GIACOMO PUCCINI and his world.

Eds Arman Schwartz and Emanuele Senici.

Princeton.   ISBN9780691172866   £24.95.

reviewed by Alan Dent

            This volume is divided into three sections: an introduction, a seven-piece essay chunk and a final five-piece documents file . It doesn’t demand expert musicology; the references to musical details are accessible and relatively easy to fathom with a bit of research. The work is essentially an attempt to place and assess Puccini: was he a populist who compromised his musical integrity or a genius who knew how to bring the highest musical virtues to a wide audience ? The question isn’t put as crudely as that, but something close to it yet more subtle lingers at the back of this collection.

            Puccini said of Manon: “I like (her) because she was nice girl with a big heart and nothing more.”Arman Schwartz argues this does not imply an abandonment  of the idealistic aspirations of previous opera. On the contrary, Puccini succeeds, he contends, in bringing the ideal close to the ordinary. The artistic effort to leave the everyday behind leads, he says, quoting Toril Moi on Ibsen to “a loss of faith in language,” a comment which adumbrates later discussion of the relation between the music and the libretti in Puccini’s work.

            “It is a curious feature of Puccini’s heroines,” writes Schwartz, “that they always kill themselves in the presence of other people.” Is this voyeurism or a “shared experience of separation.” Schwartz suggests that Puccini, after La Bohème, renounced anything which came too close to the tragedy of Nora or King Lear. Does this hint at a measure of audience flattery ? On the other hand, does it point to fact of separateness as our shared condition ?

            John Russo, also quoted, writes that the vocal writing in La Fanciulla is “as technically proficient as it is unmemorable.” Ellen Lockhart thinks the melodies of La Fanciulla are arresting because they lack “the warm embrace of context”. They are like those moments of shock we can never erase from our memory. Stravinsky thought La Fanciulla “an eastern Western”. David Josef Bach considered Puccini “the master of all sweetness and sentimentality.” All these observations suggest Puccini lacked the gravitas of a serious composer.They tug in the direction of compromise with audience flattery.

            Mosco Carner points out how Puccini makes the same theme serve differing purposes. Is this a matter of “laxity” (perhaps a suggestion of laziness ?) in characterisation ? Characteristic themes become “tunes”. Alessandra Campana and Christopher Morris point out that in Gianni Schicchi the orchestra seems autonomous from the stage. They compare this to a film score, hardly a compliment. In their view, the standard interpretation that in 1918 opera was about to expire and Puccini to deliver the coup de grâce misses his modernistic use of ostinato (among other devices) to create an operatic form which mirrors film in responding to the modern moment. They discuss the correspondences between Puccini’s Trittico and Vigo’s Atalante. Like the film-maker, Puccini had to respond to a changed world. The Great War subverted every certainty. A “thingness” had entered collective consciousness, impelled by the loss of  a sense of the uniqueness of objects. Hence, as Arthur Groos pointed out, La Boheme is an opera of “little things” ( the cuffietta and the zimarra for example), a nostalgia for a world where commodities were less dominant.

            All this is fascinating, but it may be that the most important and enduring pieces are Ben Earle’s study of Puccini’s relation to fascism and the nature of Turandot, and Leon Botstein’s compelling and suggestive examination of language and meaning in Puccini and his contemporaries. There is little doubt that Puccini was at least a fascist sympathiser. From a modern point of view, he would be seen as thoroughly reactionary:

                        “I don’t believe in democracy,” he declared, “because I don’t believe in the possibility of educating the masses. It’s like trying to hold water in a wicker basket.” This is reported second-hand, yet there is plenty of first-hand material which reveals him as an admirer of Mussolini and an enemy of democracy. Odd then that Puccini is a populist. If the masses can’t be educated, why should they take an interest in his operas ? His public doesn’t compare to that of “pop” musicians, but it is broad enough to embrace at least part of “the masses”. Fascism, of course, relies on the insurgent feelings of the masses. Compounded of revolutionary feeling and reactionary content, it relies on stirring up the regressive sentiments of the politically naïve. Is there something of this in Puccini’s music ? Does he deliberately appeal to immature sentiment and intellectual simplicity ?

