July 5, 1913
Page 23
Fourth In Series of Articles on Contemporary Operatic Composition
Puccini is a talent of the first magnitude born under a lucky star. In the sense of material prosperity he is the most fortunate living composer of serious music. No end of uncomplimentary things arc said about the unholy commercialism of Richard Strauss, and innumerable have been the occasions on which his artistic sincerity was openly challenged by reason of the exorbitant sums he is wont to exact for his works. Yet, the Italian maintains the distinct advantage.
Strauss is a revolutionist and the musical revolutionist must bide his time before he can count decisively upon the wholehearted support of middle-class artistic appreciation. Puccini does not aspire to the glories that may or may not recompense the avowed reformer. He is loved, cherished, idolized. Perhaps the emotion he stimulates in his votaries is more the hysterical admiration for the matinee idol than the deep-reaching veneration of a seer and a prophet; but it is very genuine and very intense while it lasts and cannot be lightly disregarded. The adoration of Puccini does not imply what the discerning worship of Beethoven and Wagner signifies, but it is an aspect of contemporaneous musical appreciation that necessitates consideration, however much one may feel impelled to esteem it as of transitory moment.
Even those differences of national temperament which may sometimes engender in one country a sentiment of antipathy toward some characteristic phase of musical expression of another are no serious bar to the extensiveness of the Puccini cult. Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, England, America – north and south – demand their “Boheme,” their “Tosca” and their "Butterfly" in a manner that is not to be gainsaid. These works crowd the opera houses as did "Lucia," "Sonnambula" and the rest of their musical ilk in the olden days. Time was when the worldly wise impresario's motto of caution read "When in doubt put on Faust.’” Today he substitutes "Boheme" or "Tosca" or "Butterfly" and the course of things runs smooth. High-minded or hot-headed prima donnas burn with an ardent zeal to triumph as Mimi or Floria Tosca, the ambitious vocal student yearns to exercise her youthful powers on "Un Bel di,” “Vissi d'arte” or "Mi ChiamanoMimi," while hotel or restaurant orchestras revel in Puccini "selections" and even the college banjo clubs have taken Musetta’s waltz unto their tender and sentimental mercies. It all delights those dear souls who ‘do not like their "classical music" to be "too heavy" and incidentally pays composer and publishers a king's ransom. Certainly if popular adulation were an infallible sign of genius Puccini's immortality would long since have been assured.
There are not wanting those who serenely affirm the absoluteness of the man's genius. The ancient, if fallacious, tendency to esteem intense and extensive popularity as an unimpeachable proof of purest genius will not down. Analyze Puccini for those qualities of spirit that constitute the essence of lasting greatness and he is found wanting. But if he is not for al1 time he is unquestionably for an age. And in his age he is a fascinating power.
In Comparison with Verdi
Whether or not Puccini is to be regarded as the rightful successor to the glories of Verdi is a question that can be satisfactorily answered only by the Gilbertian "Bless you, it all depends." True enough, no bigger man has arisen in Italy since Verdi's career ended. Yet the original creative genius of the mind which conceived an "Aida" and "Otel1o" is foreign to the composer of "Boheme.” There is a greater degree of original invention, a more convincing sincerity of utterance and a more subtle fineness of expression in the first half of the Nile scene in "Aida" than in all Puccini's operas from "Manon Lescaut" to the "Girl of the Golden West" combined.
On the other hand Puccini is by far the most gifted and consummate operatic craftsman in Italy since Verdi brought his task to a close. And he has steadily remained for something like the past decade and a half the most imposing musical figure of Italy. Occasional promises to dislodge him from the proud eminence of his position have never been fulfil1ed. There is, indeed, plenty of annual operatic small-talk currently in Italy, from Milan to Sorrento. There are never-ceasing rumors of glorious newcomers. Yet a pathetically short space of time proves them to be little more than lusterless skyrockets, far less impressive even than the short-lived, pyrotechnical Mascagni and Leoncavallo. These two worthies continue to compose with fruitless vehemence. The senescent Verdi professed faith in the future of Umberto Giordano. It is still unjustified. The Munich-trained Venetian, Wolf-Ferrari loomed large upon the horizon for a time. Closer acquaintance has rather diminished his stature. Then there have been at this time or at that Cilea and Tasca and Spinelli and Catalani and Franchetti and Smareglia and so forth and so on. The record is painful and details may be spared. Place beside their works a few bars out of "Otel1o" and the incandescence of Verdi's genius will wither and consume them like a reed in a furnace. Just at the present moment fair prophecies are held forth on behalf of young Riccardo Zandonai. They gave his "Conchita" in New York last winter. If his future works are very different from this one, who shall say that he will not develop into a composer of real importance?
Something of the Meyerbeer
By contrast with these men Puccini becomes a gigantic figure. He has a most admirable sense of immediate theatrical effectiveness. He has a strongly developed musical personality and a superb technical equipment. Unlike the small fry of his nation he has the skill to assimilate the new inventions of composers more original than himself and of bending them to his purposes without becoming their slave. There is something of the Meyerbeer about Puccini - not, of course, as regards actual musical suggestiveness, but in method of procedure. Like Meyerbeer he is ever most keenly alert to the immediate pleasure of the public, and like Meyerbeer he is in reality an eclectic. But, gifted with a musicianship infinitely profounder, more complex and comprehensive, he knows how to simulate a homogeneity of style that the composer of the "Huguenots" could never hope to achieve.
