In the memoirs of George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, a great music (and particular opera) enthusiast, it is reported that the following conversation once took place between Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich:
Shostakovich: What do you think of Puccini?
Britten: I think his operas are dreadful.
Shostokovich: No, Ben, you are wrong. He wrote marvellous operas, but dreadful music.
Quoted in Lord Harewood, The Tongs and the Bones (1981) p. 133.
Shostakovich evidently had something of a bee in his bonnet about Puccini – when Stravinsky, on his first trip to Russia since the Revolution, met him, the two failed to get on with each other at all. The only point on which they were able to agree was in their mutual dislike of the Italian opera composer.
Of the composers of major canons of opera – Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Strauss and Puccini – the latter two are often dismissed rather sniffily, or thought of as second-rate composers that somehow managed to write opera after opera that has managed to stay in the repertoire (something that a surprisingly large number of major composers have failed to do with their erstwhile operatic magnum opus). Strauss seemed to share this view of himself in his brutally honest self-assessment: ‘I may not be a first-rate composer but I am a first-class second-rate composer.’
Having seen two Puccini operas (Turandot and La Bohéme) back-to-back this week, I asked myself what exactly are the charges levelled aagainst Strauss and Puccini and to what extent do they make sense when viewed from today’s perspective?
These necessarily apply only to the music. All opera composers have written operas to bad libretti – indeed it was part of writing for the opera, an art form in which often the composer was hired at a surprisingly late stage in the process of putting the production together.
Firstly, a ‘regressive’ style. ‘Regressive’ style in the 20s and 30s seems to have meant an adherence on some level to the pre-WWI romantic style. To an observer nowadays, the all-too-neat division of musical camps into ‘tonal’ and ‘atonal’ that so bothered commentators in the immediate post-WWII period, is considerably less bothersome. Music in the post-war period, whether Schoenberg’s sets of serial (or at least proto-serial) piano pieces in the early 1920s or Stravinsky’s neo-classical woodwind chamber music of the same period (which are tonal, if non-functional and still dissonant), was supposed to be ‘objective’, emotionally cool, and stripped-down.
Secondly, bombast (over-the-top, gratuitous, unnecessarily effect-centred music). This seems unfair. Wagner and Verdi contain many passages of bombastic music. It is true that these are more pronounced in their earlier works, or ones to inferior librettos. In their later operas the urge to overpower the audience is entirely at one with dramatic necessity. Passages or effects that might have otherwise seemed gratuitous now entirely serve the ends of the music drama. In the best Strauss and Puccini operas though, this is also true. Shostakovich’s adjustment to Britten’s blanket dismissal of Puccini contains a penetrating bit of criticism: Although Puccini writes bombastic, tasteless music, his operas work wonderfully on the stage. The music is ‘just what’s needed’ to make the dramatic situation come alive. In fact, his operas are thus, in their own way, superb musico-dramatic fusions. Like all the composers mentioned so far, he didn’t see the opera purely as a chance for the composer to prove himself a virtuoso. He saw it as theatre. Musical form and argument was determined by extra-musical factors. The music thus did not need to adhere to the demands of contemporary symphonic forms and symphonic logic. Ironically, Shostakovich’s own great opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District seems to be a prone candidate for the composer’s ‘Puccini’ comment. Whilst the work is an dramatic masterpiece and an operatic white-knuckle ride, the constant succession of dissonant polkas that seems to make up a vast chunk of the musical content are quite as open to his own criticism as anything Puccini wrote. Does La Bohéme, for example contain anything, even in its crowd scenes, quite as musically crude as the party or rape scenes in Shostakovich’s opera. In fact, the death scene in La Bohéme (where one would expect the most tugging-at-the-heartstrings) seems remarkably understated compared to the equally wonderful consumption-death-scene in La Traviata (the elephant in the room for Puccini when composing the work).
