Sunday, November 8, 2009

Did Puccini Know about Schoenberg?

The risk in trying to view music history in terms of how composers may have appropriated the models of their predecessors and put them to new use is that one may seek out associations where none exist. During yesterday's HDLive broadcast of Giacomo Puccini's Turandot, I found myself confronting that risk. In one of Turandot's few authentically poignant moments, I could have sworn that, behind her voice, I was hearing echoes of the Wood-Dove announcing Tove's death at the conclusion of Part One of Arnold Schoenberg's monumental Gurrelieder. It is hard to tell to what extent Puccini kept himself aware of other composers of his time. We know that La Rondine was composed in response to a request from the Carltheater in Vienna in October of 1913 for a comic opera "like Rosenkavalier but more amusing and more organic;" but it is unclear how well Puccini knew Rosenkavalier itself, the music of Richard Strauss in general, or any of the musical activities in Vienna in 1913 (such as Gurrelieder having received its premiere there on February 23, 1913). At the very least there was probably considerable buzz over the enormous number of resources that Schoenberg's oratorio demanded, but would that buzz have attracted Puccini's attention? My guess is that it is very unlikely that Puccini would have been exposed to Gurrelieder in its entirety. On the other hand the scaled down arrangement of the Wood-Dove's song was prepared by Schoenberg for a performance in Copenhagen in 1922, and Puccini began his work on Turandot in 1920. There is thus at least a remote possibility that the influences behind his score involved more than a music box playing "Chinese" tunes cited by Patricia Racette in her introductory remarks for yesterday's broadcast. However, if that influence is there at all, I doubt that it involves anything more than a few surface-level features and any awareness that Puccini's had of this particular Gurrelieder excerpt was a product of coincidence. More likely the association is a product of my listening to a lot of Schoenberg in preparation for the visit of the Berlin Philharmonic later this month!

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