WHAT MANNER OF MAN was Giacomo Puccini? He will have emerged from the preceding pages with a number of characteristics to which new traits must now be added, to gain a rounded picture of a personality by no means as simple and homogeneous as has been represented by the majority of his biographers.

On the surface, it is true, Puccini appeared uncomplicated enough. All who knew him in his private life emphasize his infinite charm, his gentleness, his direct and affectionate manner, his kindness and his modesty, which remained unchanged even at the very height of his fame. Also his friends speak with delight -- and his letters confirm it -- of his sense of humour, coupled with a caustic wit whose shafts he would often direct against himself. It was largely in his dealings with his librettists and artists that his good nature forsook him and his tongue became capable of mordant, wounding remarks. Yet the essential Puccini was un simpatico, as the Italians call the possessor of such engaging qualities. In the company of his intimates Puccini would throw off the habitual reserve he displayed on public occasions and behave like the big schoolboy which he remained in one corner of his personality all his life. Puccini was then like one of the four Bohemians depicted in his opera. In his younger days he could be gay to the point of recklessness, freely indulging his bent for practical jokes and obscene language. It was in such moods that he would deliver himself of Rabelaisian doggerels -- all of them unprintable, though some were printed. [1] I reproduce here an example which I prefer to leave in the mitigating euphony of the Italian original. This 'poem' was a New Year's Greeting for 1899, sent by Puccini to his Lucca friends:

Cacca di Lucca

Cacca di Lucca é sempre senza pecca Anche se é fatta in fretta da Baldracca Sia nera, gialla or rossa come lacca Cacca di Lucca é sempre senza pecca.

Sia secca, o a oliva cucca, o a fil di rócca O fatta a neccio come fa la mucca Il suo profumo acuto mai ci stucca Cacca di Lucca é proprio senza pecca.

There was a strong streak of coarseness and vulgarity in Puccini -- one part of him was of the earth earthy, springing from that sturdy Tuscan soil from which his first ancestor had come.

But such pronounced extrovert qualities as Puccini possessed were outweighed by a peculiar shyness, a feminine sensibility, an almost morbid vulnerability, which showed even in trifling matters. He feared publicity and evinced an exaggerated respect for newspapers and critics. Adverse comment would render him miserable for weeks on end; we recall his suicidal despair after the failure of the first Butterfly. This man, to whom whole continents paid tribute, was happiest in the rustic solitude of an obscure Tuscan village, detesting big cities, large crowds, public receptions and banquents. The banquet given for him after the première of Manon Lescaut was but one occasion on which he showed how diffident, tongue-tied and boorish he could be. Hence his own description of himself as 'tanto orso!' - such a bear!'

While healthy and strong in body -- at any rate until the last year or two of his life -- he displayed from his earliest youth an almost morbid oversensitivity. His instinctive reaction to the slightest obstacles in his private -though not in his professional -- life was that of the snail which withdraws into its shell at the merest touch from outside. Of all this Puccini was fully aware; as he wrote to Sybil on 6 April 1906:

. . . you know, I make the great mistake of being too sensitive, and I suffer too when people don't understand me and misjudge me. Even my friends don't know what sort of man I am -- it's a punishment that has been visited on me since the day of my birth. It seems to me that you are the only person who have come nearest to understanding my nature -- and you are so far away from me!! (S).

And again, to the same correspondent, on 3 February 1907:

. . . I'm so tired of this life; . . . and all my nerves are worn to shreds! How I long for a little calm! Believe me, our life is not to be envied -- the texture of our nerves, or at any rate of mine, can no longer stand up to this drudgery, these anxieties and fatigues (S).

