A View Of Puccini
( Originally Published 1908 )
A plain-spoken and not too reverent observer of contemporary musical manners, discussing the melodic style of the Young Italian operamakers, has observed that it is fortunate in that it gives the singers opportunity to pour out their voices in that lavish volume and in-tensity which provoke applause as infallibly as horseradish provokes tears." The comment has a good deal of what Sir Willoughby Patterne would have called "rough truth." It is fairly obvious that there is nothing in the entire range of opera so inevitably calculated to produce an instant effect as a certain kind of frank and sweeping lyricism allied with swiftness of dramatic emotion; and it is because the young lions of modern Italy — Puccini and his lesser brethrer. — have profoundly appreciated his elemental truth, that they address their generation with so immediate an effect.
In those days when the impetus of a pristine enthusiasm drove the more intelligent order of operagoers to performances of Wagner, it was a labour of love to learn to know and understand the texts of his obscure and laboured dramas; and even the guide-books, which were as leaves in Vallombrosa, were prayerfully studied. But to-day there are no Wagnerites. We are no longer impelled by an apostolic fervour to delve curiously into the complex geneaology and elaborate ethics of the " Ring," and it is no longer quite clear to many slothful intelligences just what Tristan and Isolde are talking about in the dusk of King Mark's garden. There will always be a small group of the faithful who, through invincible and loving study, will have leaned by heart every secret of these dramas. But for the casual opera-goer, granting him all possible intelligence and intellectual curiosity, they cannot but seem the reverse of crystal clear, logical, and compact. A score of years ago those who cared at all for the dramatic element in opera, and the measure of whose delight was not filled up by the vocal pyrotechny which was the mainstay of the operas of the older repertoire, found in these music dramas their chief solace and satsfaction. Wagner reigned then virtually alone over his kingdom.
The dignity, the imaginative power, and the impressive emotional sweep of his dramas, as dramas, offset their obscurity and their inordinate bulk; and always their splendid investiture of music exerted, in and of itself, an enthralling fascination. And that condition of affairs might have continued for much longer had not certain impetuous young men of modern Italy demonstrated the possibility of writing operas which were both engrossing on their purely dramatic side and, in their music, eloquent with the eloquence that had come to be expected of the modern opera-maker.
Moreover, these music-dramas had the incalculable merit, for our time and environment, of being both swift in movement and unimpeachably obvious in meaning. There-upon began the reign of young Italy in contemporary opera. It was inaugurated with the Cavalleria Rusticana " of Mascagni and the I Pagliacci " of Leoncavallo; and it is continued to- lay, with immense vigour and persistence, by Puccini with all his later works. The sway of the composer of "Tosca," Boheme," and Madame Butterfly " is triumphant and wellnigh absolute; and the reasons for it are not elusive. He has selected for musical treatment dramas that are terse and rapid in action and intelligible in detail, and he has underscored them with music that is impassioned, incisive, highly spiced, rhetorical, sometimes poetic and ingenious, and pervadingly sentimental. Moreover, he possesses, as his most prosperous attribute, that facility in writing fervid and often banal melodies to the immediate and unfailing effect of which, in the words of Mr. Henry T. Finck, I have alluded. As a sensitive English critic, Mr. Vernon Blackburn, once very happily observed, Puccini is essentially a man of his own generation . . . the one who has caught up the spirit of his time, and has made his compact with that time.:, in order that he should not lose any-thing which a contemporary generation might give him."
It is a curious and striking truth that the chief trouble with the representative musical dramatists who have built, from the stand-point of system, upon the foundational stones that Wagner laid, is not, as the enemies and opponents of Bayreuth used to charge, an excess of drama at the expense of the music, but—as was the case with Wagner himself a fact which I have elsewhere in this volume attempted to demonstrate and excess of music at the expense of the drama: in short, the precise defect against which reformers of the opera have inveighed since the days of Gluck. With Richard Strauss this musical excess is orchestral; with the modern Italians it implicates the voice-parts, and is manifested in a lingering devotion to full-blown melodic expression achieved at the expense of dramatic truth, logic, and consistency. In this, Puccini has simply, in the candid phrase of Mr. Blackburn, caught up the spirit of his time, and made his compact with hat time." That is to say, he has, with undoubted artistic sincerity, played upon the insatiable desire of the modern ear for an ardent and elemental kind of melodic effect, and upon the acquired desire of the modern intelligence for a terse and dynamic subtraturn of drama. His fault, from what I hold to be the ideal standpoint in these matters, is that he has not perfectly fused his music and his drama. There is a sufficiently concrete example of what I mean—an example which points both his strength and his weakness—in the second act of
Tosca," where he halts the cumulative movement of the scene between Scarpia and Tosca, which he has up to that point developed with superb dramatic logic, in order to placate those who may not over-long be debarred from their lyrical sweetmeats; but also—for it would be absurd to charge him with insincerity or time-serving in this matter — in order that he may satisfy his own ineluctable tendency toward a periodical effusion of lyric energy, which he must yield to even when dramatic consistency and logic go by the board in the process; when, in short, lyrical expression is supererogatory and impertinent. So he writes the sentimental and facilely pathetic prayer;, Vissi d'arte, Vissi d'amore," dolcissimo con grande sentimento: a perfectly superfluous, not to say intrusive, thing dramaically, and a piece of arrant musical vulgarity; after which the current of the drama is resumed. We have here, in fact, nothing more nor less respectable than the old-fashioned Italian aria of unsavoury fame: it is merely couched in more modern terms.
