Magazine article Musical Times

Controlling Forces

Magazine article Musical Times

Controlling Forces

Article excerpt

Controlling forces

JOHN STEANE Puccini: his international art Michele Girardi Translated by Laura Basini University of Chicago Press (Chicago & London, 2000); xvi, 530pp; 41. ISBN 0 226 29757 8.

'Intellectual and creative control': the phrase occurs incidentally on the last page of text in this highly controlled, highly intelligent, major work. It enforces the realisation that this is what we have been reading all along. Puccini as a man of intellect, or as a composer whose creative processes were guided by intelligence and artistic controls, is a concept that many will find hard to accept. Fifty years ago it would have been harder, but even now, when he has so clearly stayed the course and been freed from some of criticism's grosser aspersions, the notion sticks that he was an instinctive man of the theatre with a gift for melody and a skill in orchestration but not one who appeals to an analytical mind or a welldeveloped musical sensibility. This book argues otherwise.

It does not promote an explicit thesis, but, like most of the best criticism, puts its faith in the power of demonstration. The method (or what is absurdly called 'methodology') is to read the scores of the operas, closely and responsively, subjecting the findings to test and enrichment by remarkably thorough and well-organised scholarship. The starting-point is a common experience of Puccini, who works on the mind first through melody, emotion and an instinctive feeling for dramatic effect, but then (perhaps as the initial impact of these things decreases) through a subtler interplay of cross-references, the counterpart of imagery in poetic drama, much of which, in Eliot's phrase, can `communicate before it is understood'. Whether or not this was the author's own experience, it is common enough to find that just as one is about to desert Puccini (as part of `youth's sweet-scented manuscript') he strengthens his hold by other means. Perhaps, to put it in lowly fashion, it is initially no more than the discovery that the `bits-in-between' are hauntingly memorable, and moving too; then that they are there for a purpose; then that there are really no `bits-inbetween' at all. What we are finding is something which it is very tempting to call Shakespearean; a fine interpenetration of ideas and references, creating a rich fabric, tightly woven and integral. Something may still repel, perhaps the musical equivalent of what Shaw's Henry Higgins calls 'a thick pair of lips to kiss you with and a thick pair of boots to kick you with'. But another of Professor Girardi's critical achievements is to provide an absorbing study of the craftsmanship, opening a way to the fuller appreciation of Puccini as an artist of vision, psychological and social, perhaps ultimately philosophical.

The book is a life-and-works study with just enough 'life' as is needed to read the works by It differs from the acknowledged authority of its predecessor, Mosco Carner's `critical biography' (London, 1958) both in the balance of its attention to man and music and in its approach: Girardi has little time for the psychoanalytic theory, finding it 'interesting' but `dated and reductive'. Among writers in English, Edward Greenfield is closer, with his exposition of symphonic structure and concern for the intricate cross-reference of motifs (Puccini: keeper of the seal, also London 1958). Internationally, many writers have been working on similar lines or in ways which are directly relevant, as the well-stocked footnotes show. This is nevertheless the most searching and (as criticism) the most `central' study to date. …

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