Puccini: A Biography

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Descended from four generations of distinguished composers and organists, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was driven by family tradition and an ambitious mother to pursue a career that brought him worldwide recognition as the greatest composer of Italian opera after Giuseppe Verdi. But behind the brilliant creator of such lasting works as La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine, and Turandot, there was a person racked with indecision, self-doubt, bouts of depression, and private misfortunes.

In this beautifully written work, Mary Jane Phillips-Matz brings to life both the man and his circle. Setting Puccini's intriguing story within the worlds of his beloved Tuscany and the cutthroat opera business, the author follows the composer from boyhood in his ancestral Lucca, to his struggling student years at the Milan Conservatory, to his early successes and failures, to the artistic triumphs that earned him international celebrity and considerable wealth.

Filled with colorful details and anecdotes drawn from extensive primary sources as well as interviews with descendents, family friends, and colleagues, the book chronicles Puccini's personal sorrows and scandals, and recounts his stormy professional rivalries and associations in England, Europe, and the United States. Phillips-Matz also skillfully untangles the threads of the gifted artist's complex and contradictory character. She reveals a sophisticated composer who often drew upon exotic thematic material and an elegant cosmopolite who loved his several villas, expensive cars, boats, and fine clothes. Yet Puccini remained passionately wedded to the simple life of the Tuscan countryside of his youth.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Puccini, a well-researched and accessible study, will appeal to fans and scholars alike. The author provides a snapshot of a gifted composer who faced tremendous challenges on the personal and professional fronts. . . . Highly recommended.”—Opera Journal
Publishers Weekly
The life of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) has been frequently rehearsed in biographies and sketches, but seldom with the thoroughness that Phillips-Matz, who authored Verdi, the esteemed biography of the other Italian opera master, brings to it. With an intimate knowledge of the Italian scene, a lifetime's experience in writing about opera and interviewing its practitioners, she has unearthed many new documents and letters that help fill out the picture of a composer highly successful in his lifetime but remarkably lacking in self-assurance. Puccini developed early, aided in great measure by his publisher, Ricordi, who invested heavily in him from the start; seldom has an artist owed so much to a helpful businessman. There are those who feel Puccini never matured beyond those perpetual audience-pleasers, La Boheme, Madama Butterfly and Tosca, but it was not for lack of trying, and both La Fanciulla del West and Turandot were attempts at larger statements. Puccini's relations with his ever-shifting cast of librettists were always in a state of crisis, and he often seemed unable to convey to them quite what he wanted. His domestic relations were even more chaotic. Married early to a woman who cast an eagle eye on his constant flirtations, Puccini seems often to have been a prisoner in his own home; his wife even drove one imagined paramour to suicide. Infatuated all his life with the glamour of speed, Puccini reveled in fast cars and motorboats, though one car crash nearly killed him; otherwise he loved nothing better than to hunt with country friends in the lonely Florentine marshes. This is an exemplary portrait, casting much new light on a generally shadowy figure. Illus. not seen by PW. (Oct. 18). Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The literature on Puccini continues to grow with these two books. Italian-born Budden (The Operas of Verdi) here synthesizes Puccini's musical endeavors with his life. Using a straightforward, chronological approach, giving exact dates when possible, he treats each opera in a separate chapter, devoting much space to character and plot and citing contemporary reviews and subsequent reception. He also mentions Puccini's other instrumental and vocal compositions. Informed lay readers will gain insight while theoreticians will appreciate Budden's deeper musical analysis. His elegant turns of phrase ("rhythmic scaffolding") and obvious expertise combine in an exceptional whole, though a few Britishisms may confuse American readers. A list of works, useful biographical information on personalities mentioned in the text, and a strong bibliography round out the volume. Michele Girardi's recently translated Puccini: His International Art is similar, with even more specific treatment of musical passages. Highly recommended for academic and music collections, as well as sophisticated clients at public libraries. Phillips-Matz (Verdi: A Biography) discusses Puccini as if she were telling the life story of a valued friend. She remarks on premieres, casts, and critical reception of the works but says little about the music itself. However, she does expand upon the personal issues touched on by Budden (e.g., the Doria Manfredi incident). She also sets a cultural context with historical descriptions of the Tuscan region and extensive information on Puccini's forebears. Her style is stimulating and, for the most part, more entertaining than merely informative. In a rather old-fashioned way, she talks about her own meetings with characters like Puccini's granddaughter, Biki, and singer Gilda Dalla Rizza. Her method of including "footnotes" within the text and abbreviations is helpful; however, one wishes that she had indicated in the introduction the groupings of relevant materials rather than repeating them each time they occurred. She also includes a works list, six major contemporary opera composers and their works, and an up-to-date bibliography. Conrad Wilson's Giacomo Puccini in Phaidon Press's "20th-Century Composers" series makes a good complement, although Phillips-Matz's approach is more genteel and positive. Recommended for all collections. (Indexes and illustrations not seen in either.) Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555535308
  • Publisher: Northeastern University Press
  • Publication date: 10/3/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 364,288
  • Product dimensions: 6.22 (w) x 9.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Jane Phillips-Matz is the author of Rosa Ponselle: American Diva, also published by Northeastern University Press, and the highly praised Verdi: A Biography, which won the Royal Philharmonic Prize, the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award, and the New York Governor's Award of Excellence. She served as manager of the Spoleto Festival for several years, and is a regular contributor to Opera News. She lives in New York City. William Weaver is Professor of Literature at Bard College. He is a music critic, author of several books on nineteenth-century Italian opera, and translator of many contemporary Italian writers of fiction. He won the National Book Award for his translation of Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics.
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Read an Excerpt