Finally, inconsistencies of style and quality of musical invention. Mahler, in reference to Strauss’ Salome, in which he saw ‘a genius labouring under a heap of slag’, felt that Strauss put down any kind of music that came into his head, good or bad, in any style, no matter how stylistically inconsistent/ridiculous the contrasts within the work might become. Strauss’ two ‘shockers’, Elektra and Salome seem particularly prone to this kind of discourse. For example, Robin Holloway’s obviously loving essays on these two operas: Salome: Art or Kitsch and the analysing Elektra’s dramatic and stylistic disjunctures through the lens of its orchestration pull apart these issues very perceptively but still start from the point of view that there is something fundamentally wrong about these two works. Strauss’ operatic follow-up, Der Rosenkavalier, seems to bother the more sniffy critics less – they tend to dismiss it out of hand as being ‘regressive’ as it contains very little ‘progressive’ (ie atonal/expressionist) music. How dare Strauss write a tonal comic opera with vast tracts of Waltzes when he could have written a third work built on the advances of Elektra and purged of all the tasteless tonal music that had somehow slipped in in the previous two operas!
Such debates seem pale in the 21st century. Elektra is after all a piece of theatre. It is hard to imagine a finer response to the horrific imagery of the libretto (particularly in opening scene with the maids and Klytämnestra’s recounting of her sleepless nights) than the neo-expressionist music that Strauss found for these scenes – arguably quite a lot more harmonically ‘advanced’ than the music Schoenberg was writing at the time. Likewise, Chrysothemis’ two big arias, which come in for some of the heaviest criticism do seem appropriate to the dramatic situation. It seems hard to imagine the splintered orchestral sonorities, angular vocal lines and thick bi-tonality of the Klytämnestra scene being appropriate to a scene where the character is wishing she could have children and painting an excessively rosy picture of how she imagines family life. Schoenberg’s comic opera Von Heute auf Morgen is undeniably highly stylistically consistent. However, Schoenberg’s response to the text doesn’t really seem appropriate. When his characters bicker over domestic issues, the characters literally scream at each other. Music that would be highly appropriate to the traumatic events in Erwartung, Die Glückliche Hand, Moses und Aaron, or A Survivor from Warsaw is applied to what is basically a sitcom. Rather than being farcical, the opera often seems unintentionally hysterical – and this is a fault of Schoenberg’s unwillingness to compromise on the integrity of his musical style for anything, even dramatic/theatrical necessity.
Puccini’s La Bohéme and Turandot are diametrically opposed in many ways. Despite using a large orchestra, La Bohéme is very delicately scored feeling as intimate as a Britten chamber opera or church parable. Contrastingly, Turandot clearly goes for the jugular from the very beginning. You can see where the ‘bombast’ criticism is coming from, because he overwhelms with huge, constantly stirring waves of sound. But this seems to me to be more a description than a criticism. It is clear that Turandot is conceived as an epic, courtly and heroic opera – as myth. (The parallels with Oedipus and the Sphinx are obvious). In this context the audio assault does not at any point seem gratuitous or to pall. Furthermore, Puccini does lighten the texture with things such as the comic interlude of the tree courtiers at the beginning of the second act – which also serves to show some of the exotic Eastern characters in a prosaic and thus human light, as they yearn to return to the easy life at their dachas as far away from the court and Princess Turandot’s bloodthirsty habits as possible.
Turandot is set in China and develops a legend about Mongolian princess Khtulun, nicknamed ‘Turkish daughter’ (hence the name Turandot), who challenged suitors to a wrestling match, with defeat meaning that she won the horses they had wagered. French scholar François Pétis de La Croix included the story in a collection of legends but had the princess pose riddles instead, and kill any suitors who failed to answer them correctly. Puccini was very close to finishing the work when he died of a heart attack, whilst undergoing radiotherapy for throat cancer. The last scene was finished by Giuseppe Adami under the close supervision of Puccini’s friend conductor Arturo Toscanini. At the opera’s premiere, a year after Puccini’s death, Toscanini laid down the baton at the point where Puccini’s writing ended, and announced that the opera would stop there, where the Master laid down his pen. The curtain was slowly lowered.
With thanks to Oliver Weeks.