Il Trittico, Turandot, and Puccini's Late Style

Il Trittico, Turandot, and Puccini's Late Style

by Andrew Davis
     
 

Giacomo Puccini is one of the most frequently performed and best loved of all operatic composers. In Il Trittico, Turandot, and Puccini's Late Style, Andrew Davis takes on the subject of Puccini's last two works to better understand how the composer creates meaning through the juxtaposition of the conventional and the unfamiliar—situating Puccini in past

Overview

Giacomo Puccini is one of the most frequently performed and best loved of all operatic composers. In Il Trittico, Turandot, and Puccini's Late Style, Andrew Davis takes on the subject of Puccini's last two works to better understand how the composer creates meaning through the juxtaposition of the conventional and the unfamiliar—situating Puccini in past operatic traditions and modern European musical theater. Davis asserts that hearing Puccini’s late works within the context of la solita forma allows listeners to interpret the composer’s expressive strategies. He examines Puccini’s compositional language, with insightful analyses of melody, orchestration, harmony, voice-leading, and rhythm and meter.

Editorial Reviews

Choice

"Conversant in a wide range of disciplines, Davis has contributed an important addition to the field of Puccini studies and 19th-century Italian opera literature.... Recommended." —Choice

S. C. Champagne

In this expertly written study, Davis defines the core quality of Giacomo Puccini's last four operas as a plurality of styles employed strategically toward formal and expressive ends. His conclusion--that Puccini's late style is essentially episodic, relying for its greatest impact on the juxtaposition of a traditional lyric, primarily vocal style (familiar to the audience of Puccini's day) and a more modern, international style--resonates in particular in reference to the organizing schemata of 19th-century Italian opera known as la solita forma. Davis lays out his theories in chapters devoted to each of Puccini's last four works. Absent an extensive knowledge of these operas, readers will want to have at hand a score to locate the many references cited in order to appreciate the full import and elegance of Davis's theories. Potentially contentious questions of composer's intent and audience reception are dealt with in sophisticated and convincing ways, as is the extent to which Puccini's personal life influenced his late style. Conversant in a wide range of disciplines, Davis has contributed an important addition to the field of Puccini studies and 19th-century Italian opera literature. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. -- ChoiceS. C. Champagne, Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, May 2011

Music Theory Online

"[T]o undertake analyses of four operas in one book is no easy task, but [Davis] accomplishes it adeptly. Despite potential contradictions in the identification of his proposed style characteristics, his analyses are insightful, challenging the reader to hear these operas in new ways. He has made tangible aspects of Puccini’s music dramas that we may take for granted as intuitive, illuminating how dramatic moments move us and interact with the work as a whole." —Music Theory Online

From the Publisher

"Conversant in a wide range of disciplines, Davis has contributed an important addition to the field of Puccini studies and 19th-century Italian opera literature.... Recommended." —Choice

"[T]o undertake analyses of four operas in one book is no easy task, but [Davis] accomplishes it adeptly. Despite potential contradictions in the identification of his proposed style characteristics, his analyses are insightful, challenging the reader to hear these operas in new ways. He has made tangible aspects of Puccini’s music dramas that we may take for granted as intuitive, illuminating how dramatic moments move us and interact with the work as a whole." —Music Theory Online

In this expertly written study, Davis defines the core quality of Giacomo Puccini's last four operas as a plurality of styles employed strategically toward formal and expressive ends. His conclusion--that Puccini's late style is essentially episodic, relying for its greatest impact on the juxtaposition of a traditional lyric, primarily vocal style (familiar to the audience of Puccini's day) and a more modern, international style--resonates in particular in reference to the organizing schemata of 19th-century Italian opera known as la solita forma. Davis lays out his theories in chapters devoted to each of Puccini's last four works. Absent an extensive knowledge of these operas, readers will want to have at hand a score to locate the many references cited in order to appreciate the full import and elegance of Davis's theories. Potentially contentious questions of composer's intent and audience reception are dealt with in sophisticated and convincing ways, as is the extent to which Puccini's personal life influenced his late style. Conversant in a wide range of disciplines, Davis has contributed an important addition to the field of Puccini studies and 19th-century Italian opera literature. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. -- ChoiceS. C. Champagne, Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, May 2011