A Biography
By Mary Jane Phillips-Matz

Northeastern University Press

Copyright © 2002 Mary Jane Phillips-Matz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1555535305

Chapter One

A Musical Dynasty: 1600-1880

Giacomo Puccini was born in 1858. As his family's oldest son and the descendant of four generations of respected professional musicians, he was expected to follow his ancestors' path, his father's path, if he could. To do that, he had to master his self-doubt and his annihilating inability to make firm decisions. Driven by tradition and by his ambitious mother, he moved beyond a secure career as a church organist and went on to conquer the larger world, becoming the fifth-generation composer in his line. He revealed his gifts gradually, first in conservatory efforts and then in a short opera that attracted attention in music-mad Milan. Giulio Ricordi, the head of Italy's most powerful music publishing house, became Puccini's mentor in 1883, managed to establish his protégé in the opera business, and fought off his rivals for almost thirty years, in defense of the man who came to be called Italy's long-awaited successor to Giuseppe Verdi.

Puccini's earliest operas were Le Villi and Edgar. Manon Lescaut was the first to win him a niche in his field. He then wrote three of the most popular works of his time, La Bohème, Tosca, and MadamaButterfly. After 1896, these made him a rich international celebrity. That success, however, left him dissatisfied with his own work. Believing that audiences had begun to tire of what he called his "sugary music," he changed direction and embarked on years of anguish as he sought to create works of greater resonance. La Fanciulla del West was the first of these, but it had only a limited commercial success. After Giulio Ricordi's death in 1912, Puccini faced a hostile professional environment and a struggle with Ricordi's son, Tito (he was the second Tito in the firm), the new head of the firm. La Rondine and Il Trittico followed. In 1924, Puccini died, leaving Turandot unfinished.

In spite of the enormous popularity of his operas, Puccini was often attacked as a commercial hack, a cynical, shallow man of limited imagination who aimed at the lowest possible level of common taste. He certainly chose modest subjects, his "little things," his "cosettine," as he called them. Where was his Tristan und Isolde? Where were his Don Carlos and his Aida? To those closest to him he seemed incapable of writing a big opera. Some Italian critics also felt that he lacked a patriotic impulse, focused as he was on the music of other countries. He was too international, they said. Among many other aspects of his art that offended his critics were the sadism and gratuitous cruelty he injected into some works; critics found him lacking in moral substance. After his death, most of his operas were considered unworthy of serious critical attention. Only in the last half-century have scholars begun to see him as an important composer, but even now some find him insignificant. Nevertheless, his critics cannot deny that he left a legacy of music. Only time will tell whether it will last.

