The Making of Madama Butterfly – Part Four. The Music.
Throughout this lesson, the number excerpts and timings refer to a film version of Madama Butterfly you can watch via youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhGZMPMJuTg . The 1995 film was directed by François Mitterand, starring Ying Huang, Richard Troxell, Ning Liang and Richard Cowan.
When Puccini, in the early stages of composing Madama Butterfly, was considering how he might translate into music the Japonisme of Belasco’s play, he met, in Milan, with a famous Japanese actress, Sada Jacco, who was touring France and Italy in some of her best-known roles. He was curious to hear the sound, not only of the language, but also of the relatively high-pitched Japanese female voice. He also met several times with the wife of the Japanese Ambassador to Italy. She sang some folk songs for him and promised to send him a collection of folk music. (She also, by the way, considered inappropriate the names of some of the characters in the libretto: Puccini ignored those suggestions. ) He listened to recordings of Japanese music – yes, even in 1902, there were recordings! He read books on all things Japanese: their customs; religious ceremonies; even their architecture.
The music of Japan did not impress him: “poca cosa” he thought: not interesting. And it’s easy to understand why an Italian would consider it so: the melody usually stays within the range of an octave (find Middle C on your piano and play up the next seven notes: there’s your “octave”); it does not have an accompaniment of chords (which would give it a harmonic solidity; the traditional accompaniment tended to consist of a different, independent, melodic line, which might cross paths with the original melody, but might not); rhythmic patterns tend to be very regularly in a division of two beats to a bar; and most of the tunes are pentatonic in outline. “Pentatonic?” I hear you exclaim! Calmatevi! as Puccini would have told you. The word is derived from Greek: “Penta” = five, and “tonic” = tones. Go to your piano and play Middle C; then play D, E, F#, G# – there’s your “pentatonic” scale. You might know it as a “whole-tone scale”? Debussy would not be Debussy without the thing!
Using traditional melodies and rhythms is the easiest way for a composer to create a specific geographic location -consider, for example, all the great “Spanish” music composed by non-Spanish (and mostly French) composers: Bizet, Debussy, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov. Despite his poor opinion of Japanese music, Puccini did make use of some traditional tunes. Mosco Carner, in his groundbreaking Puccini: a Critical Biography, identified seven in the version of the score that’s performed today. Revisions after the disastrous La Scala première, which resulted in the triumph at Brescia a few months later, combined with those made for other major productions, culminating in the version given in Paris in 1907, removed other traditional melodies. We’ll talk later about the ones which survived excision!
Far more challenging for Puccini was to use a standard opera-house orchestra, together with soloists and chorus (not to mention his own Italianate need to express passion in expansive phrases), to create sounds a “Western” audience would accept as “Japanese.” Other than adding “Japanese Bells” and a “Japanese Tam-tam” (what are they?) to the orchestra, he eschewed any of the traditional Japanese instruments. Puccini did use the “traditional” limited melodic range at certain times, and often combined it with the pentatonic scale; he also suggested Japanese rhythmic patterns. His use of those musical qualities of Japonisme, together with his adoption of the seven traditional tunes, is so absorbed into his score that the listener cannot distinguish real from fake. Puccini was, of course, influenced by Wagner, so it’s not surprising that he adopted the German composer’s compositional technique of “themes”. The Italian was not as fanatical as the German about musical motives, but there are recurring melodic ideas which refer to, rather than illustrate, specific ideas or characters. The result may well be his finest orchestral score. Let’s take a look/listen!
The first important theme is heard with the orchestral prelude (Ex. 1, 1:40-2:45). Here it’s presented as the subject of a fugue, depicting the “busyness” of Pinkerton’s arrival at his new house with Goro; when the curtain rises we associate it with Goro; later it’s heard in conjunction with Suzuki’s evening prayers; it even accompanies Butterfly’s preparations for the night. It will return in Act 2 when Goro ushers Sharpless into the house; its final appearance underlines the promises Suzuki makes to Kate Pinkerton towards the end of the opera. Note the rhythmic fanfare-like figure heard just after the curtain rises.