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780253355140
Publisher:
Indiana University Press
Publication date:
09/14/2010
Series:
Musical Meaning and Interpretation Series
Pages:
328
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Il Trittico, Turandot, and Puccini's Late Style


By Andrew Davis

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 Andrew Davis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35514-0



CHAPTER 1

Stylistic Plurality, Narrative, Levels of Discourse, and Voice


Il trittico and Turandot provide good laboratories for exploring the technical means behind the theatrical efficacy of Puccini's late operas. One feature emerges above all others as key to these works' identities: each is distinguished by a musical-stylistic plurality in which multiple, distinct musical styles or compositional approaches are juxtaposed in time and space in the service of formal organization and expressive effect. The trend toward mixing apparently incompatible styles in a single musical work has become an important topic for discussion in recent musicology. A wide body of literature has recognized its importance in modern music, both operatic and symphonic; and much of the recent Puccini literature, especially that which leans toward a view of him as a modern composer seeking to assimilate contemporary trends in European music and theater, has explored the pluralistic character of his late music.

Defining stylistically heterogeneous music as such is not as straight-forward as it may seem. It could be said, for example, that a composer's style is to employ a variety of stylistic references, or that the style of a particular work is one that mixes various compositional approaches. Perhaps, in other words, Puccini's style is simply to mix styles, and maybe in reality — in the broadest possible view — the late works are not as variegated as they seem. The point seems to hinge on the level at which we locate style: it can reside at the level of a single work (e.g., "the style of Turandot"), a group of works (perhaps works that employ similar compositional strategies and which were composed around the same time — "Puccini's mature style," for example, in reference to his work of the 1890s and early 1900s), a single composer ("Puccini's style"), a group of composers ("the style of the giovane scuola italiana"),a genre ("the style of nineteenth-century Italian opera"), or a historical era ("the late-Romantic style"); many other levels may be possible. In asserting here that Puccini's late operas exhibit stylistic plurality, I posit style as located below the level of the whole work — below, certainly, the level of "Puccini's style" or "the style of the giovane scuola italiana." Doing so allows for attention to two important components in the style construct and its analysis: compositional choice and symbolic competency. First, modern composers have numerous styles at their disposal, and music composition entails, among other decisions, choices of which style to use at various moments in the work. Second, from an analyst's point of view, interpreting a composer's strategic deployment of the available options presupposes a competency — that is, an understanding, shared by the composer and listener alike — in the symbolic, expressive potential of the styles and their interactions.

Consider in this context some of the definitions of style employed by recent authors. Larry Starr calls it "a mutually understood [between listener and composer] context within which communication may take place with some ease and fluency"; Leonard Meyer calls it "a replication of patterning, either in human behavior or in the artifacts produced by human behavior, that results from a series of choices made within some set of constraints." Puccini's late music is stylistically heterogeneous in both of these views, and recent writers on Puccini have expanded on this point. Ivanka Stoïanova has described Turandot as a "patchwork quilt" of disparate musical fragments, each linked as a temporal chain of "boxes" or "sonorous panels" in which each panel has its own uniform character; Carner has described Turandot as a "remarkable fusion" of separate stylistic elements, all of which appear, independently, in Puccini's earlier work; and Girardi has described Puccini's late operas as moving toward "multistylistic experimentation."

But consider also that to claim stylistic pluralism as the single most important feature of Puccini's late operas may be doing nothing more than pointing out the obvious, that his operas follow in a long line of works employing a wide variety of styles in the service of the broadest possible range of musical-dramatic expression. Indeed, as numerous writers have noted, the technique is fundamental to the genre itself and overt in the music of Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Verdi (especially late Verdi), and Berg, among many other composers of dramatic and symphonic (especially programmatic) music. Carl Dahlhaus, for example, aptly observed that "the musical-dramatic means available to composers of opera, and the principles from which they can proceed, are uncommonly heterogeneous by comparison with those in other musical or theatrical genres. This has less to do with differences in the stylistic traditions converging in one work than with the divergences between the forms in which music fulfills dramaturgical functions," and, similarly, "The musical means at an opera composer's command are so heterogeneous that we can scarcely speak of 'operatic' style as we speak of'symphonic' or 'chamber-music' style." In Puccini's case, the important question becomes not whether stylistic pluralism is present (it is, by my definition), but rather how and for what expressive purpose the various styles are used and, moreover, whether the pluralistic elements are compatible and integrated or whether they pose a threat to the musical-dramatic integrity and coherence of the work. In Puccini's late music, the styles are expressive and they rise to the level of the raison d'être of the works themselves: indeed, invoking Starr's definition and understanding style as a frame confining a composer's musical language to a certain mutually recognized conceptual space, we may say that Puccini's late operas break this frame so often that they may best be regarded not as composed in a style but as composed with styles. Contrasting styles are elemental to every aspect of this music, especially its formal organization, its narrative expression, and its theatrical efficacy; more than abstract compositional tools, these are very real, essential components of the means by which these works move their theater audiences.


