Puccini The Modernist?

In the “long view” of music history, Giacomo Puccini is often thought of as a throwback to the 19th century. Like Rachmaninov’s, his works are often considered too conventional, too tuneful, too accessible to qualify as bona fide 20th-century music.

Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)

© Public domain (c.1907)

During Puccini’s lifetime, his forward-looking younger contemporaries Casella, Pizzetti and Malipiero reviled him as a conservative who wrote “safe”, sentimental works calculated to appeal to the bourgeoisie. Musicologists like Fausto Torrefranca and later Adolf Weissmann castigated his works as “effeminate”, “contaminating” and “manipulative”, setting in train a type of academic snobbery about his output that remains alive and well today. Writing commercial music that pleased the crowd was out as far as the Modernists were concerned.

Even recent overviews of 20th-century music have little time for Puccini. Christopher Butler, in The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music, dismisses his music as “conservative”. Richard Taruskin writes him out of the modern era altogether, relegating him to the 19th-century volume of The Oxford History of Western Music.

Yet Puccini lived through the first quarter of the 20th century – 2024 marks the centenary of his death. Does he really deserve to be excluded from the century in which he spent the larger part of his working life?

Puccini was in a vexed position. On the one hand, he had the burden of the past placed upon his shoulders: the Italian operatic establishment of the day expected him to uphold a glorious tradition that was now threatened by the rise of modernism. On the other, he was disparaged by commentators for not keeping pace with the times – or for being “insincere” whenever he did attempt to write in a more modern style.

Puccini’s personal inclination was to look simultaneously to the past and the future. He was respectful of his Italian forebears, certainly, but he was also fascinated by cutting-edge pan-European developments in the musical world. Wagner, though dead by the time Puccini was active, was still regarded in Italian circles as a highly progressive composer, and the imprint of his operatic reforms on Puccini’s works is clear.

In 1919 Puccini told a critic, “If you come to Torre del Lago I will show you the scores of Debussy, Dukas, Strauss and others. You will then see how worn they are, because I have read, reread and analysed them and made notes all over them”. Even Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire intrigued him.

Puccini was an avid motorist

© Public domain (c.1904)

Puccini’s musical style took a decidedly more adventurous turn after Madama Butterfly (1904). This opera was famously booed by the first night audience at La Scala in Milan, in what was probably a pre-planned disruption by a hostile “claque” paid by a rival composer or publishing house. Puccini rewrote the opera and it soon became a global hit, but the experience sent him into a lengthy period of introspection, and when he finally emerged from it six years later, it was with a work, La fanciulla del West, that seemed to announce a sharp change of creative direction.

The 1910s were Puccini’s years of experimentation. In Fanciulla Puccini used a range of strikingly “modern” techniques – whole-tone scales, unresolved dissonances, and angular rhythms – all of which created a brutal sound-world that matched the opera’s setting in a remote American goldmining camp. The fast pace of the action meant that there was, for the most part, no place for the expansive moments of lyrical reflection that were so typical of his earlier works. Italian critics attacked Fanciulla’s foreign influences (notably echoes of Debussy) and declared it a misguided experiment.

Another seven-year hiatus followed, after which Puccini threw another curve ball, with La rondine, a quasi-operetta that was much more conservative work than Fanciulla but nevertheless an oddity in the Italian tradition. And then there was Il trittico (1918), a trio of short operas, contrasting in style, but designed to be performed together as a single evening’s entertainment.

Il tabarro is, at first glance, the most “modern” of the three works, with its impressionistic representation of the flowing of the Seine, its evocation of street noise, and its reminiscences of Debussy and Stravinsky. But Suor Angelica, too, is innovative, creating a musical world that is modal, monotonous and static – perfect for the opera’s setting in a nunnery. And clever, witty Gianni Schicchi is full of Stravinskian rhythms, not to mention a slow foxtrot that Puccini’s biographer Michele Girardi describes as “something out of a smoky Berlin cabaret” crossed with “a grotesque funeral march”.

Gianni Schicchi (1918) performed by the LSO and Antonio Pappano.

Puccini died in 1924, leaving the score of Turandot unfinished. This was a work that posed a conundrum: Puccini struggled with its ending, unsure how he could possibly “humanise” the work’s anti-heroine convincingly. He had created a character who was strikingly “mechanical”, resembling the puppets, robots and masked figures that appeared in so many contemporary modernist works, from the paintings of De Chirico to the writings of the Futurists. To reconcile her with the soft, supplicating woman Turandot was supposed to become at the end of the opera – a figure of the more romantic 19th century – was nigh-on impossible.

More broadly, the opera uses some decidedly modern techniques: passages of dissonance and atonality and driving ostinato rhythms. The choral writing in particular is savage, angular and mechanistic. Analysts have pointed to similarities with Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (which Puccini heard at its first performance in 1913) and Petrushka. Hopes for Puccini’s “swansong” were agonisingly high, but after the premiere in 1926 the critics had to work hard to suppress their discontent about an opera that seemed far too strange and modern for comfort.

In Turandot, as in his other late works, Puccini withholds his characteristic lush lyricism for long swathes of time and then deploys it strategically, creating deliberate contrast with the more dissonant music surrounding it. There is something very self-aware about this, particularly where Puccini seems to send up his own earlier style in “O mio babbino caro” in Gianni Schicchi. Such self-referentiality, together with Puccini’s collage-like stylistic eclecticism, seems to point to a decidedly “modern”, even “postmodern” sensibility on the composer’s part.

Sketch from La fanciulla del West

© Juilliard Manuscript Collection

By the early 1920s, commentators in Italy had already begun to divide Puccini’s oeuvre into two stylistic “manners”, the first (comprising the works up to Madama Butterfly) characterised as straightforwardly enjoyable, emotionally frank and “sincere”, the second as decidedly more discomfiting.

But even if we look back to Puccini’s “first-manner” works, there is something definitely “modern” (if not modernist) in the way in which these operas function. The characters in a work like La bohème (1896) are psychologically much more realistic and well fleshed-out than in most 19th-century Italian operas. As ordinary, flawed people, with mundane lives and big dreams, they are hardly the stock heroes and heroines of the Italian tradition. Their experiences are set to a supple score that progresses seamlessly, sometimes jokily, through the ebb and flow of conversations that are at times inconsequential, petty or inane. Puccini seems to display greater insight than his predecessors into what it feels like to be a normal person – it is no surprise that his works can be updated to our own age with such ease.

Puccini is typically seen as representing the end of a tradition, but might he actually have sown the seeds of a variety of new traditions? We can hear nods to his style in works by Janáček, Korngold, Orff and Berio (the latter published his own completion of Turandot in 2001). Countless creators of musical theatre and film music, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to John Williams, have been influenced by his oeuvre. The Puccini estate has even had to sue musicians including Al Jolson and Andrew Lloyd Webber for allowing Puccini to influence their music rather too much.

Puccini’s supposed “conservatism” has been used as a stick with which to beat him, often by people unable to stomach the strong emotions of his earlier works. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you will find a composer who represents far more than the fag-end of a tradition. In truth, the Puccini who is familiar from his “greatest hits” is not the same Puccini you’ll find if you delve into his later works. The audience member who expects all of Turandot to sound like “Nessun dorma” is in for a shock.

See listings of upcoming performances of Puccini’s music.

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