This much is fact: the early Puccinis enriched the culture of Lucca for more than a hundred years; Giacomo Puccini extended their reign over another century and broadened their geographical reach. His influence extends even to popular music and the Broadway theater, with Miss Saigon and Rent offering further proof of his influence outside the opera house today. His greatest achievement, however, is his popularity, for his staples hold the stage year after year. Nor are his lesser works completely neglected. In spite of the expense of staging it, even La Fanciulla del West is sometimes performed and is sold as a popular video. La Rondine and Il Trittico (integral or fractured) are given by professional companies, schools, and conservatories. On another cultural front, three Puccini homes have become museums, one in Celle, one in Lucca, and another in Torre del Lago. Puccini scholarship thrives; and he is at last getting the attention he deserves, as a musician and as a man. Even though many consider him an international composer, he is now recognized for his Tuscan virtues. Italians today describe the rugged folk who live in the mountains near his ancestral village as having "big shoes and sharp minds." Puccini had both.

"What are Tuscans like?" I asked Dario, my granddaughter's friend, who is twenty and was born near Lucca.

"As good as bread," he shot back, without a second's hesitation. Like young Puccini, Dario aspires to a career in music, and he is very much at home in the composer's home territory.

Puccini was that: as good as bread, simple, modest, rather shy, unpretentious, good-natured and playful, especially among his male friends. Flirtatious with women, he had several serious affairs and a few long, platonic relationships, among them one with Sybil Seligman and another with Margit Vészi. Elvira Bonturi Gemignani became his mistress in the mid-1880s and married him in 1904. Careful about money, he was generous to a fault in writing letters of recommendation and helping people find work and get significant honors. Although he loved nature, he hunted all his life. He loved his boats and cars. He loved his homes, and they were several. Among the many members of his extended family, he helped nieces, nephews, a stepdaughter and her children, a stepson, and several in-laws who entered his circle.

Industrious Lucca and the Very Serene Republic

Puccini's native city lies in the marshy valley of the Serchio River, about forty miles from Florence and fourteen miles from the Mediterranean Sea. Lucca boasts very ancient origins. It was an Etruscan city that became Roman, only to fall under the dominion of the Lombards and the Franks. Later ruled by Florence and then by Pisa, it became a republic in 1369. Known as Lucca Industriosa, it grew as a center of commerce. When Napoleon invaded Italy in 1799, it fell. He gave it to his sister, Duchess Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, as the Duchy of Lucca. Ceded to Tuscany in 1847, it became part of unified Italy in 1861, three years after Puccini was born. In his youth, Lucca had a population of about twenty thousand. The city's lifeblood has always been trade, which made it a busy place with people tightly packed within its imposing ramparts. "A miniature Florence, without the art," critics unfairly said. Lucca is a medieval city, with its art, paintings, sculpture, and above all, architecture. Many churches date from the early Middle Ages. The Church of San Frediano was founded in the seventh century; its present facade was raised in the thirteenth. San Michele, founded in the eighth century, was rebuilt in the twelfth. The religious heart of Lucca is the Cathedral of San Martino, built in the eleventh century. Its magnificent facade dates from 1210. Here the Puccinis held the posts of organist and Maestro di Cappella, composing original works for the cathedral, performing the music of others, and directing the choirs. While these are the greatest churches, others also kept high musical standards.

Testimony to the importance of spectacle and the theater in Lucca's rich urban life is found in its history and architecture. When Puccini was a boy, parts of the Roman amphitheater survived, with some of its arcades clearly identifiable and many buildings that had been constructed on its ancient foundations. Outdoor spectacles were given in medieval times in open squares in front of churches; after 1650 performances were given in large halls. Because those often were too small, the Council of the Republic named a commission of citizens in 1672 to authorize the building of a new theater. The whole complex was intended to house rappresentazioni profane, balli e commedie, secular dramas, dance, and comedies. Thus the Teatro Pubblico was built as a full-program theater. Destroyed by fire in 1687, it was quickly rebuilt. Today the Teatro del Giglio, built in 1817, is the city's busiest stage.