Goro’s introduction of the servants (Ex. 2, 3:50-4:40) is a perfect example of Puccini’s recreation of an Italian composer’s version of a Japanese sound-world: a delicate orchestration of bassoon, harp and oboe playing an almost pentatonic melody accompanied by a flute and clarinets.
A quasi-pompous (yet vaguely comic) theme (Ex.3, 6:00-6:40) introduced by the quasi-pompous (yet vaguely comic) solo bassoon underscores Goro’s announcement of the guest-list: Goro (quasi-pompous) thinks they’re important, but (vaguely comic). Pinkerton doesn’t!
Sharpless, the American Consul in Nagasaki, arrives to a theme (Ex. 4, 7:00-7:30) that is as open and expansive as Goro’s (Ex. 1) is small and confined: Puccini perfectly illustrating the contrast between West (America) and East (Japan). Soon a brass band blares out introduction to Pinkerton’s first aria: it doesn’t need quoting because you’ll all recognize it! Sharpless considers Pinkerton’s attitude to life a very frivolous one, fraught with danger. Without getting too technical it’s tricky to explain how Puccini portrays their differences But, let’s try! Suppose Pinkerton sings an Eb; Sharpless can sing the same pitch, but if he’s thinking that it’s a D# (check it out on your piano!) it will lead him into tonal areas forbidden to the tenor; it’s a kind of musical punning which, on the page, indicates conflict, but which, on the ear, sounds perfectly in accord. As, of course, both Americans are, at least on the surface.
Another aria from Pinkerton tries to explain his infatuation with Butterfly. Describing this he fixes on one pitch for eight bars, and then on another one for four: in “Italian Leading Tenor” terms , that’s a lot of time spent on one pitch, but it does portray his total fascination with her (Ex. 5, 12:12-12:45). Continuing in the same vei,n Sharpless tells Pinkerton that Butterfly came yesterday to the Consulate; her voice struck him as very sincere, and he warns the young man (Ex. 6, 12:05-13:50) of the consequences of deceiving such a credulous woman. Their toast – “America forever” – to the day when Pinkerton will marry a “real American wife” – is interrupted by Goro’s announcement of the arrival of the bridal party. A solo bassoon with plucked violas and cellos, accompanied by clarinets (with eerie-sounding violins) reiterating the basic chords introduces the first of the real Japanese folk-songs (Ex. 7, 14:58-15:20). For those of you who want to know everything, its title is “The Lion of Echigo” and it’s a dance tune from the traditional Kabuki theatre. It’s in two halves, but while we will hear both throughout the evening, it’s the second half which acquires more emotional heft.
The first time we hear Mimì, in La Bohème , she’s off-stage; Tosca, again off-stage, calls for her lover. Similarly here: we hear the heroine, as Sharpless did at the Consulate, before we see her. For Cio-Cio-San and her girl-friends, Puccini conjures up sonic magic with a delicacy of orchestration and a confidence in a long-spanned paragraph of lyricism which is far in advance of anything he had done before (Ex. 8, 15:15-17:40). Initially one First Violin, one Viola and one Cello give us a two-measure figure, which lands on an augmented chord (on your piano, play middle C, E, G#, C), on which the girl-friends comment on the view of the harbor from where they are. The sequence is repeated and acquires a variation on its last beat as Butterfly sings of her happiness. On its third appearance the “figure” blossoms into a full-flowered melody for voices (the solo violin and cello play along), supported by chords from the lower strings; clarinets help the chorus, while harp arpeggios outline the harmonies. With the appearance, finally, of Butterfly and her friends, the rest of the First Violins join the three string soloists in that “full-flowered melody.” Notice, though, that Puccini divides that melody between Butterfly and her friends, until strings and voices combine and this musically unique moment ends with an optional high Db for Cio-Cio-San.
The orchestral postlude adapts another Japanese melody, this one a folk song to the spring (Ex. 9, 17:40-18:10). Note the delicate orchestration: piccolo, flute, harp (plucking octaves) and Japanese bells, over middle-string harmony.