The offence is aggravated by the fact that Puccini, in common with the rest of the Neo-Italians, is at his best in the expression of dramatic emotion and movement, and at his worst in his voicing of purely lyric emotion, meditative or passion-ate. In its lyric portions his music is almost invariably banal, without distinction, without beauty or restraint — when the modern Italian music-maker dons his singing-robes he becomes clothed with commonness and vulgarity. Thus in its scenes of amorous exaltation the music of Tosca," of " Madame Butterfly" (recall, in the latter work, the flamboyant commonness of the exultant duet which closes the first act), is blatant and rhetorical, rather than searching and poignant. Puccini's strength 1 es in the truly impressive manner in which he is able to intensify and underscore the more dramatic moments in the action. At such times his music possesses an uncommon sureness, swiftness, and incisiveness; especially in passages of tragic fore-boding, of mounting excismment, it is gripping and intense in a quite irresistible degree. Often, at such moments, it has an electric quality of vigour, a curious nervous strength. That is its cardinal merit: its spare, lithe, closely-knit, clean-cut, immensely energetic orchestral enforcement of those portions of the drama where the action is swift, tense, cumulative, rather than of sentimental or amorous connotation. Puccini has, indeed, an al-most unparalleled capacity for a kind of orchestral commentary which is both forceful and succinct. He wastes no words, he makes no superfluous gestures: he is masterfully direct, pregnant, expeditious, compact. Could anything be more admirable, in what it attempts and brilliantly contrives to do, than almost the entire second act of " Tosca," with. the exception of the sentimental and obstruct ve Prayer? How closely, with what unswerving fidelity, the music clings to the contours of the play; and with what an economy of effort its effects are made! Puccini is thus, at his best, a Wagnerian in the truest sense — a far more consistent Wagnerian than was Wagner himself.
It is in " Tosca " that he should be studied. He is not elsewhere so sincere, direct, pungent, telling.
And it is in Tosca," also, that his melodic vein, which is generally broad and copious rather than fine and deep, yields some of the true and individual beauty which is its occasional, its very rare, possession —for example, to name it at its best, the poetic and exceedingly personal music which accompanies the advancing of . dawn over the house-tops of Rome, at the be-ginning of the last act: a passage the melancholy beauty and sincere emotion of which it would be difficult to overpraise.
In Puccini's later and much more elaborate and meticulous " Madame Butterfly," there is less that one can unreservedly delight in or definitely deplore, so far as the music itself is concerned. It is from a somewhat different angle that one is moved to consider the work.
In choosing the subject for this music-drama, Puccini set himself a task to which even his extraordinary competency as a lyric-dramatist has not quite been equal. As. every one knows, the story for which Puccini has here sought a lyric o-dramatic expression is that of an American naval officer who marries little " Madame Butterfly " in Japan, deserts her, and cheerfully calls upon her three years later with the real " wife whom he has married in America. The name of this amiable gentleman is Pinkerton — B. F. Pinkerton — or, in full, Benjamin Franklin Pinker-ton; Now it would scarcely seem to require elaborate argument to demonstrate that the presence in a highly emotional lyric-drama of a gentleman named Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton —a gentleman who is, moreover, the hero of the piece — is, to put it briefly, a little in-harmonious. The matter is not helped by the fact that the action is of today, and that one bears away from the performance the recollection of Benjamin Frankhin Pinkerton asking his friend, the United States consul at Nagasaki, if he will have some whiskys-and-soda. There lingers also a vaguer memory of the consul declaring, in a more or less lyrical phrase, that he is not . a student of ornithology."
