Giacomo Puccini – a summary

Born on 22 December 1858, Giacomo Puccini was one of seven children born to Michele and Albino Puccini.  His full name was Giacomo Antonia Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini. Giacomo’s great, great, grandfather had established a local musical dynasty in Lucca, Tuscany.  His descendants all studied music in Bologna and the family were well known throughout northern Italy as competent composers.

Early Years

Giacomo PucciniGiacomo Puccini began his career by joining a local cathedral choir and later became its substitute organist; and, when not needed in the cathedral, played in small local churches.  In Pisa, in 1876, the eighteen-year-old Giacomo saw Giuseppe Verdi’s Aide for the first time and instantly decided he had found his vocation.  In 1880 he studied at the Milan Conservatory and after three years gained his diploma.  In the same year he entered his work, Le Villi, in a one-act opera competition but the judges found it unworthy.

Arrigo Boito, composer/librettist, and friend, funded the premiere of Le Villi at Milan’s Verme Theatre. First performed on 31 May 1880, its striking melody, drama and power were well received.  The music publisher Giulio Ricordi offered to buy the copyright on the condition Puccini added a second act.  Ricordi also commissioned a new opera to be performed at Milan’s La Scala (abbreviation for the Teatro Alla Scala Opera House).

Around this time Puccini started living with Elvira Gemignani, a married woman. To avoid the ensuing scandal, he left Lucca and moved to Monza near Milan.  Following the death of Elvira’s husband, the couple married.  In 1890 Puccini and Elvira’s son, Antonio was born and the family moved first to Milan, then later to Torre del Lago, a tiny fishing village on Lake Massaciuccoli, where they lived until 1921.

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Giuseppe Verdi – a brief summary

Giuseppe Verdi was born on 10 October 1813 in Le Roncole near Busseto in the province of Parma, Italy.  He became interested in music at a very early age and at nine he was playing on the local church’s organ.  Since he was too young to gain admission into the Milan Conservatory he studied privately, under Vincenzo Lavigne, a famous Milan composer.  While in Milan, the intellectual centre of Italy, Verdi took every opportunity to go to concerts and operatic performances, and make friends with influential aristocrats who were impressed by his compositions.

Giuseppe VerdiIn 1833 he returned to Busseto where he became a conductor at the local Philharmonic Society.  The twenty year old also worked as an organist until he gained a sponsor; a local merchant and music lover, Antonio Barezzi.  In 1836 he married Barezzi’s daughter, Margherita. Together they had two children, a girl Virginia and a boy Icilio, but both died in infancy in 1838 and 1839 respectively; Margherita also died in June 1840.

In 1838, at the age of twenty-five, Verdi completed his first opera, Oberto, conte di san Bonifacio, premiered in the La Scala opera house.  It was received well enough for the impresario, Bartolommeo Merelli to offer Verdi a three opera contract, which he accepted. Verdi’s second opera, a comedy, Un giorno die Regno (King for a day), was a complete disaster; but his third, Nabucco (Nabucodonosor), premiered in September 1842, brought him instant fame.

Verdi and Shakespeare

Verdi went on to write twenty-eight works including I Lombardi (The Lombards in the First Crusade), later renamed Jerusalem.  The latter had been revamped to suit Parisian conventions, such as the inclusion of extensive ballets; thus making it Verdi’s first French-style of a grand opera.  But his most original and important work during this period was his Macbeth, naturally based on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

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Richard Wagner – the Bayreuth Festival

Richard Wagner had scoured Germany for a large theatre to present his Ring Cycle or Des Ring des Nibelungen.  Unable to find a suitable venue, he decided to build one to his own specifications, with a permanent home for his family next to it.  Wagner had never had financial independence; and even when he found the money for his creations he generally had to sell their rights; thus, leaving him unable to perform his own works.  The constant seeking of money had been the bane of his life.

Richard WagnerAfter much searching, he finally found Bayreuth; which, although fairly large, was still unsatisfactory.  It accommodated smaller Baroque orchestras with ease but was totally unsuitable for staging the complex operas Wagner was famous for; and the acoustics were also woefully inadequate for his huge orchestras.  But Wagner and his wife, Cosima, liked the ambience of the town.  Although it had little by way of a cultural life, it offered no artistic competition and, more importantly, it was a region free from owner’s rights; thereby Wagner could perform his works when he so wished.