It seems natural that Puccini would have made a move at some point in his career toward stylistic plurality, given his desire both to respond to his critics' and publisher's demands for more novelty in his operas, and to maintain a high level of interest among members of the opera-going public — with whose approval Puccini was obsessed throughout his career. This latter concern especially was an important motivating force: Puccini knew that most members of his audience (at least as he and many other Italian opera composers of his generation understood them) came to the opera house with some awareness of the traditional, nineteenth-century, Italian repertoire, and that they would recognize references to, and departures from, the language of that repertoire in Puccini's own music. Thus it also follows that stylistic plurality should have entailed for Puccini not simply a mixture of styles broadly defined, but more specifically a juxtaposition of compositional procedures recognized as conventional with others recognized as unconventional — or, more specifically still, those of a traditional, Italian, Romantic stylistic language with those of a newer, less conventional, more international approach.

Loyalty toward nineteenth-century Italian-opera traditions and, more generally, toward the musical language of his Tuscan heritage is one of the clearest features of Puccini's music. Alexandra Wilson has recently established that Puccini's reputation in the popular Italian media of his time was built precisely on this feature of his work, and even today his reputation for many rests on the notion that his operas represent the Italian tradition at its zenith. He consistently exhibited concern for the most fundamental qualities of traditional Italian opera, including, among others, direct appeals to his audience's emotions, in-corporation of uniquely Italian cultural elements, and a concern for the procedures of musical-dramatic form and design developed over the course of several preceding generations. Such concerns surface often in his correspondence throughout his career: he wrote, for example, to Gabriele D'Annunzio, while discussing a possible collaboration, "But give me a great love scene. Will it be possible? On this subject? And above all each act would have its own great emotion to fling at the audience"; to Giuseppe Adami, in reference to Adami's Turandot libretto, "It could also be that in conserving the masks with discretion, one would have a regional element that, in the middle of so much Chinese mannerism (such as it is), would bring a local touch, and above all a sincere one" (emphasis in original); and to friend and confidant Riccardo Schnabl Rossi, "Turandot is sleeping: it wants a big aria in the second [act]; I need to insert it, and I need ... to find it."

But whether explicitly expressed or not, Puccini's concern for traditional facets of Italian opera is always evident in his music — in, among other parameters, his melodies, harmonic procedures, and dramaturgical aesthetics. Some are obvious: the long, fluid melodies, for example, or the lyric vocal-orchestral climaxes, or the relative simplicity of the melodic and harmonic language (especially at the most expressive moments in the scores). Others are more subtle: a psychological realism and directness of affect — both of which contribute to his reputation for being able to establish a bond between composer and spectator, and, as a result, move the spectator emotionally — and a certain (perceived, if not real) sincerity, humanity, and immediacy of sentiment, all of which are characteristic in traditional Italian opera and which remained important in Puccini's work throughout his career. All of his works — even the late operas — exhibit these features to some extent; all have a large role in explaining how he managed to ensure his operas remained comprehensible to the widest possible listening audience.

Among all these aspects of his compositional approach, one in particular has garnered extensive musicological attention in recent years: his attitude toward existing notions of how a piece of Italian musical theater should be formally constructed. These notions can be understood collectively within the rubric of the solita forma (literally "the usual form"): the loosely codified yet highly formalized, complex network of Italian musical-dramatic formal conventions that began to take their definitive nineteenth-century shapes around the time of Rossini. These conventions were well established in Italy by the mid-nineteenth century. They informed the views of Italian composers, librettists, and critics alike, and they governed the way most of the content — plot, text, and music — was to be organized and delivered in an ottocento opera, shaping as such nearly every facet of the operatic complex, from dramatic action to verbal structure to musical setting.

