07 Mar 2014

Puccini's Compositional Style: Anachronistic or Modern?

Until recently, one would be hard pressed to find a discussion of Puccini’s operas in more scholarly music history books.  There are a number of reasons for this rather blatant omission.  First, historians have not known exactly where to place Puccini’s work.  As the last in the line of venerable nineteenth-century Italian opera composers, his operas, although loved by audiences, have not been recognized as particularly innovative—particularly when compared to those of Rossini, Bellini, or Verdi.  Writing opera during the same years that produced Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and L’Histoire du Soldat,  Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and his earliest 12-tone works, and Richard Strauss’s Salome  and Elektra, Puccini’s work seems at least somewhat anachronistic.  The ultimate question historians ask is which century Puccini belongs in. 
The critical assessment of Puccini’s musical style is thus mixed.  Those who prefer to look at it through the lens of the nineteenth century find his sometime emphasis on “closed numbers” (as opposed to the more open-ended arioso—a blend of recitative and aria) quite troublesome.  One historian called Puccini’s work “an epitaph on the grave of the melodramma native to the Italian opera of the late nineteenth century.”
Every style period, however, has featured at least one composer who combined many, if not all, of the important stylistic innovations developed during that era.  Puccini was one such composer. Early in his career Puccini combined the melodiousness of Verdi with Wagner’s use of Leitmotivs (melodies associated with a character, event, or significant item associated with the plot), as well the tendency away from using time-honored operatic forms such as the Rossini aria.  He followed both Verdi’s and Wagner’s example in calling for a larger orchestra, although his tendency to enhance the strength of the vocal line through doubling it with strings follows more of the Wagnerian treatment of the voice as an orchestral color than Verdi’s use of the orchestra as simple accompaniment.  Like Verdi’s operas, as well as the verismo works of Leoncavallo and Mascagni, Puccini’s operas evoke high drama and portray intense emotions.  However, the grittiness of verismo is sometimes softened, as it is in La Bohème. 
This is not to say Puccini’s operas do not embody a very individual style or even some innovation.  Puccini’s arias tend to be shorter than others in nineteenth-century Italian opera, and are often enfolded so much in arioso that it is difficult to tell exactly where an aria begins or ends.  Some of the best-loved duets are sung in unison, and seem all the more powerful for it.
As you will hear in Turandot, Puccini’s operas are not completely lacking in more “modern” twentieth-century musical elements.  From the opening strains, this is opera is clearly a product of the twentieth century.  The opening chords are strident, punctuated by colorful percussion instruments such as xylophone.

He sometimes juxtaposes musical styles to aid in character portrayal—a technique used heavily in Madama Butterfly. His operas also often feature chords that move in parallel motion, which was a favorite technique of Debussy’s.  His late operas, including Turandot, feature dissonant harmonies in dramatic places that either don’t resolve in traditional ways, or don’t resolve at all.  These devices, no doubt inspired by the music of his contemporaries, appear for one primary reason:  to enhance the drama taking place on stage.
Scholars who have taken a closer look at the music of Turandot, call it a masterfully ambitious experiment that successfully combines the Italian operatic style with Modernist elements common to the early twentieth century: “The 20th-century crisis had ushered in a long experimental phase in Puccini’s career, directed to finding a link between the apparatus of melodramma and the more advanced European experience of his time. This involved the study of atmosphere and the combination of several styles, the true constants of an unceasing exploration of genres and forms. Seen from this perspective the unfinished masterpiece [Turandot] is the most ambitious experiment ever attempted by an Italian composer before the radical change of direction which followed World War II.”
Ultimately, whether Puccini’s music is anachronistic or modern matters little to operagoers.  What matters is how beautifully the drama on the stage is portrayed and enhanced by the music.  And whatever critics may say about Puccini’s operas, it remains a truism that although Italian opera continued to be written after Puccini, none since Turandot has found its way into the international operatic repertoire.
Suggested video: 
Turandot, “Prince of Persia” scene.  Features juxtaposed styles of music and the use of “exotic” scales.