            Puccini, it has been argued, handed opera over to spectacle. Along with this came a capitulation to conventional values: the ice princess and the “phallic strongman” of Turandot for example replicate, in their conflict, the conservative and even fascistic trope of the power of the muscular-minded man over woman-as-devil. Phallic victory is absolute. The fantasy of male supremacy in the opera serves the reality of Mussolini’s phallic politics. This argument is made by Jeremy Tambling. Its critics accuse him of “retrospective determinism”. There is validity to this, but it is nevertheless uncontroversial that Puccini’s work is deeply conservative. Spectacle is the problem: whatever seeks to please audiences must not offend their sensibilities. No specious provocation is implied by this. Rather the honesty of art, its service to truth over power, inevitably entails offence. This is bound to be so in any culture where impersonal values and common standards do not prevail. Perhaps we can assume the cave paintings of Lascaux offended no one; they expressed the common values of the tribe. Yet how can we be sure ? Perhaps, by depicting hunting they caused offence to women.

            Puccini favoured fascism, but did the fascists favour Puccini ? The composer died shortly after the Matteoti crisis and a few months before Mussolini declared himself Duce. On 29th November 1924 Mussolini made a laudatory speech on the occasion of the musician’s death. Puccini’s operas were congenial to fascism.

            “….what Puccini accomplished,” write Leon Botstein, “turned out to have less in common with early twentieth-century “classical” musical culture than with that century’s “popular” music.” Botstein defends the categories of high and low art. He recognizes that entertainment is art debased and that the latter is sophisticated and uncompromising. He engages in a thorough discussion of the long-standing criticism of Puccini as an artist who can’t engage listeners on many levels like Mozart or Wagner. He comes close to characterising Puccini as a limited composer, too intent on fame and fortune to be a great artist; but he ends by defending him as a precursor of a possible operatic art which will reach broad audiences while remaining at the highest aesthetic level.

            It may be that this final-paragraph defence is slightly forced. Perhaps Botstein was onto something crucial in recognising the link between Puccini and “popular”, even “pop” culture. Art never can be a thoroughly autonomous realm. By definition, it bleeds into the cultural conflicts which must attend the political. An artist may evince no interest in politics, may repudiate any political significance to his or her work, but inevitably all art engages emotions and ideas which play a role in the political realm. Pop culture acclimatizes the collective mind to superficiality, vacuity, lack of sophistication and the abandonment of critical standards. There are no impersonal values or common standards in pop culture: there is only personal preference. Any suggestion that personal preferences may be based on sentimentality or false ideas is met with the accusation of snobbery. Commercial values prevail. Art is judged by sales and popularity ( which means Alan Ayckbourn is a better dramatist than Aeschylus). In this way, pop culture prepares the mind for a political culture of vacuity and superficiality. It gives comfort to demagogues, neo-fascists, anti-democrats, peddlers of easy solutions to complex problems; but most of all it destroys a hierarchy of values so that Mills and Boon can be considered as worthy of serious study as Jane Austen. It is a small step from that to the conclusion that American “shock jocks” are as worthy of serious attention as Martin Luther King.

            Are pop musicians Puccini’s children ? The musically inept David Bowie expressed openly fascist ideas. The cult of celebrity has much in common with that of the great leader. Paul McCartney boasts of his inability to read music. Pop culture is discovered, unsurprisingly, to be replete with paedophiles and sexual predators.

            It is not so much as Puccini argued that the masses cannot be educated but that there is a huge and sleepless effort to prevent them being. The interests of the rich and powerful are served by keeping the masses in a condition of stupefaction. The culture which does so completes the circle by arguing the masses want nothing better, more bracing or enduring. The confidence to approach serious culture is sapped from the majority. They are addicted to the “plug-in drug” (as well as others). As they are fed junk food to render their palates undiscriminating, they are fed cultural pap to infantilize their minds. It is not the masses who produce this culture but a rich and powerful elite, a predominantly educated elite which lacks not intellect but morality.

            Puccini was a gifted musician. He didn’t stoop very low, but could it be argued that he compromised far enough with artistic values to help open the floodgates to the sticky sludge of entertainment which clogs the conduits of our culture ? Maybe. What is beyond doubt is that he gave comfort to fascists so whatever we conclude about him as a musician, as a man he was morally compromised. The difficult question is, to what extent did his moral cowardice leech into his art.