Extracted from Michael Steen’s book The Lives and Times of the Great Composers, these concise guides, selected by The Independent’s editorial team, explore the lives of composers as diverse as Mozart and Puccini, reaching from Bach to Brahms, set against the social, historical and political forces which affected them, to give a rounded portrait of what it was like to be alive and working as a musician at that time.
Puccini and Verdi are unquestionably the two giants of 19th-century Italian grand opera. Like Verdi, Puccini knew what his audience wanted, and supplied it – in Puccini's case, a highly coloured world of sweeping emotion, melodrama shot through with a kind of sadism. His three greatest operas, La Bohème – the most popular opera ever written – Tosca and Madama Butterfly are invariably staged every year, while Turandot, La fanciulla del West, Manon Lescaut, and Gianni Schicchi appear only scarcely less often.
Ever the hard-drinking, chain-smoking sportsman, Puccini had much of the raffish playboy about him. He bought himself fast cars, yachts named after the works whose proceeds financed them, and built a magnificent house at Torre del Largo where he continued his womanising under the jealous eye of his wife, Elvira. Michael Steen's narrative follows the progress of the small boy stealing the organ pipes of his village church on the rocky road to fame to become this larger-than-life figure.
Supported for several years by his publisher Ricordi, Puccini's first real hit was Manon Lescaut, heavily influenced by Massenet. Subsequent success saw him joining the jet set, and travelling to England and America, his star only eclipsed by the First World War. But his appeal remains clear and direct, as the director Jonathan Miller says: ‘I'm made to cry by Puccini and I never am by Verdi.’
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