Popular taste in opera is vastly different today from what it was in 1830-40. Spectacular stage pageantry no longer atones for halting dramatic interest and meagerness of orchestral effect. A modern Meyerbeer finds himself with a different task on his hands. The demand is for emotional tenseness and a greatly accelerated dramatic motion, while even those who have failed to appreciate Wagner in the truest sense long intuitively for a measure of harmonic stress that would have outraged their grandfathers and a lavishness of orchestral color that would have dumfounded their worthy progenitors. Modern Germany and France offer splendid fields for browsing to that composer whose inventiveness does not spring entirely from within. Puccini has taken due advantage of the fact. But happily he has the saving grace of a definite individuality.
Puccini is not descended from Verdi. Like the rest of the neo-Italians he stems musically and dramatically from Ponchielli. But the paternal fount of inspiration was not deep nor varied enough to serve his purpose for long. Puccini drew liberally on Wagner. Then there was raised the banner of the new school in France and he found Dehussy well worthy of his attention. He toyed gingerly at first, then more boldly with Dehussy's whole-tone effects, augmented chords and unresolved secondary harmonies of the ninth. eleventh and thirteenth. He studied "Pel1eas" sedulously. By the time he reached "Madama Butterfly" the new French, harmonic fashion had been made to fit snugly into his genera1 scheme of things. He disclosed exceptional skill in the manner in which he amalgamated it with the more conventional devices. It gave "Butterfly" its musically exotic atmosphere. It was not, perhaps, a really Japanese atmosphere but, except to a specialist, the fact mattered little. The most important point was that it sounded unusual. Most persons will accept as Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Persian, Arabian, Algerian, Moroccan, or whatever clse you will that is outlandish and unfamiliar to them, almost anything that sounds extraordinary. True, Puccini incorporated in his score a couple of actual Japanese tunes, but the chord combinations and instrumental colors were what most effectually established the desired atmosphere.
A Fluent Melodist
The vaunted Italian melodic faculty has deteriorated considerably since the days of Verdi. Puccini himself is a fluent and a facile melodist but not a great one. His melodies have suavity, breadth, roundness of contour, and on occasion, passion and strength, They are magnificently singable - the modern Italian has not forfeited his birthright of skillful vocal writing. But they have not truc originality nor are they spiced with an emphatic element of variety. Henry T. Finck instituted an ideal simile some years ago when he observed that Puccini's melodies went into the ears as a dish of macaroni went into the mouth "every stick alike in shape and flavor." There are, indeed, melodic mannerisms from which he has been unable to free himself. For a while they impress one as individual expressions. Subsequently they degenerate into wearisome formulas. For all the gorgeousness of harmonic investiture and instrumental paraphernalia there are not a few moments when banality lurks just around the corner. Puccini's music is not altogether free from a certain salon quality. It is not the untrammeled, elemental speech of a Verdi.
Say what you will against the cheapness and vulgarity of "Trovatore"! Let the creaky old affair be kicked and cuffed without mercy, let it be pitchforked on the stage by a "barnstorming" opera troupe and abused by the most execrable singers - and yet the battered and wonderful old relic will still be found to speak with a sincerity and a force of e1emental passion unmatched by anything in Puccini. The brute force of "Tosca" is a different thing and in its way less convincing. Puccini can be affectingly poignant as in "Madama Buttertly," but he is never nobly tragic. Nobility and true exaltation will, indeed, be sought in vain thoughout the length and breadth of his operas. Nor has he the faculty of deep introspection. There are times when he, as Wagner said of Mendelssohn "paints the appearance of a sentiment rather than the sentiment itself." Not once from "Le Villi" to the "Girl" has he laid bare a soul as relentlessly as did Wagner in the first four bars of "Tristan."
One hears occasional queries as to what is the “real” Puccini - whether the coarseness of certain passages of "Tosca" or the rapturous though sometimes inflated lyricism of “Boheme” arc to be taken as the more truly representative. In truth there seems no adequate reason that either should he spurious. Far more open to question is the style of the "Girl of the Golden West" - studied avoidance of most of the characteristic earmarks of his previous manner, a sort of willful perversity on the part of one who desired to convey the impression that his utterances were of such an import as to require new forms in their expression. As there was no perceptibly new message one suspected rather affectation and insincerity. While Puccini unquestionably elaborated the externals of his art between the days of "Manon Lescaut" and the "Girl," his development was in no sense analogous to that of masters like Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner. The changes were brought to pass through the fascination of influences from without rather than from inner necessities.
Puccini’s Librettos
Puccini's sense of theatrical effectiveness Is, as was remarked above. Unerring. All is well balanced and proportioned, there are no anti-climaxes, no tedious lengths. The librettos that he has set are built with skill and judiciousness, if frequently crude in expression. The propriety of his selection of subjects for musical treatment is a matter that is likely to entail controversy in the attempt to dispose of it one way or another. Certainly those who profess the belief that the opera is primarily a form of poetic drama will find much to disconcert them in these works. Puccini has not hesitated to set to music things which would have caused many a greater man to pause in dismay. The "milk-punch or whiskey" line in "Butterfly” has long been a classic of its kind. The first scene of the "Girl" abounds in matters a good deal worse and neither "Boheme" nor "Tosca" can qualify as immune from similar unmusical and unpoetic dross. Unhappily the effect of these passages when sling on the stage and understood by the hearers is so ludicrous as to prove only too potent an argument against the theories of those who discern in contemporary life the only proper sphere of activity for the modern librettist and composer.

No Other Who Writes Serious Music Has Established so Widespread a Cult as Puccini - Most Gifted Operatic Craft man in Italy Since Verdi - His Keen Sense of Theatrical Fitness - A Facile Melodist Though Not a Great One - Exaltation of Spirit and Elemental Passion Absent from His Works - The Puccini Librettos


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