Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) | Requiem Aeternam

Giacomo Puccini was probably the most celebrated member of the Puccini musical family and is generally considered to be the greatest Italian opera composer after Verdi. He was the fifth of seven children and was just over five years old when his father Michele died. It was expected that he would follow the family tradition as organist and choirmaster at San Martino; to make this possible, leaders of his hometown of Lucca issued a decree that his uncle, Fortunato Magi, should occupy the post until young Giacomo was old enough to assume it.

When he was ten, Giacomo joined the choirs of San Martino and San Michele and four years later he began his career as organist at these churches, as well as others in the area. By the age of seventeen he was already composing music, writing organ improvisations which incorporated, to the surprise of his congregation, bits of Tuscan folk songs as well as excerpts from operas such as Il Trovatore, Rigoletto and La Traviata, which he had come to know through his teacher, Angeloni. A performance of Aïda at Pisa in 1876 made such a huge impression upon Puccini that he decided to break with the family tradition and become an operatic composer. He felt that this performance had “opened a musical window” for him, but at the same time, he knew that in order to follow his dream he could not remain in Lucca. Milan was where he needed to be, with its conservatory and more importantly, the opera house La Scala.

Four years were to pass before his wish would be realized. Meanwhile, during those years in Lucca, he continued working on his craft, writing a Preludio Sinfonico (1876) as well as several church works. With the aid of a scholarship founded by Queen Margherita and financial support from an uncle, Puccini entered the Milan Conservatory in the fall of 1880. He would remain a student there for three years, studying with Bazzini and Ponchielli. During that time, his experiences had a great deal in common with those of the poor, young artists he would later so vividly depict in La Bohème.

Shortly before completing his studies at the Milan Conservatory, the music publishing house of Eduardo Sonzogno announced a competition for a one-act opera (Mascagni’s masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana would be discovered in similar fashion just a few years later, in 1889), and with Ponchielli’s encouragement, Puccini decided to enter it. His librettist, Ferdinando Fontana, suggested to him a subject with fantastic, supernatural features: Le Villi. While his entry wasn’t even mentioned in the competition results, Puccini ultimately won an even bigger prize: soon after, at a party at the home of wealthy music patron Marco Sala, Puccini was overheard playing and singing from the score of Le Villi by none other than publisher Giulio Ricordi and influential composer Arrigo Boito. They liked what they heard, had the work staged, and Ricordi (after suggesting that Puccini expand the work to two acts) published the score. It was the break that launched his career.

Puccini wrote the Requiem Aeternam (which, technically, is a setting of the antiphon to the Introit of the Mass for the Dead and not a full requiem mass) as a commission for Ricordi, to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the death of Giuseppe Verdi on January 27, 1905. A brief, haunting work, scored for chorus (Soprano/Tenor/Bass) organ and viola, it features a warm burnished tone, as well as unexpected melodic and harmonic twists that call to mind the Fauré Requiem.