- The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism and Modernity
Over the past couple of decades, research on Giacomo Puccini's life and work has established itself as an important field in musicology. With specialist journals and research centers now in operation, interest in the composer has emancipated itself from long-established prejudice and the necessity of writing for the defense. The question raised in 1924 by the Rivista musicale italiana—whether Puccini's work would survive the composer's death—has, in this scholarly sense, been answered by history. There is no better time, then, for a historical reflection on what Alexandra Wilson describes in her excellent new book as "The Puccini Problem." What issues did contemporary critics have with Puccini? Why is it that research on him has for so long been considered less serious and respectable than, for example, research on Verdi? Why do so many histories of twentieth-century music still ignore him? These questions in part hinge on the historical reception of his work, and on problems concerning the sources and methodologies of musicological research. The section on criticism and reception studies in Linda Fairtile's Garland Guide to Research on Puccini contains over fifty entries, but hardly any are seriously based on a broad range of sources pertaining to the composer's cultural and political context.1 Wilson's book constitutes a major contribution toward filling this gap.
Social and political historians with an interest in music are often surprised when reading histories of music produced by musicologists. Many music scholars still seek to establish the meaning of a piece of music through analysis of its score, an activity often bolstered by reference to personal documents relating to the composer, documents that may seem to allow the composer's aesthetic intentions to be reconstituted. Of course, a composer's intentions may often be of great interest, but they nevertheless tell us little about the meaning of a composition in its social and political context or in the historical context of its reception. Given the theoretical debates of the past three or four decades in literary criticism and the aesthetics of reception, it seems almost banal to point this out.2 But much musicological writing still seems to ignore these debates: in love with "the music itself," many musicologists still tend to see the aesthetics of reception as of only secondary importance.
Admittedly, although historians have become more careful when working on the history of ideas and political thoughts, they frequently fall into the same trap [End Page 126] when dealing with music, art, or the cultural context of the social and political phenomena they address: they may refer to Schubert or Schumann when discussing Romanticism, but their reference is more likely to be based on a letter or a diary entry by the composer than on sources that inform us about the meaning of this composer's work in its changing social and cultural context. This can lead to serious misjudgments. To give an example from my own historical work: while Leipzig and Berlin celebrated the Prussian-German victory over France with Richard Wagner's Kaisermarsch, the Commune of 1871 banned Wagner's operas from the stages of Paris—not because Wagner was German, but because the composer was considered a protégé of Napoleon III. In the same year, 1871, Italy staged for the first time a Wagner opera—Lohengrin at Bologna's Teatro Comunale. But here Wagner was welcomed by the radical left as the composer of the 1848 barricades and the friend of the Russian anarchist Bakunin. The fact that within the space of one year we are confronted with three completely different meanings for Wagner clearly illustrates the problem. We need to know what a particular audience expected to hear in a piece of music, what they knew about its composer, and what they read and heard about both in the newspapers and elsewhere. In this context, Wilson's book on the cultural context of Puccini's music and the response to it presents a very welcome contribution...