the Metropolitan in New York City on December 10. Puccini completed the score of La rondine, to a libretto by Giuseppe Adami in 1916 after two years of work, and it was premiered at the Grand Théâtre de Monte Carlo on March 27, 1917. Always interested in contemporary operatic compositions, Puccini studied the works of Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky. From this study emerged Il trittico, composed of three one-act operas, a horrific episode (Il tabarro) in the style of the Parisian Grand Guignol, a sentimental tragedy (Suor Angelica), and a comedy (Gianni Schicchi), which premiered at New York in 1918.

In 1919, Puccini was commissioned to write music to an ode by Fausto Salvatori honoring Italy’s victories in World War I. The work, Inno a Roma (Hymn to Rome), premiered on June 1, 1919, when it was played at the opening of a gymnastics competition. Turandot, Puccini’s final opera, was left unfinished, and the last two scenes were completed by Franco Alfano based on the composer’s sketches. Puccini began to complain of chronic sore throats towards the end of 1923. A diagnosis of throat cancer led his doctors to recommend a new and experimental radiation therapy treatment, which was being offered in Brussels, Belgium. Puccini died in Brussels on November 29, 1924, from complications after the treatment in which uncontrolled bleeding led to a heart attack the day after surgery. Turandot was performed posthumously at La Scala on April 25, 1926.

The following works by Giacomo Puccini are contained in my collection:

La Boheme: Non Sono In Vena, and Che Gelida Manina.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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