Pinkerton is virtually dumbstruck and it is left to Sharpless to engage Cio-Cio-San in small talk. Previously-heard themes are heard. When he asks about her father, an ominous theme (Ex. 10, 21:00-21:18) is heard: plucked strings answered by low woodwinds. Remember this: it will assume great significance in the final scene. Julian Budden says that this is derived from a folk song about the spring; if true (and Mosco Carner doesn’t quote this as a Japanese source) then it only goes to prove that Puccini didn’t care about the Japanese tradition of the tune, any more than he cared about the names of the Japanese characters, to which the wife of the Japanese Ambassador had objected. The turning of a happy song into a sad one, or vice versa, is not an especially extreme idea. As far as Puccini was concerned in this score, a traditional Japanese tune was his to use as he saw fit, regardless of its origin.
To nothing less than the Japanese National Anthem (Ex. 11, 21:55-22:18) Goro introduces the Japanese officials who will validate the marriage. They arrive with the rest of Butterfly’s relations (we hear Ex. 3 again).
After a fairly traditional ensemble (which made more musical sense before the various cuts for Brescia and for Paris), Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San are left, relatively, alone (Butterfly themes!). Their ensuing dialogue is a mixture of real and fake folk, though I defy you to identify which is which, so supremely has Puccini integrated the folk with his own operatic language. The sword is mentioned and (Ex. 10) appears, plucked, on low strings.
Goro calls for silence and the Commissioner begins reading the wedding document. Tremolo strings to which Puccini adds a tiny rhythmic figure played by the Japanese Bells and echoed by flutes and harp; at the mention of Pinkerton and his naval position, a horn mentions the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Both parties sign the document, and Butterfly is immediately besieged by her friends expressing their happiness over the violins’ quotation (Ex. 12, 31:19-31:50) of another folk song: this one “The Nihon Bridge at Oedo.” Pinkerton is congratulated by the Commissioner, who immediately turns to Sharpless and the two agree to return to the city together.
Left alone with his new in-laws, Pinkerton proposes a toast. Their song (which could be a folk-tune, but isn’t) is interrupted by the arrival of Uncle Bonze, who appears to a menacing theme from the winds and brass (Ex. 13, 33:38-34:27). It is based on the whole-tone scale and will come to represent Butterfly’s rejection by her family and her subsequent isolation. The Bonze questions his niece about her visit to the Mission; relatives and friends immediately side with Uncle B., and adopt, in a sort of call-and-response section, the rhythm of (Ex. 13).They are horrified when Uncle tells them that she has renounced, not just her ancient religion but also, by implication, her family: a pitchless, “scandalized” scream, followed by three pitches descending by half-steps that call out her name. Pinkerton is outraged by this interruption and throws everyone out of his house. The “sword” theme (Ex. 10) now joins (Ex. 13) as the relatives disappear down the hill, voicing their rejection of Cio-Cio-San.
All is now set for the great love duet. This falls into three distinct sections, each leading inexorably to the next. It shows, more than anything else he wrote, that the new-found control over an extensive musical and dramatic structure which he found in Butterfly’s entrance-scene, could be expanded to even greater lengths. These forty-five pages of orchestral score may well be the finest he ever wrote!
The duet begins with Pinkerton comforting his wife even though her disapproving relatives are heard off-stage and the orchestra plays a slower version of (Ex. 13). A hint of the “sword” theme (Ex. 10). A repetition of (Ex. 1) is explained as Suzuki’s “evening prayers.” The second part begins with a new theme from the violins (Ex. 14, 38:10-40:42) as Pinkerton notes the approach of evening; with each repetition of the theme, its top note gets higher and higher, and we realize Puccini is composing Pinkerton’s passion. Butterfly changes into a white dress; Pinkerton is entranced. The final section begins with a violin solo and she begs him to be gentle. Increasing passion from both. Finally they join in celebration of the stars that litter the heavens. Butterfly’s entrance music (Ex.8) returns, building until both voices unite in her “full-flowered melody” and, as both voices sing a high C, the orchestra , fortissimo, plays (Ex. 9). A lesser composer would have ended there. But Puccini isn’t “lesser”! Most audiences, ecstatic over the singers’ high note, burst into applause and don’t hear the quiet, inconclusive, ending to the act.