Let no one find in these remarks a disposition to cast a doubt upon the seriousness with which Puccini has completed his work, or to ignore those features of Ma-dame Butterfly " which compelt sincere admiration. But recognition and acknowledgment of these things ' must be conditioned by an insistence upon the fact that such a task as Puccini has 'at-tempted here, and as others have attempted, is foredoomed to a greater or less degree of artistic futility. One refers, of course, to the attempt to transfer bodily to the lyric stage, for purposes of serious expression, a contemporary subject, with all its inevitable dross of prosaic and trivially familiar detail. To put it concretely, the sense of humour and the emotional sympathies will tolerate the spectack of a Tristan or a Tannhuser or a Don Giovanni or a Pelleas or a Faust uttering his longings Ind his woes in opera; but they will not tolerate the spectacle o. ' a Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of our own time and day telling us, in song, that he is not a student of ornithology. The thing simply cannot be done—Wagner himself could not impress us in such circumstances.' The chief glory of Wagner's texts — no matter what one may think of them as viable and effective dramas- - is their ideal suitability for musical translation. Take, for example, the text of Tristan and Isolde ": there is not a sentence, scarcely a word, in it, which is not fit for musical utterance — nothing that is incongruous, pedestrian, inept. All that is foreign to the essential emotions of the play has been eliminated. So unsparingly has it been subjected to the alembic of the poet-dramatist's imagination that it has been wholly purged of all that is superfluous and distracting, all that can-not be gratefully assimilated by the music. That is the especial excellence of his texts. Opera, though it rests, like the other arts, heavily upon convention, yet offers at bottom a reasonable and defensible vehicle for the communication of human experience and emotion.' But it is not a convincing form, and no genius, living or potential, can make it a convincing form, save when it deals with matters removed from our quotidian life and environment: save when it presents a heightened and alembicated image of human experience. Thus we accept, ' ith sympathy and approval, Siegfried," " Lohengrin," " Die Meistersinger," "Don Giovanni even, at a pinch, Tosca "; but we cannot, if we allow our understanding and our sense of humour free play, accept Madame Butterfly," with its naval lieutenant of to-day, its American consul in his tan-coloured spats," and its whiskys-and-soda.
This, then, was the prime disadvantage under which Puccini laboured. He was, as a necessary incident of his task, confronted with the problem of setting to music a great deal of prosaic and altogether unlovely dialogue, essential to the unfolding of the action, no doubt, but quite fatal to lyric inspiration. Under these circumstances, the music is often surprisingly successful; but it is significa It that the most poetic and moving passages in the score are those which enforce emotions and occasions which have no necessary connection with time or place; which are, from their nature, fit subjects for musical treatment,--for example, such a passage as that at the end of the second act, where Madame Butterfly and her child wait through the long night for the coming of the faithless Pinkerton for here the moment and the mood to be expressed have a dignity and a patios entirely outside of date or circumstance.
The score, as a whole, compares unfavourably with that of " Tosca," which still, as it seems to me, rep-resents Puccini at his most effective and sincere. In Madame Butter-fly " one misses the salient characterisation, the gripping intensity, the,sharpness and boldness of out-line that make " Tosca " so notable an accomplishment. Tosca," for all its occasional commonness, its melodic banality, is a work of immense vigour and unquestionable individuality. In it Puccini has saturated almost every page of the music with his own extremely vivid personality a personality that is exceedingly impressive in its crude strength and directness he has, in this score, exploded the strange critical legend that his style is little more than a blended echo of the later Verdi, Ponchielli, and Massenet. The music of "Tosca" is • not often distinguished, but it is singularly striking, potent, and original; no one save Puccini could possibly have writsmn it. But since then this composer has, artistically speaking, visited Paris. . He has appreciated the value of certain harmonic experiments which such adventurous Frenchmen as Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and others, are making; he has appreciated them so sincerely that certain pages in "Madame Butsmrfly," as, for in-stance, the lovely interlude between the second and third acts, sound almost as if they had been contrived by Debussy himself— a Latinised Debussy, of course. Puccini, in short, has become intellectually sophisticated, and he has learned gentler artistic manners, in the interval between the composition of " Tosca " and of " Madame Butterfly." The music of the latter work is far more delicately structured and subtle than anything he had previously, given us, and it has moments of conquering beauty, of great tenderness, of superlative sweetness. It: is, beyond question, a charming and brilliant score, exceedingly adroit in workmanship and almost invariably effective. Yet, after such excellences have been gladly acknowledged, one is disturbingly conscious that the real, the essential, Puccini has, for the most part, evaporated. There are other voices speaking through this music, voices that, for all their charm and distinction of accent, seem alien and a little insincere. Has the vital, if crude, imagination which gave issue to the music of Tosca " acquired finesse and delicacy at a cost of independent impulse?