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Giacomo Puccini: Biography, Music & Operas

Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn about Giacomo Puccini, one of the most famous composers of Italian opera. You'll learn about Puccini's musical style, as well as the kind of story he loved to tell in his lyrical, powerful works.

Introduction

Prior to viewing A Good Day to Die Hard in a movie theater, I asked my husband to fill me in on the Die Hard franchise. He explained that there are basically three ingredients in a Die Hard movie:

1. Bruce Willis

2. Lots of manliness

3. Things blowing up

I was unsure how this could add up to six movies, until I saw the film and realized how well the formula works for Bruce Willis. Sometimes a storyteller tells one kind of story because he can tell it better than anyone else can. Italian composer, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) also specialized in one kind of story. His signature formula appeared in a collection of operatic hits that stand at the core of modern operatic repertoire. The ingredients in a Puccini opera are as follows:

1. A sympathetic heroine

2. Ill-fated love

3. Psychological pain

4. Death

It's a simple formula, but Puccini can tell his kind of story with a memorable, moving power all his own, mostly due to his final ingredient: music with soaring melodies, powerful orchestration, and gorgeous singing.

Puccini's Life and Career

Giacomo Puccini (pronounced 'DJAH-koh-moh poo-CHEE-nee') was born into a family of church musicians in Lucca, Italy, and they expected him to follow the family trade. However, when the teenaged Puccini attended a performance of the opera Aida by iconic Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, his plans changed dramatically, and he decided that opera was his true musical calling.

Puccini in 1908
Giacomo Puccini

After studying at the Milan Conservatory, Puccini embarked on a career in composing, focusing almost exclusively on opera. His third opera, Manon Lescaut (1893), brought him international renown for his romantic melodies and his profoundly human portrayal of the opera's heroine. Puccini had found his signature style. Nearly all his mature operas focus on the psychological journey of a heroine, who sacrifices everything for love.

Puccini achieved the height of his success in 1910, when his opera The Girl of the Golden West was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His last opera, Turandot, was unfinished when he died of throat cancer in 1924. The great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini honored Puccini in 1926 by performing Turandot at the Met, silently laying down his baton after the last note Puccini had written.

Musical Style

Puccini's operas demonstrate a style called verismo, which was popular in Italy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Derived from the Italian word vero ('true'), verismo aimed for realism in operas: everyday characters, recognizable situations, relatable emotions. While some of Puccini's operas are set in times and places far away from his native Italy, his stories always depict universal human experiences: especially the experience of falling in love.

Puccini is celebrated for his use of melody. He composed soaring, memorable themes, which express his characters' stories. From princesses to peasant girls, all of Puccini's characters feel their experiences deeply, and communicate their inner worlds through melody. Puccini used colorful, nearly continuous orchestral music beneath and between his characters' beautiful vocal lines, to create an engrossing, enveloping atmosphere in his operas.

In many earlier Italian operas, the story tends to start and stop frequently, as singers present each new musical number. In Puccini's, continuous atmospheric orchestral music weaves each act of his operas into a seamless whole. This technique of structuring a large work as one continuous flow of music is called through-composition, and it creates amazing suspense and emotional intensity in Puccini's operas.

Puccini's Operas

Of the ten or so operas the Puccini wrote, his most enduring works tend to develop his signature story: the heroine who sacrifices everything for love.

Manon Lescaut (1893) was Puccini's first big hit. Based on a French novel by Abbé Provost, it explores the destructive decisions of Manon, a woman whose love of a luxurious lifestyle threatens to tempt her away from her true love.

La bohéme

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