He was highly sensitive to changes in the weather and the seasons, which influenced his working mood. In his private letters allusions to the weather occur frequently and his autograph scores bear such recurring laconic entries as 'piove!' -- 'it rains!' -- and 'bel tempo!' -- 'fine weather!' [2]

Puccini's was the decadence that is not an uncommon phenomenon in the last member of a dynasty of creative artists. From about 1907, when he entered the high summer of his life, his hypersensitiveness increased to the point of hypochondria. He began to complain about all kinds of ailments, most of which proved imaginary. In December 1920 he was concerned about some slight pain in his chest which he believed to be angina pectoris. To Sybil he writes some nine months later that 'I've got something -- I don't know what it is -- which makes me feel ill and especially depresses my spirits' (S). The periods of mental fatigue grew longer and more exhausting; but for such periods he might well have composed more operas and completed Turandot. More than ever he gave way to self-pity -- a common feature of the Latin temperament -- finding more and more causes to lament his lot, which to the outsider was bound to appear a highly enviable one. He was famous, wealthy and in a position to gratify every whim -- which he did. Yet he found life an intolerable burden.

Before he reached fifty years of age, he began to be tormented by the prospect of growing old and of death. [3] This would show even in such trifling matters as reading a programme that gave the date of his birth -- 'I detest that "Pucciniborn. . ." it always reminds me that in a few years will be added "died . . ." ' With advancing years this dread of senescence obsessed him to such a degree that he seriously toyed with the idea of undergoing a rejuvenation operation at the hands of a Viennese surgeon who had started experiments in this direction. [4] As he wrote to Sybil on 26 January 1923:

I think in March I shall go to Vienna to see that doctor! I've met a South American gentleman here [Viareggio] sixty-seven years old, who tells me that the operation is nothing at all and that the benefits are extraordinary -- he says he feels as though he were twenty-five again, and that it no longer tires him to walk and his mind is fresh and agile, etc., etc. -- why shouldn't I do it too? My dear, my life is my own and means the whole world to me -- so why not? I have such a fear and such horror of old age! (S).

And seven months before his death, he intended to consult another specialist, Serge Voronov of Paris, famed for his experiments in restoring the aged to youthful vigour by grafting on to their reproductive glands those of apes. According to Panichelli, Puccini would have submitted to this operation but for his diabetes.

The ground-bass of Puccini's life and his art was an ever-present melancholy -- 'I have always carried a large load of melancholy [un gran sacco di melanconia] with me. I have no reason for it, but so I am made and so are made all men who feel and who are not altogether stupid'. This melancholy showed in his povera faccia -- so well known to his intimates -- in the veiled, distant glance of the eyes and the drooping corners of the mouth. It has been suggested that his was the characteristic Tuscan sadness, la mestizia Toscana. His fellow-Lucchese, Catalani, evinced it too -- in his countenance and in his music, which is marked by an expression of delicate despair. Yet in Puccini there was also the sadness of the man and artist who, for all the immense popularity he enjoyed, was compelled by his inner nature to withdraw into himself -- 'to spin round him', as Strindberg once put it, 'the silk of his own soul'. The essential Puccini was an introvert and thus a lonely man. Nineteen months before his death, on 3 March 1923, he penned some verses, afterwards discovered among his papers; they speak for themselves:

Non ho un amico
mi sento solo,
anche la musica
triste mi fa.
Quando la morte
verrà a trovarmi
sarò felice di riposarmi.
Oh com'è dura
la vita mia!
Eppur a molti
sembro felice.
Ma i miei successi?
Passano . . . e resta
ben poca cosa.
Son cose effimere:
la vita corre
va verso il baratro.
Chi vive giovane
si gode il mondo,
ma chi' s'accorge
di tutto questo?
Passa veloce
la giovinezza
e l'occhio scruta

I am friendless
And alone
Even music
Saddens me.
When death comes
To call me
I shall find happy repose
Oh, how hard is my life!
Yet to many I seem happy.
But my successes?
They pass . . . and little remains.
They are ephemeral things:
Life runs on
Toward the abyss.
The young take pleasure in life,
Yet who heeds it all?
Youth is soon past
And the eye scans eternity.