The term solita forma originates in a single, now-famous line from the work of the nineteenth-century Florentine scientist, doctor, philosopher, music critic, and composer Abramo Basevi — specifically, from his Studio sulle opere di Giuseppe Verdi. In this work, in passing and in the middle of a discussion of Verdi's Rigoletto-Sparafucile duet, Basevi makes note of "la solita forma dei duetti, cioè ... quella che vuole un tempo d'attacco, l'adagio, il tempo di mezzo, e la Cabaletta" ("the usual form of duets, that is ... with a tempo d'attacco, adagio, tempo di mezzo, and Cabaletta") — his point being that the Rigoletto-Sparafucile duet does not fit the mold. The simplicity and dispassion of Basevi's statement belies its (often controversial) status as the source of most recent Italian-opera analysis that takes as its focus — whether in operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, or others — underlying "melodramatic structures": "the conventional presumptions about how a particular kind of piece is supposed to work that lie behind any specific piece of that kind." Such analysis rests on the historically informed presumption that the dominant organizing force in this repertoire — nineteenth-century Italian melodrama — is a particular patterning in the sequence of musical genres or textures, all supported with coincident articulations in the organization of the poetic verse. Genres may include the rondò, cabaletta, stretta, ritornello, pezzo concertato, and others, while textures may include, for example, the recitative, parlante armonico, parlante melodico, and aria.

The words texture and genre in Italian opera can be problematic. The standard terminology for defining textures comes from Basevi, who identifies a continuous hierarchy of textures that describes the most typical relationships between voice and orchestra found in nineteenth-century Italian opera and that progresses from least to most melodic: "a sort of chain maybe constructed between the various categories of vocal music, placing in succession simple recitative, obbligato recitative, harmonic parlante, melodic parlante, and finally aria." Practically speaking, Puccini and his late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Italian contemporaries continued to use these same textures, even though theirs sometimes differed from Verdi's and they tended to employ the parlante textures far more extensively than Verdi ever did. Genre is also difficult in that it may refer, for example, to "comic opera," "serious opera," or "opera semiseria," but I prefer to allow for a wider definition that includes a more complex generic hierarchy and thus generic categories such as "overtures," "arias," "duets," "ensembles," "finales," and even "tempi d'attacco" or "cabalette" — or indeed any other category encompassing structures or groups of structures with normative patterns in their music and text against which we may measure a composer's choices in order to expressively interpret the music. Note also that much confusion is avoided if one distinguishes between the textural meaning of the common terms "aria" and "recitative" and the structural meanings of the same terms; "aria," for example, refers to a texture in which the voice carries all the melodic material while the orchestra has a purely accompanimental role, whereas the same word refers in a structural sense to a closed lyric set piece for a single character, perhaps in multiple movements exhibiting a variety of textures.

At the largest level the solita forma is a schema comprising a series of four movements (or five: a scena — the recitative — may precede the four core movements, even though Basevi himself never mentions this), all with typical, identifiable characteristics in their music and text. Following recent work in cognitive theory, by schema (pl. schemata) I mean a normative model — a "packet of knowledge" — we can use to interpret and compare any number of immediate, real-world experiences. Schemata can take the form of a prototype, or an ideal type, which usually exists only in the abstract and the constituent features of which are intuited by an observer from features common in a variety of similar experiences in comparable contexts. It can be an exemplar, a model example of something (a style or genre, for instance) but not necessarily a prototype, with which one is intimately familiar and which thus may serve as a yardstick against which one can measure other similar constructs (e.g., the Parthenon is, for many, an exemplar of Classical Greek architecture). Or it can be a hypothesis, derived from experience and intended to explain, as Robert Gjerdingen has phrased it, "the nature of things and their meaning." In most recent studies of musical form and design and especially in this book, a schema is best understood as a prototype: an ideal shape or organizational pattern abstracted from the common formal features in comparable musical genres. The formal prototype for almost all Classical and Romantic orchestral music and much chamber music, for example, is the sonata; likewise, the formal prototype for almost all Italian arias written in the first half of the eighteenth century is the da capo.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Il Trittico, Turandot, and Puccini's Late Style by Andrew Davis. Copyright © 2010 Andrew Davis. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Andrew Davis is Associate Professor of Music Theory and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Houston Moores School of Music.

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