In Lucca one annual celebration was the Festa delle Tasche, the Feast of the Pockets, a holiday that originally marked the election of magistrates, when the ballots were dropped into "pockets." Important pieces of music were specifically composed for it. Even more popular was the two-day September holiday called the Festa del Volto Santo, the Feast of the Holy Face, which honored the image of Christ on a cedarwood crucifix. The Lucchesi believe that Saint Nicodemus carved this relic, which was brought to their city in the eighth century. It was normally kept in a small chapel in the cathedral, but in late summer, the priests and members of the congregation organized a religious procession and carried it through the city. After the Volto Santo was returned to the cathedral, a Mass was celebrated and the organist-choirmaster directed the choir and instrumentalists in a cantata that he had composed for the occasion. Puccini's ancestors wrote many of these works. Like some cities and towns, Lucca also celebrated Saint Cecilia's Day, November 22, with musical events planned by the Santa Cecilia confraternità, a kind of club made up of laymen who assumed responsibility for certain functions connected with the churches. As its name indicates, the group oversaw musical events connected to that saint's day.

The several local music schools, functioning as early as 1800, were brought together under one roof in 1842. In 1867 the director was the composer Giovanni Pacini. Pacini, a native of Catania, had left Sicily and emigrated north, settling finally in Viareggio, a seashore town near Lucca, where he opened a school of music. Later he moved to Lucca, where he worked with Giacomo Puccini's father. The old Istituto Musicale was renamed the Istituto Musicale Pacini after his death in December 1867. (It is now called the Istituto Musicale Pareggiato "Luigi Boccherini"; it is of interest today because of its ties with the Puccinis and its archive, which holds a collection of their scores.)

The Puccini Dynasty

The Puccini family figured prominently in this rich culture. Exactly at the moment when the government of the Republic began to focus on artistic matters, Domenico Puccini (1679-1781), a villager from the hamlet of Celle, moved from the hills down to the capital. Today Celle, in the modern municipality or commune of Pescaglia and the province of Lucca, is called Celle del Puccini, in honor of its famous historic family. Lying on a hillside above a stream flowing toward the Pedogna River, it has a museum, which was opened in the early 1970s in their ancestral home. Primitive and remote even now, Celle is above the dark valleys of the Apennines, tucked away on a dangerous road that snakes along rough terrain west of the Serchio River. Even in the late years of Giacomo Puccini's life, Celle remained a small cluster of houses surrounded by chestnut, oak, and walnut trees and reachable only by a road scarcely better than a mule track. His family's house, however, was the largest in the village. Peasants tended their pigs, sheep, and goats, gathered nuts and berries in the woods, spun and wove, and made rough wine or spirits. Because early travel was limited to the immediate neighborhood in the mountains, people rarely left home, save when they took goods to market. In general, they lived in a largely self-sufficient economy.

Even today Celle is difficult to reach without a car; the trip on the old-fashioned local train from Aulla down to Lucca shows how hard travel was when Puccini was a boy and later, when he was a young organist. The little carriages jolt their way along a single-track rail line and creep through tunnels, some as long as six miles. The train finally reaches the Serchio and runs through the deep gorges of the region called the Garfagnana. On one ridge stands tiny Castelvecchio, the home of the poet Giovanni Pascoli, Puccini's friend. It has been renamed Castelvecchio Pascoli in his honor. Farther south is Bagni di Lucca, where young Giacomo Puccini played the piano for small fees in the late 1800s. Near Bagni, the provincial road turns off westward, toward Pescaglia and Celle.

The Puccini Museum in Celle was founded by the Associazione Lucchesi nel Mondo, the worldwide association of emigrants from Lucca who bought the old Puccini homestead; its formal inauguration in 1970 was widely covered in the Italian and Italian-American press. Among the guests were two cabinet ministers from Rome, corporation heads, local and provincial dignitaries, and members of the Puccini family, including the composer's niece, Albina Franceschini Del Panta. In the evening, the RAI Symphony Orchestra gave a concert honoring Puccini in the Teatro del Giglio in Lucca. Among many later visitors to Celle was the soprano Licia Albanese, who made her own emotional pilgrimage to the place. William Weaver, writing in Opera News in July 1974, described the museum as "lovingly and intelligently restored," with rooms full of furniture from the family. The collection of memorabilia includes the bed in which Puccini was born, his baptismal gown, portraits, the piano on which he composed part of Madama Butterfly, letters, some musical exercise notebooks from his youth, and the phonograph that Thomas A. Edison gave to Puccini. He, in turn, gave it to his niece.

