Personalities | Giacomo Puccini | Late Romantic | Classical

(Ja’-ko’mo Poot-che’-ne) 1858–1924
Italian composer

Puccini wrote 12 operas, three of which rank among the most popular in the world: La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. The composer came from a long line of musicians. His great-great-grandfather, the first Giacomo Puccini (1712–81), was organist and choirmaster at the cathedral of S Martino in the Tuscan town of Lucca.

His son Antonio (1747–1832) was also a composer of church music, while Antonio’s son Domenico (1771–1815) wrote both serious and comic operas as well as church music. Domenico’s son Michele (1813–64) composed two operas and much religious music.

Michele had eight children, of whom Giacomo was the fifth. Although the young Puccini wrote some church music in his youth, it soon became evident that his talents lay with opera composition and it was on this genre that he focused. After the triumph of his third attempt, Manon Lescaut (1893), he was hailed as the long-awaited successor to Verdi. Although more than half his operas were written in the twentieth century, his style remained firmly anchored in the late Romantic tradition.

Early Years

Puccini was born in Lucca on 22 December 1858. From the age of 10 he sang in the cathedral choir, and at 14 played the organ. He became interested in opera at an early age and when he was 18 he walked the 20 miles to Pisa, where Verdi’s Aida was being performed. He studied first in Lucca then, with the aid of a scholarship, at the Milan Conservatory. Throughout his student days he was acutely short of money. In 1883 he entered the Sonzogno competition for a one-act opera, and though his entry, Le villi (‘The Willis’, 1884), did not win, money was raised to have it performed at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan.

The opera was a fair success, but the most important result of its production was a contract with Giulio Ricordi, the most influential music publisher in Italy. Ricordi paid Puccini a small monthly stipend and Le villi, expanded into two acts, was staged in Turin and at La Scala, Milan. Meanwhile, in Lucca, Puccini gave music lessons to improve his income. One of his pupils was Elvira Gemignani, a married woman with whom he began to live openly, causing such a scandal that the couple were forced to move to Milan. Puccini’s second opera, Edgar (1889), had its premiere at La Scala, but the performance was not a great success.

The Years of Fame

Puccini always had trouble finding suitable subjects. For his third opera he chose The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost. This eighteenth-century French novel had already been set by Massenet, whose highly successful Manon was produced in Paris in 1884. Puccini used different scenes for his opera and Manon Lescaut, first performed in Turin in February 1893, scored a triumph: Puccini took 30 curtain calls, becoming a celebrity overnight.


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