This last farewell possesses no literary quality yet there is irresistible poignancy in its simplicity and sincerity -- it is the same with his music. Linked to a sense of spiritual loneliness and isolation, and perhaps springing from it, was a sense of weariness, a taedium vitae, that even his creative work was often incapable of silencing.
Was Puccini's tedium -- his noia -- evidence of an inner void? The life of his mind was wholly in his operas, and up to Turandot they reveal no spiritual aspirations, no sublimity of thought. Outside his creative work he displayed no inclination for any artistic or intellectual relaxation. True, he was an avid reader, yet his interest in literature was largely utilitarian -- an endless search for the 'right' subject. He wrote verses, but they are slight and inferior. He wrote copious letters, indifferent in their literary quality, though he could be witty and picturesque in his descriptions. He was a shrewd judge of human nature, a perspicacious and frequently scathing critic of his artists, and he knew more about the theatre -- at any rate his kind of theatre -- than most of his contemporaries. Oddly enough, though, while he took an active part in the productions of his operas, he was never tempted to conduct them -- as did Verdi, Wagner, Strauss and several of his Italian rivals like Mascagni and Leoncavallo.

In his views on the music of other composers Puccini was, unlike so many creative artists, remarkably broad-minded. Among the great masters of the past Beethoven represented to him the essence of music -- 'Beethoven è la musica!'; and he was especially fond of such movements as the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony and the Scherzo and Adagio of the Ninth. In opera Verdi was his idol. Yet he placed Wagner on almost the same pedestal: Die Meistersinger, Tristan and Parsifal were his favourites. During his work on Turandot he glanced again at the score of Tristan, only to put it down again with the words: 'Enough of this music! We're mandolinists, amateurs: woe to him who gets caught by it! This tremendous music destroys one and renders one incapable of composing any more!' His greatest admiration was reserved for Parsifal, which he could not hear often enough. During a visit to Vienna in 1923 he had decided, on account of the length of the opera, to attend an act each performance, in order to enjoy it the better -yet once he found himself in the theatre he stayed to the very end. It was not the huge superstructure of Wagner's religious and philosophical thought that fascinated him, but the sensuous orchestral colouring, with its evocation of an intoxicating mystical atmosphere.

The music of his contemporaries Puccini followed with a critical yet absorbed interest, adopting and adapting certain modern devices in harmony and orchestration to his own purposes. In his desire to keep abreast of contemporary developments he sat almost like a young student at the feet of important composers of the day. Embittered at the poor reception accorded to part of his Trittico and suspecting that the music had not been considered modern enough, he is reported as saying to the critic Gaianus: 'When you come to Viareggio, I will show you my scores of Debussy, Strauss, Dukas and others. You will see how worn they are, because I have read, re-read, analysed, and made notes all over them . . .'

Yet Puccini's attitude to contemporary music displayed a curious ambivalence, as will be seen from the following letter to Simoni, written some time before he made the above remark to Gaianus:


Dear Renato, 1 May 1922

Tell me the truth -- you have no longer any confidence in me! Why haven't you yet sent me the third act [Turandot], as promised? Have you done it? Perhaps not -- and I, here, torment myself because it seems to me that you have lost your confidence in me. You think perhaps that my work is useless - that may well be true. There is something wrong with the taste of the public that goes to hear the new music. It loves and endures music that is illogical and without good sense. Nowadays there's no more melody or, if there is, it is vulgar. There is the belief that symphonic music is the thing, whereas I believe that it is the end of opera. One does not sing in Italy any more -instead, you have crashes, discordant chords, and insincerity -- pale, opalescent and lymphatic stuff.

All Celtic [7] diseases -- true syphilis from across the Alps.

Among modern composers Puccini reserved his highest esteem for Debussy -- an esteem, incidentally, that was not reciprocated. On the other hand, his attitude to Richard Strauss was guarded and circumspect. Strauss saw in Puccini his most serious rival in opera and envied him his greater popularity, but insinuated on more than one occasion that he considered his music as 'Schund' -- 'trash'; Puccini, on his part, evinced a genuine interest in the German composer's symphonic poems -- especially and significantly in Tod und Verklärung -- yet for his operas he displayed no liking. We do not know what his views were on Der Rosenkavalier, which, it may be suggested, would have appealed to him on account of its more lyrical and vocal style more than Strauss's two previous operas. As he once wrote to Sybil: 'Elektra! A horror! Salome passes -- but Elektra is too much!' Yet despite this verdict Salome left its mark on certain pages of La Fanciulla. When Franz Schalk, the director of the Vienna Staatsoper, once showed him the score of Die Frau ohne Schatten, Puccini, after glancing through it, pushed it aside with the laconic comment: 'It's logarithms!'