According to Simonetta Puccini, who published her genealogical research in The Puccini Companion, the three earliest traceable Puccinis lived in Celle in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (The following information about the family is taken from her essay, "The Puccini Family," in that book.) Michele had a son named Giuliano; he, in turn, had a son named Jacopo. Those three generations preceded the birth of Domenico Puccini, the first of the family to move to Lucca, where he died. Domenico's son, Giacomo (1712-1781), was born in Lucca and became the first composer in the family. This early Giacomo studied music in Lucca and Bologna.

The most venerable lay musical institution in Bologna was the Accademia Filarmonica, a select society whose members were chosen by recommendation and nomination. To be a member was perhaps the greatest professional honor that could be conferred on a musician in Italy at that time; and the fact that an early Puccini was a member proves how able and respected he was. At one time Francesco Antonio Uttini, Verdi's distant cousin on his mother's side, was the prence or principe, the Accademia's elected head. Returning to Lucca in 1739, this early Giacomo Puccini won the city's highest musical post when he became the organist of the Cathedral of San Martino. In 1740 he was also named Maestro di Cappella of the Republic of Lucca. A distinguished composer, he wrote for both the church and the stage and composed for the celebrations of the Tasche and the feast of Santa Cecilia. In 1742 he married Angela Maria Piccinini, whose surviving portrait shows a woman of striking beauty, very much a grand lady in a richly ornamented, lace-trimmed gown, wearing jewels and a fine white wig.

Antonio Benedetto Maria Puccini (1747-1832) left Lucca, studied in Bologna as his father had done, and returned in 1772 to take over his father's duties. He too was attached to the cathedral and the Cappella Palatina and wrote for the Tasche. In 1771 Antonio married Caterina Tesei, a Bolognese who was a gifted organist in her own right. After her husband died, she often took over his duties at the cathedral; she did the same for their son while he studied. He then took up his father's profession.

Domenico Vincenzo Maria Puccini (1772-1815), the son of Antonio and Caterina, is the grandfather of Giacomo Puccini. Domenico also studied in Bologna, with the illustrious Padre Stanislao Mattel, then in Naples with Giovanni Paisiello, a revered composer. Back in Lucca, Domenico served as organist of the cathedral and Maestro of the Cappella Palatina. Later, Duchess Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, the ruler of the little state, named him director of the Cappella Municipale. In 1805 Domenico married Angela Cerù.


Excerpted from PUCCINI by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz Copyright © 2002 by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Illustrations ix
Foreword xi
Preface and Acknowledgments xiii
Abbreviations Used in Source Citations xxi
Chapter 1 A Musical Dynasty 1600-1880 3
Chapter 2 Milan and the Old Guard: 1880-1883 21
Chapter 3 Le Willis, Later Called Le Villi: 1884-1886 39
Chapter 4 Edgar, Elvira, and Antonio: 1886-1889 55
Chapter 5 Manon Lescaut: 1890-1893 67
Chapter 6 La Boheme: 1893-1898 80
Chapter 7 Tosca: 1887-1900 106
Chapter 8 Madama Butterfly: 1900-1906 123
Chapter 9 The International Celebrity at Home and Abroad: 1905-1908 156
Chapter 10 La Fanciulla del West and Beyond: 1908-1913 184
Chapter 11 La Rondine, War, and Il Trittico: 1913-1920 223
Chapter 12 The Unfinished Turandot: Spring 1919-November 1924 257
Afterword: Turandot Reaches the Stage 307
List of Puccini's Works 313
Puccini and His Contemporaries 317
Selected Bibliography 319
Index 327
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2002

    Well Beneath Her Best Effort

    Phillips-Matz may believe that her great strength is in research but as her biography of Verdi proved she can breathe life into individuals, families, and even an era or two. She is a writer of significance. Why then would a writer of this caliber be content with the work she did on Puccini: A Biography? I doubt that she is. Her Puccini is far beneath the standard she set with Verdi. Read her Verdi and you must hope that Phillips-Matz will again choose to gift us with her best writing.

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    Posted November 24, 2008

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