Reminder! Puccini did not want his originally-planned Two-Act Structure completely destroyed, so the curtain now rises on what he insisted be “Act Two, Scene One.” I’m sure you’ll be surprised when I tell you that the orchestral introduction to this second act is merely a variation of the one which began the opera: it even has a kind-of-fugue texture. Listen to (Ex. 1) and now here’s (Ex. 15, 53:14-53:54). Obviously the sound-world is different: in Act One it was all strings, while here it’s a pair of lonely flutes, answered by muted violins. Act One began energized with the “busy-ness” of Pinkerton’s arrival; Act Two’s variation has been enervated after three years of waiting. A kinder, gentler version of (Ex. 13) is heard. Suzuki strikes a gong to summon her traditional gods, praying that Butterfly will find peace. Butterfly is doubtful of the power of the traditional gods, and the oboe ushers in a new theme (Ex. 16, 55:02-56:20) – another which will assume greater importance! As their conversation continues, more themes from the first act reappear until Butterfly mentions Pinkerton’s promise about the nesting robins: woodwinds and muted plucked strings imitate the birds. This exchange leads into Butterfly’s great aria of faith (Ex. 17, 1:00:15-1:04:30). Its popularity disguises its skill and delicacy. The initial phrase is accompanied by a solo violin, a clarinet and a harp, with muted first violins adding a tremulous shiver “like a distant murmur.” Woodwinds add their voices to the second phrase, while basses provide the sound of the ship’s cannon. Winds alone support her as she tells of the wait she will have. The wind chords begin to pulse as she notices someone leaving the city. Then three muted trumpets punctuate her asking as to who it might be, and what he might say. Trumpets? Just listen!
After Butterfly ends on a triumphant Bb, Puccini winds us down to a calm ending, and we hear Sharpless’s theme (Ex. 4). Memories of themes from Act One surface, until, as Butterfly busies herself with the niceties of hosting the American Consul, clarinet and bassoon play another folk song (Ex.18, 1:06:20-1:06:32).This one is called “My Prince,” and some of you may be reminded of a few bars from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Butterfly is delighted that Pinkerton has written to the Consul, but of far more importance to her is the frequency with which robins nest in America (bird songs again!); Sharpless doesn’t know. The subject changes to Goro and his pestering her with prospective husbands; Goro excuses his behavior by reminding the Consul of Butterfly’s rejection by her family (Ex. 13) and her poverty. The richest prospect, Prince Yamadori, makes his appearance, not surprisingly, to the tune “My Prince” which is now, again not surprisingly, richly orchestrated. Butterfly greets him with an expansive phrase which, while glorious in itself, makes fun of Yamadori’s feelings for her.
Butterfly explains that marriage to the Prince is impossible since she is already married; the divorce laws in her country (“Star-Spangled Banner” again) are very different from those in Japan and ends the discussion with a call for Suzuki to bring tea. Yamadori leaves, and Sharpless can finally read Pinkerton’s letter to Butterfly. Pizzicato strings and solo bassoon outline a chord and Sharpless begins. Butterfly’s constant interruptions irritate him, but he perseveres; a single violin and viola begin a delicate melody (Ex. 19, 1:14:42-1:16:24) which describes the pain of her longing for Pinkerton’s return. Sharpless finally gives up his reading and frankly asks Butterfly what she would do if Pinkerton did not return. A fortissimo stab from strings and timpani.