Of Stravinsky's music Puccini was at first unable to make anything. Seeing a production of Le Sacre du Printemps in Paris in 1913, he found the music 'sheer cacophony but strange and not without a certain talent. But all in all, it is the stuff of a madman'. Yet in the end Stravinsky's rhythmic and orchestral audacities made their impact on him, as shown in Il Tabarro and Turandot. He was also interested in Schoenberg and made a special journey to Florence in May 1923 to hear a performance of Pierrot Lunaire under the composer's direction. The work was a closed book to him, and yet in his comment Puccini was anything but negative. His prophetic words were:

'Who can say that Schoenberg will not be a point of departure to a goal in the distant future? But at present -- unless I understand nothing -- we are as far from a concrete artistic realization of it as Mars is from Earth.' At the other extreme of the scale lay Puccini's interest in the music of Franz Lehár, with whom he stood on terms of friendship -- a fact that served Puccini's detractors as an argument against his music. No doubt he sensed in Lehár's sentimental vein an affinity with his own manner. Yet when the two musicians met in Vienna in 1922, and when Lehár told him of his intention to write a full-scale tragic opera, Puccini's advice -- prompted, possibly, by his own experiences with La Rondine
[8] -- was to stick to his last -- operetta. [9]

In his outlook Puccini was a materialist with a strong element of the bourgeois in him. His philosophy of life -- if so largely instinctive an attitude can thus be called -- was an all but untrammelled hedonism. It may be that his nerves needed the titillation of sensual pleasures: the excitement of the hunt, the thrill of speed in cars and boats, the delights of the table -- though here his diabetes would permit him only restricted indulgence -- and, last but far from least the pursuit of amorous adventure. There appears to have been present in Puccini an extraordinary abundance of animal sexuality. Did he not once say: 'On the day on which I am no longer in love, you can hold my funeral!' Yet, unlike the true Don Juan who is in love with the idea of love and for whom the conquest of the female essentially represents an unconscious attempt to clutch at this elusive image, Puccini seems to have been driven to his countless adventures by a mere sexual urge and also, one ventures to suggest, by an irresistible need to suppress irrational doubts about his virility and to assert himself. In this light the sexual act seems to have represented to him a means to an end -- temporary release from those unconscious pressures and the restoration, so far as this was possible, of an inner equilibrium; it was not the physical expression of any profound emotional and spiritual attachment to a woman. That a high degree of sexual vitality does not exclude the possibility of forming such an attachment is illustrated by the lives of Byron and Wagner. Their relationships with diverse women were, while they lasted, deeply felt and acted as a potent leaven in their creative imagination. Nothing of this kind happened to Puccini: there was no woman in his life who played the role of a Teresa Guiccioli or a Mathilde Wesendonck. Indeed, it appears that Puccini was altogether incapable of ever experiencing true love -- not even with Elvira, who after the initial stage of their union may be said to have been the Minna to Puccini's Wagner. And yet the axis round which the imaginary world of his operas revolved was woman in true love, a heroine whose whole existence is consummated in her boundless devotion to the man. It was with these creatures of his fantasy that Puccini formed the close attachments which were absent from his life in the real world. Manon, Mimi, Tosca, Cio-Cio-San, Angelica and Liù -- these were his true loves, and on his own confession he wept with 'nostalgia, tenderness and pain' while composing their music. Yet -- and this is important -- the Puccinian heroine is almost invariably a woman who by virtue of her very devotion unwittingly accumulates a heavy load of guilt which she must be made to expiate by slow suffering and the ultimate destruction of herself. This is the perennial theme of the Puccini operas. Was there concealed behind it a wish-fulfilment, a compensation in the world of his imagination for what could not be achieved in his physical life? Or, to put it differently, was Puccini's highly characteristic treatment of his heroines the symbolic re-enactment of a 'play' that was being permanently staged in his unconscious fantasies? In short, was a neurotic fixation -- to be more precise, mother-fixation -- the real and all but exclusive subject of his operas? The second part of this book will afford us the opportunity to try to answer this question.

