Born on the 22nd of December 1858 in Tuscany, Giacomo Antonia Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was one of nine children and part of a musical dynasty established by his great-great grandfather. The young Puccini began his musical education at an early age. Tutored first by his uncles, he then came to study under the composers Antonio Bazzini and Amilcare Ponchielli at the Milan Conservatory. Following the death of his mother in 1884, Puccini moved to Monza, a town near Milan, bringing with him his sweetheart, Elvira Gemignani, who happened to be married to another man. In 1886 Puccini and Elvira had a son, Antonio, and the family increased again in size as Elvira’s daughter, Fosca, came to live with the pair. In 1891 the family moved to Torre del Lago, a fishing village in Tuscany, where Giacomo and Elvira were legally married in 1904, following the death of her previous husband. Although the union would continue to be riddled with affairs, Puccini found a personal refuge in the Italian countryside, where he could freely drive automobiles and pursue his love of hunting. In 1924 another passion of Puccini’s would become the cause of his death—a longtime consumption of Toscano cigars and cigarettes encouraged the growth of a serious throat cancer. Following a difficult surgery, Giacomo Puccini passed away on November 29th in Brussels, clutching the incomplete score of his famed Turandot.
A predominant composer of late-Romantic Opera, Puccini is best known for his works Madama Butterfly, Tosca and Turandot, as well as his famous La bohème. Yet Puccini also created eight other operas, including the stunning La fanciulla del West produced by Opera Omaha last season, as well as sacred and secular music for orchestra and chamber ensembles, and songs for voice and piano. Puccini is notable for composing in the “verismo” style a sort of musical realism that utilizes average men and women as its subject matter, and seeks to integrate the underlying drama of the libretto with the music written in the orchestral score. Puccini also strove to keep his music up-to-date with current trends by incorporating symphonic and harmonic aspects of French and German music into his own work. For example, the vocal lines of Puccini’s operas are much more “through-composed” or integrated with the orchestral music and plot than their Italian predecessors, most of which relied heavily on the aria-recitative formula. Puccini also drew on folk melodies for inspiration, notably in the opera Turandot.
As is the case with any composer, the events of the world around him inspired Puccini’s writing and informed the content of his operas. The 19th century is marked by the growing international influence of the British, Russian, and German Empires alongside the development of the United States into a world power. With the increased prominence of these countries emerged distinct national styles of composition, notably the French, German and Italian camps, which Puccini would later utilize as resources to inform his own operatic works. Increased ease of communication and transportation (the first commercial automobile sale in 1886 and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869) would also make it easy for Puccini to encounter new musical styles.
Personal experience informed many aspects of Puccini’s characters and plots, though others relied more heavily on the skill of his librettist. In fact, many scholars and friends of the composer note the marked similarities between La bohème and Puccini’s own life as a young man in Milan. The poverty that underscores the life of the famous operatic Bohemians is so poignant, perhaps due to Puccini’s personal experience in this area. As a conservatory student, prior to the success of Manon Lescaut that rocketed the composer to the world stage, Puccini became very familiar with almost constant shortages of food, clothing and money, frequently pawning off his possessions to cover basic expenses.