The Opera Quarterly 19.4 (2003) 785-790 Any scholar writing the biography of an opera composer must choose between emphasizing the life and stressing the music. Two Puccini biographers have solved that dilemma in disparate ways. Mary Jane Phillips-Matz focuses on Puccini the man. Julian Budden tries to strike a balance between the life and the works but ends up devoting more than half of his book to an analysis of Puccini's operas. Despite their differing approaches, Phillips-Matz and Budden, taken together, present a fuller and more rounded portrait of Giacomo Puccini than previous writers. Both Phillips-Matz and Budden bring to Puccini methods forged in their prior studies of Giuseppe Verdi.
In Verdi: A Biography, Phillips-Matz showed herself to be a biographical sleuth, as adept at poring through parish registers and municipal archives as she was skilled at culling important facts from forgotten letters and faded newspapers. During decades of research for Puccini: A Biography, Phillips-Matz explored the byways of the composer's beloved Tuscany and visited the cities, towns, and villages that shaped his personality.
She interviewed Puccini's relatives—chief among them, the composer's step-granddaughter Elvira Leonardi—and singers like Gilda Dalla Rizza who created leading roles in his operas. Synthesizing her many sources, she fashions a balanced portrait of this enigmatic figure. From her biography emerges a talented but complicated man filled with doubts and contradictions. Phillips-Matz's Puccini is at once humble and shy, sensitive to criticism, restless and moody, indolent and vacillating. Balancing his shortcomings, Phillips-Matz portrays Puccini as a loyal and generous friend, a talented musician and painstaking artist, who created a gallery of great operas from the cosettine or "little things" that fired his creative fantasy (p. 4).
Puccini: His Life and Works is Budden's second contribution to the Master Musicians series published by Oxford University Press. His 1985 biography of Giuseppe Verdi was preceded by his masterpiece, The Operas of Verdi, a rigorous study of Verdi's music. Budden, who serves as the president of the Centro Studi Giacomo Puccini in Lucca, brings the same analytical tools—and an elegant prose style—to bear on Puccini. Treating each opera in a separate chapter, Budden touches on Puccini's life as he describes the composer's search for a subject and his interaction with librettists. He explores the literary and dramatic sources before plunging into a summary of the plot and critical analysis of the music.
Budden also surveys Puccini's nonoperatic works, from songs and chamber works to symphonic and choral works like the Capriccio sinfonico, Preludio sinfonico, and Inno a Roma. Throughout this engrossing book, Budden sets Puccini's career within a larger context by incorporating discussions of musical life in Milan, the music publishing business in Italy, the scapigliatura movement that flourished in Italy in the 1860s, the development of verismo opera, and other larger issues. Anyone looking for a judicious survey of Puccini's stage works will find one in this splendid book. Puccini the man springs more vividly to life in Phillips-Matz's biography. Treating her subject with an almost motherly concern, she brings not only understanding but sympathy to her portrait. With some care, she documents Puccini's family history and brings to light character-revealing incidents from his childhood. She fashions an affectionate picture of the spoiled and naughty boy who became Italy's most popular composer.
Puccini, she notes, was a cocco di mamma ("mama's boy") surrounded by older sisters and an indulgent mother who solicitously guided her son's development and nurtured his musical ambitions (p. 15). Phillips-Matz feels the humiliation of the composer's family when Puccini failed to pass his exams and advance to a diploma.
Relying on letters and other contemporary accounts, the author depicts in colorful detail Puccini's student days at the Milan Conservatory and his struggles to establish his career. And she conveys an understanding—if not approval—of Puccini's...