Elvira was by all accounts a difficult woman -- self-willed, self-assertive, obstinate, haughty and very much conscious of her position as the spouse of an illustrious man. Her temper was uncertain; she could be provoked easily and would make the most wounding remarks in a harsh, rasping voice. The superstitious fisherfolk of Torre del Lago attributed to her the possession of 'la iettatura' -- 'the evil eye'. Her background had been that of a small provincial town, the same milieu from which Puccini too had sprung, yet from which he gradually succeeded in emancipating himself while Elvira. was never able to achieve this. She was rigidly conventional, narrowminded, ungenerous in her sympathies and, so far as is known, interested in nothing beyond what concerned her family. She was a faithful and devoted wife, and a dedicated mother to whom her children, notably Tonio, were deeply attached.

A true Tuscan woman, she was full-blooded in her love of Puccini, and it was this that inspired in her the courage to commit the one and only act in her life by which she flouted the moral code of her class. Had she not deserted the respectable home of her first husband and eloped with a young struggling artist, thus tarnishing her character and exposing herself to material insecurity? With the upbringing she had had, Elvira must have suffered -- at any rate during her early association with Puccini -- a sense of profound humiliation and shame; we recall that a period of nearly twenty years elapsed before this union could be sanctioned by the laws of man and God. The vexations, the indignities, the slights to her self-respect -- it must be borne in mind that she lived in Catholic Italy of the 1890s with its rigid moral code -- could not fail to exercise their influence on Elvira's spirit.
All this may also explain why her love for her husband became excessively possessive and jealous; being a woman of a remarkably strong will she dominated him. When a woman of such character traits as Elvira's lives with a man inferior to her in will-power but superior in most other respects, she can ruin his happiness and peace of mind -- but not his genius.

Admittedly, despite his many engaging qualities, Puccini was by no means easy to live with. He was not without his share of guilt in the strains to which this relationship was subjected almost from its very inception. No wife -- short of being an angel or a moron -- could have presumed to steer this ship on an even keel all the time; Elvira was neither angel nor moron, yet she might have proved a more successful pilot had she possessed a generous heart and insight into her husband's mentality -- had she possessed more judgment and sense', as Puccini once wrote to her.

There were two factors that more than any other bedevilled their marriage. One was Puccini's unwillingness to make Elvira a true companion of his creative life; the other, her pathological jealousy.

It is questionable -- and we have no evidence to prove the contrary -whether Elvira, despite the music lessons she had had in her youth, possessed any true understanding for her husband's work or for music at all; she was definitely his intellectual inferior. Whether justified or not, Puccini's deliberate exclusion of her from the most vital sphere of his life engendered in Elvira a mounting sense of resentment and inferiority which she attempted to conceal under the cloak of contempt for everything connected with art. Her attitude only served to alienate Puccini still further from her. 'You sneer when the word "art" is pronounced. This has always offended me and offends me still', he wrote to her as late as 1915 -- after nearly thirty years of life together! Puccini, it is true, frequently wrote her letters, with long accounts of such things as rehearsals, new productions, artists and current events in the theatre -- but this was essentially in the nature of gossip. He scarcely ever touched on intrinsic artistic issues, on problems that profoundly troubled him as a creative artist; and one supposes he rarely discussed them with her in the intimacy of their home. She, in turn, felt lonely and deserted; she would often accuse him of treating her with icy coldness -- 'like a piece of furniture' -- and of taking everyone into his confidence but her.

Elvira, it must be stressed, was extremely proud of her husband's successes and fame; but at the same time she could not help perceiving in them a major cause for her own isolation and her feeling of inferiority. A letter she wrote to Puccini, then on a visit to New York on the occasion of the first production of La Fanciulla, makes pathetic reading:

30 November 1910

The fact that you did not allow me to go with you, and the way in which you expressed that prohibition, hurt me deeply. I shall not get over it. Remember this. You deprived me of a great satisfaction, that of participating in your triumph. . . The only thing that consoles me is the thought that at least you are happy without me -- I wish that everything goes well, just as you desire, that you enjoy a great triumph, and that no shadow, even the faintest, comes to disturb your peace. Now you are a great man, and compared to you I am nothing but a pygmy. Therefore be happy and forgive me if I have annoyed you with my lamentations (M).