When the Wagners put their ideas to the Bayreuth Council, the council generously donated a vast plot of land.  Green Hill was indeed a pretty spot overlooking the (then) small town, and was ideal for their purposes, but once again Wagner needed to raise the money.  Wagner realised that no single sponsor would stump up such a huge sum and he began to think that this time the problem was insurmountable; until a friend came up with the idea of creating a ‘Wagner Society’.  Wagner travelled to towns and cities where he conducted concerts; and raised a considerable sum, but they still needed at least double the amount.  Weary of travelling, Wagner petitioned King Ludwig II and, on the third time of asking, the young, former patron and staunch Wagnerian relented and approved a loan to complete the project.

Home at Last

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Richard Wagner – a summary

22 May 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth

Richard Wagner was born on 22 May 1813 in Leipzig, Germany; a city renowned for its cultural and literal traditions and its musicians and writers, such as Bach, Goethe, Mendelssohn, Mozart and Schumann.  Despite losing his father at six months, his stepfather when only eight and having no guiding hand, Wagner grew into a charismatic but complicated and very rare individualist who sought absolute perfection; primarily in himself, but also in the people around him.  And yet, he was a controversial character whose lifestyle was unorthodox; his beliefs, politics, writings and operas were contentious to the extreme.  In his works he incorporated poetry, visual, musical and dramatic arts with music subordinate to drama; later, his operas were referred to as ‘musical dramas’.

Richard WagnerIn his lifetime Richard Wagner found many friend and followers, but true happiness only arrived in his life at the age of fifty.  After struggling financially for most of his life, the ideal patron and follower found him; whereas, he found the perfect wife whom he adored: Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt, Wagner’s best friend.  They had two daughters, Isolde and Eva, and a son Siegfried; the family that Wagner had always yearned for.

The Composer

Richard Wagner is noted as a prolific composer of operas and musical dramas, a conductor and theatre director.  He wrote the librettos for his own works as well as the music.  In his early years he composed in the styles of his heroes, Shakespeare, Meyerbeer and Weber but soon found his own style.

At the age of twenty, Wagner completed his first opera.  The Fairies (Die Feen) was in the style of Weber, but it was not performed until fifty years later, in1883.  Having accomplished one opera he knew exactly what he wanted to do.  He set out to advance the current musical language and did it so effectively it influenced the development of classical music.  It was a concept combining the dramatical, musical, poetical and the visual; thus creating ‘total works of art’ (Gesamtkunstwerk); as espoused in the first half of his four opera cycle called, The Ring of the Nibelung (Der Ring des Nibelungen).

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Karl Eliasberg – a summary

In August 1942, Karl Eliasberg conducted a symphony, Shostakovich’s Seventh, in what must rate as the most gruelling concert ever given – for it took place in the city of Leningrad, a city surrounded by Germans and in the midst of a devastating siege which was to last almost 900 days.

Throughout his life, Karl Eliasberg had to be content with second place. From 1937 to 1950 he was the musical director and conductor for the Leningrad Radio Orchestra (LRO), the city’s second orchestra behind the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Yevgeny Mravinsky, one of the top conductors of the Soviet era. Mravinsky, considered by Dmitry Shostakovich as his favourite conductor, staged the première of the composer’s fifth symphony. At the start of the Leningrad Siege, Mravinsky and the LPO were evacuated to Siberia where they were to play over 500 concerts and 200 radio broadcasts. Eliasberg and the LRO however were left in the city playing only the occasional concert until the performances ceased altogether.

The Leningrad Symphony

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The Leningrad Symphony – a summary

The Leningrad Symphony. Poised with his baton, the conductor pauses a moment. His orchestra, instruments at the ready, watch him. Somewhere in the audience, someone coughs. The conductor waits for absolute silence knowing that this is the biggest occasion of his life. Finally, he brings the baton down with a whoosh and starts the performance.

But this is no ordinary conductor, no ordinary orchestra and no ordinary audience. They were all on the verge of death, suffering from the advanced stages of starvation. To hold, let alone play, an instrument for over an hour took every ounce of their strength. But the music they played that night was proof of their spirit and that ultimately their city would survive.

The city was Leningrad; the music was Dmitry Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, nicknamed the Leningrad, and on 9 August 1942, it saw its Leningrad premier at the height of the most devastating siege of modern times.

A year earlier, Dmitry Shostakovich (pictured), made a radio announcement in which he said, ‘An hour ago, I completed the score of two movements of my new, large symphonic work.’ This new work was his Seventh Symphony, later to be called the Leningrad.

The siege of Leningrad had just started; it was to last 872 days, or twenty-nine months. Hitler had declared his intention to ‘wipe the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth’. Over a million civilians and soldiers would die – the number of deaths in Leningrad exceeds those who died from the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and constitutes the largest death toll ever recorded in a single city.

