Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born on 22nd December 1858 in Lucca, Tuscany. Famous for his operatic realism, Puccini combined traditional 19th century romantic influences with contemporary movements to produce some of the finest operatic works, including La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904) and Il trittico (1918).
While his operas were often viewed as populist by his contemporaries, today Puccini’s compositions are regarded as masterful and skilfully structured pieces of work, created by one of the world’s greatest operatic talents.
Born into a musical family, the Puccini’s had worked as musicians and directors at Lucca’s San Martino Cathedral for two centuries, with Giacomo expected to continue this tradition. As such, his musical education began at an early age and after his father’s death, was generously funded by the city.
By the age of 14, Giacomo Puccini was the cathedral’s organist and had already begun composing his own work. However, it was only after visiting Pisa to watch a performance of Verdi’s Aida, some four years later in 1876, that Puccini decided to actively pursue a future as an opera composer.
Subsequently, in 1880, Puccini was presented with the opportunity to study in Milan. Accepted at the noted Milan Conservatory, Puccini was taught by some of the century’s leading musical minds, including the violinist Antonio Bazzini and composer Amilcare Ponchielli. He graduated in 1883 with a well-received composition: Capriccio sinfonico.
In the same year, Puccini entered the Sonzogno competition (a contest for one-act operas), with his original composition, Le villi. Although not selected as the winning entry, it gained the attention of a group of composers, who willingly subsidised its performance.
Its Milan premier in 1884 was a success and garnered the attention of distinguished publisher Giulio Ricordi. This was the beginning of a lucrative and life-long relationship, with Ricordi possessing unwavering faith in Puccini’s talents. As such, after securing the copyright for Le villi, Ricordi provided Puccini with a generous stipend and commissioned him to produce several operas for La Scala.
Puccini released his second opera, Edgar, in 1889, but it failed to garner the same success and was deemed a catastrophe. Ricordi, still believing in the gift of his protégé, felt that he needed inspiration and told him to go to Germany to experience the great Wagner. The trip was a success, inspiring Puccini to compose one of his most successful operas: Manon Lescaut (1893).
Despite his accomplishments, during this period, Puccini was also the subject of scandal. Having fallen in love with a married woman named Elvira Gemignani in 1884, the couple had a son, Antonio, in 1886. Moving from Monza to Milan, they finally settled in the Tuscan village of Torre del Lago, on the banks of Lake Massaciuccoli. They were able to marry in 1904, after the death of Elvira’s husband.
Following the success of Manon Lescaut, he entered his refined, mature period – it was during this time that Giacomo Puccini’s most famous works were produced. Collaborating with the respected librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, Puccini secured international success with La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904).
His creativity halted somewhat following Giacosa’s death in 1906 but he soon recovered, delivering two of his most triumphant works: La fanciulla del West (1910) and Il trittico (1918). The former premiered at the Met in New York, while the latter is revered as one of Puccini’s most magnificent works.
Of all Puccini’s compositions, his final incomplete work, Turandot, is infamous. Before he could finish the last love duet, Puccini died of cancer in 1924, in Brussels, Belgium. However, Turandot received its premier and was performed in 1936, to a mesmerised La Scala audience.
Known for his distinctive style, Puccini was an avid opera fan, studying many of his contemporaries, including Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy. As such, his works evolved throughout his lifetime, from the more traditional 19th century influences seen in Manon Lescaut, to the realism and verismo style of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
A flair for the dramatic and a real passion for storytelling, Puccini was able to create structures and construct operas that were balanced and moving. While taking traditional influence, his scores altered the role of the orchestra, resulting in theatrical melodies that have been celebrated worldwide.
Today, Puccini’s home has been preserved as a museum, celebrating the legacy of this great maestro. Still admired, his works are still regularly performed and are included in the itinerary of our Puccini opera tour holiday.