Elvira did not fail to become gradually aware that, while for her husband the grand monde was all smiles and compliments, it had little more than a cool, formal nod of acknowledgment for her as the Signora Puccini. Again, there was a marked contrast in the public behaviour and appearances of the two. From a rather uncouth youth, Puccini had grown into a man of the world, polished and urbane; while Elvira -- despite the wealth that surrounded her and her many travels abroad -- remained a provincial. And whereas Puccini looked in his middle age more personable, more distinguished and in a sense younger than he had in his thirties, Elvira's beauty had paid its toll to the passage of time in the prematurely aged look of her face, with deep lines round her eyes, her lips habitually tight, the corners of her mouth drawn; this lent her an expression of severity and bitterness. As the years passed, she became withdrawn, unsociable, and hostile to her husband's intimate friends, whom she suspected of aiding and abetting him in his amorous escapades. And while he passionately loved life in the country -- on his own admission the sine qua non for his creative work -- she was for ever fretting to escape (as Puccini put it with irony) 'from the heavy burden of green nature' to the bustle of life in Milan.

Elvira was, in short, her own worst enemy. The major source for her own misery and the misery she caused her husband lay in her nature. Puccini put his finger on it in a revealing letter written from Berlin on 14 March 1914, in reply to one of her usual reproaches for not having been permitted to accompany him on his journey:

. . . Here it is not like Paris, where even if you remain alone, you can enjoy yourself. Here you would have been furious. I assure you, and you know it as well as I, that you would have been on tenterhooks here, and then the journey would have become feverish and painful. In short, it is time that you understand certain matters. We are always together, either at Torre or in Milan, and once in a while a man wants a mite of liberty -- that is not a crime. You fabricate God knows what phantoms, and you suffer. But be tranquil. I always think of you and with you, and when you are good and less grim I remain with you very willingly. But you have a tragic soul. That is it. Your enormous pessimism, that is your enemy. It does not permit you to enjoy life. You also communicate it to me. That is why from time to time you make me wish to be alone, to rid myself of that continuous black which surrounds you and which makes you suffer morally, and in consequence physically. . . Well, if you want to come and if it makes you sad not being here, do as you please. I cannot say more . . . (M).

The gnawing worm in Elvira's 'tragic soul' was a congenital, tormenting jealousy which made her 'fabricate God knows what phantoms' and which, in its extreme manifestations, suggested, as we shall see, persecution mania; it was the single major cause of their interminable quarrels. Admittedly, Puccini's conduct provided abundant justification for her jealousy; everyone in his intimate circle knew of his frequent infidelities, but he was candid enough to confess to them. 'Mine is the guilt. But it is my destiny that I must be guilty', he wrote to Elvira on one occasion. Egocentric artist that he was, he claimed a certain measure of conjugal freedom, arguing that he needed his little amours as a stimulant to his work -- a typically male argument, to be sure. He tried to reason with Elvira and convince her of the insignificance of his love affairs:

30 August 1915

. . . Your suspicions mislead you into the most undignified investigations. You invent women in order to give free play to your policeman's instinct. Everything appears serious, large, weighty to you while it is nothing, a mere negligible nothing. . . You have never looked at these matters as do other women who are more reasonable -- Good God! The world is full of such things. And all the artists cultivate these little gardens in order to delude themselves into thinking that they are not finished and old and torn by strife. [10] You imagine immense affairs. In reality, it is nothing but a sport to which all men more or less dedicate a fleeting thought without, however, giving up that which is serious and sacred; that is, the family. . . Let time and circumstances do their work. Do not oppose me with that vehemence and assiduity that you have adopted. Everyone has within himself a measure of rebellion. It is natural. See to it that my house be not odious to me and burdensome, that I find here a cupful of jollity and calm instead of this continuous and discouraging aggravation. Such a state embitters a disposition however good, irritates and renders the soul desirous of other and different sensations. The wife of an artist has a mission different from that of wives of ordinary men. This is something you have never wanted to understand. Indeed you sneer when the word 'art' is pronounced. This has always offended me and offends me still. I, more than you, seek peace. I seek to lead with you and to finish with you a life which would have been less parlous if you had had more judgment and sense. Good-bye! I kiss you. Be calm. Wait for me. I shall always be your Topizio (M).

