I remember, in my early teens, hearing on the news that Stravinsky had died. I remember when they announced the death of Picasso. The range of the news presented on TV must have been different in those days, because I also remember hearing that Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), towards the end of his life, had begun writing a cello sonata! Eventually, I expected to learn more about it. Maybe some sketches would appear in a musical journal. A recording perhaps. I am still waiting - so, was it all just a dream?
A cello sonata by Giacomo Puccini strikes me as thoroughly logical. It is the perfect instrument for him. As the principal cellist of the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, I become intimate with his music. Sitting in the orchestra pit on my red velvet chair, the surrounding darkness challenged only by the small beacons on the music stands, a lack of excitement and heat could, at times, become acute. But with the operas by Puccini, never. His music is tangible as soil, nothing is superfluous or expendable. It takes hold of you from the very first phrase. I remember how only time and space would release me from the powerful grip of that last chord of Madame Butterly.
While we wait for the cello sonata, my wish is to make the music of Giacomo Puccini available to cellists for the recital halls. I have deliberately chosen to focus on some of his instrumental pieces.
1. i crisantemi (the chrysanthemums) from 1890. The title is a 19th century term indicating music of a funeral or melancholic nature. This, a favourite movement for string quartet was written in the course of a single night on the death of the composer's friend, the Duke Amedeo of Savoy, Alla memoria di Amedeo di Savoia Duca d'Aosta. The premiere took place at Puccini's old centre of study, the Milan Conservatory. He later used material from i crisantemi for the finale of his opera Manon Lescaut from 1893.
2. e l'uccellino (the little bird). Puccini's best known song for voice and piano was written in 1899, during his work on Tosca. 'Al bambino Memmo Lippi'. A close friend had unexpectedly died soon after having become a father. This lullaby is dedicated to the new-born son. The song ends, "You will learn so many lovely things, but if you want to know how much I love you, nobody in the world will ever be able to say!".
3. Foglio d'album (Album leaf, Feuillet d'album or Albumblatt) is a piano solo piece written in 1907, perhaps during Puccini's American trip early that year - or in 1910, over-seeing the production at the Metropolitan Opera of his La fanciulla del West (premiered in December the same year). The title has been used by a wide range of classical composers, from Beethoven through Berlioz and Wagner to Bartok and Carlos Chavez. To collect important letters, messages, photographs and other important momentum in the shape of an album, was a common 19th century feature.
4. Piccolo tango for solo piano was published for the first time in 1942. Puccini visited America in 1907 an 1910, and is believed to have composed this piece during one of those visits. Several classical composers have attempted the Argentinian tango. Albéniz, Satie, Ravel, Stravinsky, Walton - even Saint-Saëns. Puccini's is a mix between a traditional tango and some really bold moves.
5. Pezzo per pianoforte. It is short, yes, but it comes with a strong message: written in 1916, it formed a part of an album put together with some composer friends in order to raise money for Italian families of fallen soldiers during The Great War.
6. Scherzo. In the 1880's, as a young man, Puccini composed several pieces for string quartet. Besides this A minor Allegro vivo from 1888, he wrote fugues as part of his composition studies, and a minuet each for a princess, a conductor and a violin professor - all in A major.
7. Piccolo valzer. Musetta's aria Quando me'n vo', a waltz for soprano in the 2nd Act of La Bohème is one of the most famous of all opera arias. La Bohème was premiered in Turin in 1896. However, already in 1894, a first version was published as a waltz for solo piano. Puccini must have been pleased with his piano piece, because very little differs the two versions. Except a world of orchestral colours.
8. Morire? (To die?). This great song is Puccini's last. It was written in 1917 as part of a collection for the Italian Red Cross. Boito, Leoncavallo, Zandonai, Giordano and Mascagni were some of his fellow contributors. Transposed to the key of Gflat major, Puccini later incorporated the music with a new text to the music for his opera La Rondine.
London March 2016
1. i crisantemi (the chrysanthemums) from 1890
2. e l'uccellino (the little bird).
3. Foglio d'album (Album leaf, Feuillet d'album or Albumblatt)