Read: The writer who makes perfect sense of classical music
Actually, Puccini was deeply interested in the musical experiments going on during this period in Vienna, Paris, and elsewhere. Even in his early works, the influences of Debussy and Richard Strauss come through: You hear Puccini deftly folding hints of their styles into his own distinctive voice. The more radical modernist developments intrigued Puccini as well: He had to make sure he wasn’t missing out on something so he could go back to doing what he did best.
And what did his best entail?
Puccini has long been hailed as a supreme melodist. Yet in his day, detractors complained that his music was overly symphonic, the product of a composer who lacked understanding that opera always had been, and should remain, a voice-driven art form. Today, those scores seem ingenious amalgams of orchestral and vocal richness. Still, the general perception that Puccini filled his operas with soaring, endless melodies seems a simplification. His melodic writing can often be complex and elusive.
Think of Rodolfo’s Act I aria in La Bohème, “Che gelida manina,” in which he tells Mimì, who had knocked on his garret door just moments before, all about his life. The aria is like a monologue in which melodic phrases segue into stretches of arioso writing that straddle aria and recitative. Rodolfo’s lyrical effusions are disrupted by sudden dramatic bursts as he lets down his guard. The music is too episodic and impetuous to be described as simply melodious.
Harmonically, Puccini’s music never really loosened its tethering to tonal harmony, though he explored whole-tone scales (à la Debussy) and even bitonality (in which strands of music in clashing keys overlap). Puccini often juxtaposed chords that had far-flung harmonic relationships and enriched his language with thick, dissonance-saturated sonorities to engender ambiguity and intensity.
The most impressive element of Puccini’s craft, though, may be his sophisticated use of motifs. Wagner tended to use his leitmotifs, as they’ve been called, more loosely: A musical motif associated with a character, an incident, or a thematic element of the drama will routinely be transformed and deployed for more generalized purposes.
Puccini, in contrast, used motifs and melodic phrases mostly as identification tags for characters or locales: a bohemian garret, a favorite haunt, a statue of the Madonna in a church. Think of the opening of Tosca, which begins with a series of three fearsome, brassy chords in the orchestra: the motif of Scarpia, the fiendish police chief of Rome. The specific chords (B-flat, A-flat, and E major) are essentially unrelated harmonically, suggesting that Scarpia exercises his power in fits and starts. Also, the chords spread apart menacingly, with the top line creeping upward and the bass line plunging downward. Puccini manipulates this motif constantly throughout the opera, deploying versions of it as an ominous undercurrent, a suspenseful premonition, even, at one point, a deceptively playful dance that percolates in the orchestra while Scarpia hatches his schemes.