Yet Elvira was never able to accept her husband's marital heterodoxy and look with a tolerant eye on his cultivating 'these little gardens'. In her obsessional jealousy she would on occasion be prompted to actions both absurd and pathetic. A beautiful young singer who called on Puccini in connection with some professional matter found herself threatened by Elvira with an umbrella and ignominiously chased out of the house; and as she ruefully admitted in later years, she was in the habit of putting camphor in Puccini's trouser pockets, and mixing the wine or the coffee with an anaphrodisiac, whenever an attractive woman guest happened to be invited to dinner at their home. In short, Elvira provides a classical illustration of the old German pun: 'Eifersucht ist eine Leidenschaft, die mit Eifer sucht was Leiden schafft' -- 'Jealousy is a passion which seeks with passion that which causes suffering'.

The first violent rift in their union appears to have occurred in 1891, by which time Puccini and Elvira had been living together for about six years. He was then still closely attached to her, addressing her in his letters by a variety of pet-names: Elviretta -- Cecetta ('Little Pea') -- Cicina ('Fatty') -Porchizia ('Piglet') -- Topizia ('Little Mouse'), and signing himself ' Topizio'. There is no reason to suppose that he had yet been unfaithful to her, but Elvira's suspicions were already awake. In the spring of that year, Puccini was living at Lucca while Elvira stayed somewhere in the neighbourhood -an arrangement designed to prevent giving fresh food to the malicious local gossips in his native town. Besides, mere tact demanded this temporary separation since Elvira's husband was living at Lucca. Some kind friend had insinuated to Elvira that Puccini was tired of her and wished to leave her. Her immediate reaction was to want to rush to Lucca in order to find out the truth. In a long letter dated 23 May 1891 Puccini tries to prove to her the falsity of her friend's story, and continues:

. . . And now as to us two -- please convince yourself that you cannot come to Lucca; if you only knew what they say and do, my relatives, his, the whole city! Therefore it is impossible for you to come to Lucca; you would force me to leave and not find me there. A serious situation which would harm us both; if you were going to be with your mother, it could still be done, but even then it would be a bad situation. In these few days I have understood what kind of village it is that we live in. Please don't create trouble for me -- be patient; Viareggio is not the place for you or for me either. I don't know what to advise you because the matter is quite involved. . . You know how hard I must work, as everything depends on my work [Manon Lescaut], and I don't have the peace of mind that I need; I beg of you, think of me and make the sacrifice of being patient and staying where you belong -- don't worry about me -- I am and will always be your Topizio, and the time will come when we shall be calm and happy. . . (M).

Her mind poisoned by the venom of suspicion, Elvira must have interpreted his explanations as subterfuges. She repeated her wild accusations, as the following reply suggests, sent her by Puccini from Milan, where he had gone for consultations with Ricordi:

4 June 1891

. . . Why don't you remain as calm as possible? What reasons can there be for you to be so upset on my account? You say that you have to tell me certain things in person. For my part, I have nothing to blame myself for; I have always and always will act loyally toward you -- no subterfuges, no idea of leaving you, of betraying you. My only desire is to be able to finish Manon in peace. I have committed myself (if I weren't to keep my word I should be ruined) and it must be ready for Turin next Carnival. In November, if we can wait so long, I'll come and fetch you to resume our life -- to live together eternally with our baby until it is time for him to enter boarding school. . .

Have faith in me; good God, what more can I tell you? Every day the same complaints, the same oaths, and you know me well enough not to have any doubts. If you continue I shall be hurt. You know I am your love and you are my only and true, holy love. . . (M).

