Guest post by Gabriella Biagi Ravenni with translation by Charles Johnston
It was not long ago that Puccini’s preoccupation with the organ was only the subject of anecdotes. When some of his compositions — believed to be lost — recently emerged, an exciting research adventure started and resulted in unexpected discoveries.
It has always been well known that Giacomo Puccini had been an organist in his youth. Indeed, accounts of his playing of a number of organs in his home town are spiced up in the early biographies by anecdotal details — the money he earned, then removed from the envelopes intended for his mother Albina, the theft of the pipes from organs in order to buy cigarettes: details ideally suited to constructing the image of a ‘disorderly,’ bohemian artist. It was also known that he had written organ music, thanks to a 1927 article by Alfredo Bonaccorsi, who had been able to view in Porcari (a town not far from Puccini’s native city of Lucca) the autograph sources owned by Carlo Della Nina, grandson of the Carlo Della Nina to whom Puccini had originally given the autographs. Then the sources migrated across the Atlantic with their owner and, more than a half century later, were sold by auction at Sotheby’s, leaving a less than exhaustive trace in the catalog. On the whole, there was all too little to go on.
Then an exciting adventure — to put it mildly — began for the Centro Studi Giacomo Puccini almost by chance: the son of the younger Carlo Della Nina, Carl, was traced to Chicago, and he providentially found among his father’s papers photocopies of the sources seen by Bonaccorsi. There followed a complicated process of collating the photocopies and reconstructing them, which produced an initial, unexpected harvest of nineteen complete pieces and one incomplete work. Then, surprisingly, in a genuine “domino effect,” another thirty pieces emerged thanks to the help of two organists (Andrea Toschi and Eliseo Sandretti) who permitted access to their archives. This excavation process was accompanied by in-depth research in the archives. Thus, in 2017, it was possible to give a public account of these acquisitions with a volume of essays, a concert and a CD.
But the adventure was not yet over: in that same year we were given access to the Archive Puccini in Torre del Lago, which contained a further important find of twelve organ compositions. That discovery naturally interrupted the work on the volume of the critical edition of the music for organ under the supervision of Virgilio Bernardoni for the Edition Nazionale delle Opere di Giacomo Puccini published by Carus.
Now we know much more about Puccini as an organist and composer for organ, and his general training in Lucca. It is also possible to reread the first biographies in a new light, distinguishing the facts from the anecdotes.
As a whole, the pieces examined to date testify to Puccini’s intensive activity at the organ as a boy and young man, even if the incomplete state of some of the documents suggests an even larger output. The “Sonatas” of the Toschi and Sandretti collections show us the very young Puccini, careful to write with precision (did he have to show them to a teacher?) and busy experimenting with the various types of pieces for liturgical use, following the practice of the time, i.e., offertories, elevations, communions, versets and marches. The sources of the Della Nina Collection, on the other hand, show us the young Puccini, endowed with greater personality and autonomy, and freed from the constraint of calligraphic handwriting. The compositions from the Archivio in Torre del Lago offer precise indications regarding the liturgical function with which they were associated and will therefore prove useful for a comprehensive reinterpretation of the typologies of liturgical organ music of that period.
The newly-discovered works therefore display interesting perspectives even beyond the scope of Puccini research. Last but not least they offer a special opportunity for organists to enrich their repertoire thanks to the Carus edition of these works.
Gabriella Biagi Ravenni is a founding member of the Centro Studi Giacomo Puccini, of which she has been president since 2007. She is also a member of the scientific committee of the Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Giacomo Puccini and coordinates the ongoing publication of the Puccini epistolary. She also worked as director of the Museo Casa Natale between 1995 and 2014. Until 2017 she was associate professor at the University of Pisa.