Hesitantly the winds try to recover: little shudderings gradually acquire an off-beat low D, and we seem to be hearing a funeral march. Sharpless, feelingly, suggests she accepts Yamadori’s offer of marriage; flutes, oboe and English horn, supported by low strings, repeat his melody while Butterfly, with great dignity, tells him his suggestion has insulted her and asks him to leave. Ex. 20 (1:16:54-1:18:30) is a hugely emotional paragraph in what is probably the most wrenching scene in the entire opera. She seems about to faint, but recovers: a whole-tone scale from muted horns. The full orchestra thunders out a variation of her first theme as she rushes to the next room returning with the child who is given his own theme (Ex. 21, 1:19:37-1:20:10). With his blue eyes and golden hair there’s no doubt that the child is Pinkerton’s; in two bars Puccini manages to convey the loneliness Butterfly felt during his birth.
In the second of her two great arias in this act – “Che tua madre” – Cio-Cio-San tells her son what “that man” has just suggested: that she should carry him into the streets, begging for money to feed and clothe him. Then, with the strings using the wood of their bows, colored by the harp and winds, another Japanese tune is heard (it’s called “Pathetic Melody”, and it contains bits of the child’s theme); Butterfly – “horrible fate” – says that she will sing and dance for the people. But she would rather die than return to her Geisha life (Ex.22, 1:22:50-1:23:20).
Deeply embarrassed and emotionally touched Sharpless asks the boy’s name. At the moment, says Butterfly, his name is Trouble, but when Pinkerton returns (horns, fortissimo, play the opening of “Un bel dì”) he will be called Joy. The Consul promises to tell Pinkerton and leaves.
Chaos outside. Suzuki has discovered Goro lurking, and to the theme of Butterfly’s rejection, accuses him of spreading rumors about the doubtful paternity of Trouble. He tries to explain how things are in America, but Butterfly will have none it and threatens to kill him with her father’s sword. He runs for his life. Gradually the music calms down and Butterfly finds solace in the fact that Pinkerton will return and take them both back to America. As she sings a high G#, a cannon-shot is heard; Suzuki rushes in to tell us it’s from the harbor (Just so you know, it was the custom back then for a ship to announce its arrival in a foreign port with a cannon shot – a kind of maritime knock-on-the-door!). “Un bel dì” from the tremulous orchestra as the ladies follow the ship’s movements: it is indeed white; it does fly the American flag; it is maneuvering to anchor; Pinkerton’s telescope helps Butterfly read the ship’s name: “Abraham Lincoln.” He has returned.
Now we need to back track musically to show Puccini’s long-term thinking. The “funeral march” (Butterfly’s reaction to Sharpless’s suggestion that she accept Yamadori’s offer) is in D minor. Much has happened dramatically since then, and musically we’ve been all over the harmonic spectrum, but I’m convinced that, by resolving Butterfly’s “He’s returned. And he loves me” into a triumphant D major Puccini knew that the audience would, subconsciously, register the emotional release that happens when a minor tonality switches to its major key.
The most devastating moment in the score dissipates in six bars into the so-called “Flower Duet,” which is a nod to the tradition of a duet between the ladies: think Norma/Adalgisa, or Aïda/Amneris! Once the house is ready, it is time to prepare Butterfly and the child for Pinkerton’s arrival. Various themes return. The waiting begins. Puccini had always imagined mysterious voices accompanying this vigil. To the delicate accompaniment we heard during Sharpless’s letter reading an off-stage, wordless, chorus hums the melody that was then so finely distributed between individual members of the orchestra (Ex. 19).
Initially Puccini intended that the so-called “Humming Chorus” would lead, uninterruptedly, into an orchestral Intermezzo depicting the passage, helped by lighting effects, from evening, to night, to dawn, to day. After the La Scala fiasco he was persuaded otherwise, and, in Brescia, the curtain fell. Presumably the Brescians needed to be shushed-up after the newly-imposed intermission, so Puccini blared them into silence with the full orchestra, fortissimo, playing a theme from Act One which accompanied Butterfly’s account of the tragedy that befell her family. Some of the music we hear in this Intermezzo recalls themes that were cut in the various revisions made between the La Scala fiasco and the Paris première. It’s gorgeous stuff, but makes little sense to us now. The curtain rises and we hear distant voices of sailors: even, according to the stage direction,” the noise of chains, of anchors and of the sailors working.” A nice idea, but, given what we know of Butterfly’s house, high on a hill overlooking the harbor, those sounds would be virtually inaudible!