This was the tone and temper of their correspondence when Puccini still professed to be in love with Elvira. With the passing of years his friendly expostulations grew fewer and fewer and were replaced by despair at her unceasing complaints. In 1900, when both had reached full maturity, Puccini wrote her the following (undated) letter from Brussels:

You write me a letter full of discomfort and sadness. And I? We are strange two beings. But a little of the guilt is yours, dear Elvira. You are no longer the same, your nerves dominate you, no longer a smile, no longer an open mien. In my own house I feel myself more of a stranger than you do. Oh, the beautiful intimacy of our first years! Now we pass months (at least I do) in a house which belongs to others. I do not say this in order to complain about Ida, Beppe, etc [11] No. They are all good people, very sweet people. But their continuous presence in our midst has expelled our intimacy. You are always bored in the country and I love it so. You have need of your relatives in order to make the heavy burden of green nature seem lighter. This is what has given me a shock I hope not an irreparable one, to our dear past intimacy . . .

I think always of the beautiful times which are past. In those days we were materially not well off, but for all that we were not less content. You are unhappy? I am doubly so. . . I see no way out. Your letter gave me such pain! . . . (M).

The estrangement between husband and wife continued to widen in an atmosphere of growing mutual exasperation. This was the background for the tragedy now to be related, and it provides the explanation for the violence with which it was enacted.


[1] Even as were Mozart's scatological letters to his cousin, Maria Anna Thekla.

[2] To the reader living in the British Isles, where the weather forms a favourite topic of conversation, Puccini's constant references to it may seem nothing extraordinary, but for an Italian they assuredly are.

[3] Tchaikovsky, too, is said to have suffered from this fear. The hero of Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray exclaims: 'When I find that I am growing old I shall kill myself!'

[4] Presumably Professor Eugen Steinach. It was, incidentally, Steinach who, in November 1923, performed such an operation on Sigmund Freud, in the hope that the rejuvenation it promised might delay the progress of the cancer from which Freud was to suffer for the remainder of his life. (See Sigmund Freud. Life and Work, Vol. III, by Ernest Jones. London, 1957.)

[5] Flaubert provides, in several respects, a striking parallel. He too was obsessed by the fear of senescence, he too suffered from periods of neurotic fatigue which slowed down his work, he too was tormented by despair and frustration. In many of his letters it is indeed as though we heard Puccini's voice: 'But if you knew how weary I am sometimes! . . . I suffer from perpetual melancholy which I try to silence with the loud voice of Art; and when the siren voice fails I cannot tell you how exhausted, exasperated and bored I am'. ( To Madame de Chantepie, November 1857.) And again: 'How bored and weary I am! The leaves are falling, I can hear a bell tolling, the wind is soft and enervating . . . Have you ever considered the sadness of my existence, and how much determination I need in order to live? I spend my days absolutely alone, with no more company than if I were in the depths of Central Africa. Finally, in the evenings, when I have worn myself out to little purpose, I manage to write a few lines, which I find loathsome the next day. There are gayer folk, certainly. The difficulties of my book [ L'Éducation sentimentale] overwhelm me. Have I aged? Am I worn out? Yes, I think so. That is at the root of it. Then what I am doing is not pleasant. I have grown timid. I have taken seven weeks to write fifteen pages and they are still not up to much' ( to Madame des Genettes, October 1864).

[6] Debussy too admired Parsifal, and for the same reasons -- declaring it to be 'one of the most beautiful monuments raised to the imperturbable glory of music'. (Quoted in Debussy, by Edward Lockspeiser. 2nd ed. London, 1951.)

[7] Puccini plays here on the double meaning of celtico: 'Celtic', 'nordic', or 'venereal'.

[8] See Chapter XVII.

[9] The failure of Lehár opera Giuditta ( Vienna, 1934) proved the soundness of Puccini's advice. It was, in fact, Lehár's later attempt to emulate, after the First World War, a pretentious quasi-operatic style that contributed to the decline of his own music and that of twentieth-century Viennese operetta in general.

[10] Puccini was then in his fifty-seventh year.

[11] Relatives of Elvira.