‘Now I am ready to take up arms’

The city authorities had tried to make Shostakovich leave but, loyal to the city, he stayed, working on his composition and volunteering for the People’s Army, stating, ‘Until now I have known only peaceful work. But now I am ready to take up arms.’ But his good intentions were dashed by the military – rejected because of his poor eyesight. But he was allowed instead to take his turn on fire warden duty. The American magazine, Time featured the composer on its cover, wearing a golden helmet and holding a fireman’s nozzle, with the caption, ‘Fireman Shostakovich’. Eventually, he was ordered to leave. On 1 October, with his wife and children and the manuscript of his score stuffed in his suitcase, he bid farewell to the city of his birth. While he was gone, his dog was eaten.

Evacuated to the town of Kuibyshev (modern-day Samara), 900 miles south-east of Leningrad, Shostakovich worked feverishly on the symphony while producing short works to entertain the troops on the frontline, tunes with catchy titles, such as The Fearless Guards Regiment is on the Move. By the end of the year, the symphony was done. Dedicated to ‘our struggle against fascism, to our coming victory and to my native city of Leningrad’, it received its world première, broadcast to the nation, in Kuibyshev on 5 March 1942, followed by a performance in Moscow three weeks later.

A microfilm of the score was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and flown to Teheran and from there to Europe, where conductors fought for the privilege of conducting the work. It was performed first in London, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, then in New York on 19 July, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The symphony was an immediate hit and Shostakovich’s face appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world.

The Symphony Comes to Leningrad

Then came the decision to play the Leningrad Symphony in Leningrad itself. It would be, according to Andrey Zhdanov (pictured), Stalin’s man in Leningrad, good for the city’s morale. A Soviet plane, dodging the German guns, delivered the score to Zhdanov. The city’s principle orchestra, the Philharmonic, had already been evacuated out of the city but the reserve orchestra, the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, was still available. Its conductor, 42-year-old Karl Eliasberg, was charged with reassembling his musicians. But of its 100 members, only 14 remained. The others had all died or been killed. Replacements had to be found. The call went out urging soldiers who could play an instrument to report for duty.

The score, complex and mammoth, was 75 minutes long and involved a 90-piece orchestra. Given the weakness of the musicians who had gathered for the first rehearsal in March 1942, Eliasberg knew the difficulty of the task that lay ahead. ‘Dear friends,’ he began, ‘we are weak but we must force ourselves to start work.’

And it was hard work – despite extra rations, many, especially the brass players, passed out with the effort of playing their instruments. Eliasberg was tough on his players – those who played badly or, worse, failed to turn up for the three-hour long rehearsals, were docked a bread ration. Through discipline and coaxing, Eliasberg got his skeletal orchestra to perform Shostakovich’s huge work. But only once during rehearsals did the orchestra have enough strength to play the whole work throughout – three days before the big day.

The date for the performance was fixed – 9 August 1942, the date set by the Nazis for a huge party in Leningrad’s Astoria hotel to celebrate their anticipated capture of the city. The invitations had already been printed. They were never sent out.

The Leningrad Première

The Philharmonic Hall was packed – people came in their finest clothes; city leaders and generals took their places. The musicians, despite the warm August temperature, wore coats and mittens – when the body is starving, it is continually cold. Outside, throughout the city, people gathered to listen at loudspeakers. Hours earlier, Leonid Govorov, Leningrad’s military commander since April 1942, ordered a barrage of artillery onto the German lines to ensure their silence for long enough time for the work to be performed without interruption. Loudspeakers, on full volume, pointed in the direction of the Germans – the city wanted the enemy to hear.

‘This performance,’ announced Eliasberg in a pre-recorded introduction, ‘is witness to our spirit, our courage and readiness to fight. Listen, Comrades!’ And the city listened, as did the Germans nearby. They listened as the city of Leningrad reasserted its moral self.

At the end – silence. Then came the applause, a thunderous applause that lasted over an hour. People cheered and cried. They knew they had witnessed a momentous occasion. It was, as Eliasberg described later, the moment ‘we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine.’ Later, Eliasberg and his orchestra were invited to a reception hosted by Zhdanov where, laid out before them, was a huge banquet. They gorged themselves, only to be sick soon afterwards.

Years after the war, Eliasberg met some Germans who had been sitting encamped in their trenches outside the city. On hearing the music, they told the conductor, they had burst into tears, ‘Who are we bombing?’ they asked themselves, ‘We will never be able to take Leningrad because the people here are selfless.’

Rupert ColleyMBtE - NG

Read more about the siege in The Siege of Leningrad: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats only 99p / $1.99, and audio.

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