Giacomo Puccini: Crisantemi

performed by the Venice Quartet, or below by the Enso String Quartet

Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini had a long name. He was born on December 22, 1858 in Lucca, Italy, one of nine children in the Puccini family. In contrast with Verdi, say, the Puccini family was “established in Lucca as a local musical dynasty by Puccini’s great-great grandfather,” also named Giacomo, who held a musical post at a local cathedral (?), which two generations of Puccinis later took over. This lasted for 124 years, but when it came time for the young Giacomo to take over his father Michele’s post when he passed, he was only six years of age.

He had what seemed like a fulfilling and illustrious education, eventually studying at the Milan Conservatory and completing his own mass at the age of 21. In short, he went on to establish himself in Milan and elsewhere with one successful opera after another, earning him a reputation as “the greatest composer of Italian opera after Verdi“, according to Ravenni and Girardi.

There’s obviously plenty to discuss of Puccini’s works, how he earned his fame and success, and all the rest, but it’s contained in his Wikipedia article and there’s no sense rehashing that all here.

Instead of discussing any of his operas here (for now), we’re going to touch on what is one of his smallest, subtlest works, not for the stage, but for string quartet. According to Blair Johnston at AllMusic, “Giacomo Puccini himself acknowledged that his true talent lay “only in the theater,” and so his non-operatic works are understandably few.”

I think ‘understandably’ is an unnecessary qualifier in that sentence.

Puccini actually composed (at least) three other works for the string quartet genre, minuets dedicated to friends, it seems, but this small work is the most famous, which isn’t saying much. It, too, is neglected, to say the least, when compared with the composer’s wonderfully successful operas.

So we’re giving him the same treatment we gave to Verdi last weekend, except this tiny piece (‘Chrysanthemums’ in English) is really just a single movement, a thought painted in a few quick brushstrokes rather than a completed portrait, but that doesn’t make it any less effective.

As Johnston said, the composer wrote it “in 1890 — in a single night, he said — as a response to the death of the Duke of Savoy.”

And can you not hear it? This single movement, with its two melancholy, elegiac themes, unfolds in less than six minutes. It’s poignant and beautiful, an unbroken single thought. Can you not hear someone awake at night, troubled by an idea, pained by something that prevents sleep, finally waking up to put it on paper, maybe by candlelight, and producing this small expression of sorrow?

I’m surprised, actually, that this work isn’t on every one those damn “The Best (adjectives) Classical Music Album Ever in the Whole Entire Universe!” collections that I hate so much. It’s openly, nakedly expressive, immediately accessible, short, unmistakably sorrowful, and there’s absolutely no need to have it in context with other movements or discuss its musical elements or structure. It’s just what it is.

Clearly, Puccini was a composer of really superb musical talent, not just for the stage, but even here, where the same expressiveness and intensity translates very well to a compact ensemble of four instruments. Johnston says that “The string quartet was a medium for which Puccini had a certain undeniable affinity,” but a grand total of only four or five little pieces or collections of pieces for the ensemble doesn’t convince me of his affinity for the form. At the very least, it is a genre of music with a rich heritage, and one that’s far more economical for a composer than a full orchestra with vocal parts and all the rest.

While the circumstances surrounding this work sound impulsive, the work doesn’t seem off-the-cuff or rushed. Rather, it’s compact and powerful. As a matter of fact, despite the economy and effectiveness for which Puccini wrote this work for quartet, it appears more often arranged for string orchestra, which is fine and all (see Barber’s Adagio), but it loses the intimacy that I feel this work benefits so greatly from.

We will actually be seeing more of Puccini this month. He is, as a matter of fact, the whole reason we have this month’s series, if you hadn’t read in the introduction at the beginning of the month. I’m a little swamped with these enormous works, so instead of a new, hefty work from one of next week’s work’s composers, we did this. It’s a small morsel, but a very delicious one.

As usual, stay tuned for more opera next week, two works actually, which are often paired together. I’m very excited for that. Thank you for reading.

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