The sun seems to rise with the outline of a D major chord from the horns; it sounds Japanesey, and its woodwind answer even more so! The sequence is repeated, rising each time and with richer orchestration, until it dissipates into a high note from violins. Suzuki and the child have fallen asleep; Butterfly stands where we last saw, staring into the distance. Suzuki encourages her to go to bed: she will let her know when Pinkerton arrives. Singing a lullaby, Butterfly leaves with the child.
A knock on the door announces Sharpless, Pinkerton and a new theme from the orchestra (Ex. 23, 1:46:44-1:48:10). Fragments of the Flower Duet are heard; to the “rising sun” theme from the end of the Intermezzo, Sharpless explains the reason for their coming so early. What follows sounds like a trio, since three voices are indeed singing together, but actually it’s a duet between Sharpless and Suzuki, with Pinkerton’s line wandering in and out of the texture as he wanders around the room, noticing that nothing has changed since his marriage three years earlier. Suzuki leaves to speak to Kate Pinkerton in the garden. Sharpless reminds Pinkerton of his warning at that marriage, and the orchestra reminds us of his music back then. Finally the enormity of his actions seems to dawn on Pinkerton, but he doesn’t convince the Ambassador. This leads into the Romanza for the tenor, added for the production at Brescia with the idea that such a solo would redeem the tenor-hero in the ears of the audience (Ex. 24, 1:53:22-1:54:40). But since Sharpless continues to remind Pinkerton of the warning he made at the wedding, it’s not really a solo, but more like a duet for the two men; and since Pinkerton’s text is, essentially, a repetition of what he already sang in the earlier “trio,” as he observed Butterfly’s house; and since Puccini leaves no space for applause after the tenor’s high note, we can only assume that Puccini was merely paying lip-service to a musical white-wash of Pinkerton.
Steady, sombre chords introduce the conversation between Kate and Suzuki; Suzuki promises (a little fleck from the very opening of the opera) to talk to Butterfly, but she must be alone with her at the time. Butterfly’s voice is heard from off-stage (remember Act One?). “He’s here – where?”; clarinets and bassoons recall the “rejection” theme from Act One (Ex.13). “No-one speaks”, says Butterfly and even the orchestra seems afraid to say anything. These silences (and Puccini has carefully written them into the score) are filled with tension. We tend to think of “music” as sound: tunes and their accompaniments, which is what it is most of the time. But “music” is also silence. And here Puccini exploits that superbly.
Butterfly agrees to give up her child, but says, quoting a phrase from “Un bel dì”, that Pinkerton must climb the hill to the house. The Americans leave. To pulsing strings and an almost unrecognizable variation of a theme from the Love Duet, Butterfly collapses in despair, and Suzuki tries to comfort her. Cio-Cio-San commands her maid to go to the child. Twenty-one bars of pounding bare fifths from the timpani with earlier-heard themes from the strings lead us to the “sword” motif. On a monotone she reads the inscription. Excited strings interrupt her plan. Suzuki sends the child into the room. Passionately she embraces her son. In two pages of farewell, Butterfly becomes one of opera’s greatest tragic (Ex. 25, 2:07:40-2:09:10).
The direction in the score reads: “This whole scene must be performed extremely slowly.” The music, solemn as if accompanying a religious rite, is filled with tension. Pinkerton’s voice is heard off-stage, interspersed with trumpets and trombones playing the “climbing the hill” theme. The full orchestra plays the “Pathetic Theme” that formed the middle section of “Che tua madre” in Act Two, Part Two.
Puccini’s final stroke of genius is reserved for the final chord. In 99.999% instances this has a very “final” sound. Not here. Technically the chord is in its first inversion, which means that the root of the chord is not on the bottom, so there is a question. Act One ended with a quiet question – how might this situation work out? At the end of the opera Butterfly’s suicide may solve her problem of “dying with honor when you can’t live with honor,” but Pinkerton’s problems are only about to begin.