Puccini. A Biography

MARY JANE PHILIPS-MATZ, Puccini. A Biography, Boston, Northeastern University Press, 2002, pp. xxι, 343

Biographical literature about Giacomo Puccini can be divided into two groups. The first, understandably, was published primarily during his lifetime and in the first years after his death, and relies on the personal recollections of the authors and those of their sources. For the most part these dispense with verifiable documentation of facts, depending on more or less credible anecdotes about the revered master. The second group, beginning after 1950 with the biographies of George R. Marek and Mosco Carner, made use of a gradually increasing volume of documents (especially Puccini’s letters), examined material in public and private archives, and researched Puccini’s artistic environment. Clearly, the second group provided a decisive contribution to the understanding of Puccini – the man and the musician – although the anecdotal literature as a type of primary source should not be underestimated, as long as it is employed critically and with caution. In the fifty years since Marek and Carner, a whole series of important works have been published that have changed our view of Puccini considerably. Every new treatment must be aware of this situation and at least take into account the results of previous research in order to enable a more accurate picture of the subject and possibly even make new discoveries.
     The present new biography does not succeed in this respect. To be sure, Mary Jane Phillips-Matz does not restrict herself to English-speaking literature (which occasionally occurs with some American scholars due to their lack of knowledge of the language), since she also knows Italian (according to the text on the book jacket she managed the Spoleto Festival for several years). But her bibliography presents a confused mixture of important and completely insignificant works on the subject. Thus, from the approximately seventy «articles, essays, brochures» listed, more than half are from American and Italian newspapers or magazines without claims to scholarly accuracy intended for the general public. Twenty-five are taken from the popular Opera News of the Metropolitan Opera – an indication of the author’s limited understanding of musicological research. A large number of other publications seem either completely unknown to her or were not consulted, including such indispensable sources as Marek’s biography from 1951, Hopkinson’s Bibliography from 1968, my own Puccini biography from 1989 – which represented the state of research into the 1990s –, not to mention numerous smaller works that have clarified many details in the life and work of Puccini. Indeed, among other works she refers to Linda Fairtile’s Giacomo Puccini: A Guide to Research (1999) as «an essential basic reference volume» (p. xvii), but apparently profited as little from it as from the extensive Puccini bibliography in the first volume of Studi pucciniani (1998). Thus it is no wonder that the two-page list of Puccini’s works contains numerous errors and inaccuracies, although Phillip-Matz claims she based it on two earlier catalogues (which, however, do not contain these errors). This suggests a somewhat careless treatment of the sources as well as the facts. Even after we corresponded for several months, she was unable to verify several obscure or unlisted sources. Some of the many smaller errors could have been avoided with a little more attention to detail – I admit, from my own woeful experience that such errors cannot be completely avoided, and therefore a certain leniency is appropriate.
     However, leniency cannot excuse everything. Due to the author’s lack of the knowledge of the sources and the secondary literature , some representations are completely false or misleading: the assessment of Puccini’s relationship to his sisters after he began his affair with Elvira (p. 67); the description of the writing of the libretto to Manon Lescaut (pp. 76 f.); the assertion that the changes made in Paris to Madame Butterfly resulted primarily from the wishes of the singer Marguerite Carré and that Puccini was forced against his will to make them (pp. 154 f.); that he had only a «few affairs with other women» (p. 189), which on the other hand she contradicts with flowery descriptions of some of these affairs. Most of these accounts in no way reflect the current state of research and, as in the case of the long relationship with Josephine von Stengel (pp. 223 ff.), are predominantly inaccurate. In all events, it cannot be said that Mary Phillips-Matz availed herself of the original sources. In the foreword William Weaver, who is not unknown in the field of Puccini research, maintains that «there is hardly an archive in Italy that she does not know. She can happily spend days poring over parish registers, bank statements, scrawled letters, yellowing newspapers». If that is the case, hardly a trace of it is to be found in this book.
     The more profound reason for the deficit of information appears to me to lie in Philips-Matz’s attempt to unite the two groups of biographical Puccini literature described above. In other words, this is a book of second-generation recollections, so to speak, together with accounts of personal encounters and interviews. Typical of this is the particular emphasis she places on the for the most part obscure reminiscences of Dante Del Fiorentino, whom she calls Puccini’s «trusted friend» (p. 258), although Puccini scarcely knew this priest, who emigrated to New York shortly after the First World War and later exaggerated this acquaintance out of proportion. However, for Mary Phillips-Matz it is more important that Del Fiorentino baptized her children. Aside from this dubious source, in spite of her advanced age (she was 75 when she wrote the book), she had no other witnesses at her disposal from Puccini’s time. Therefore she had to make do with the most prominent contemporaries possible who could remember something or other about Puccini. In expressing her thanks to those who helped her with her book she names no less than fifty singers and other people active in opera, from Jussi Björling by way of Mario Del Monaco and Dimitri Mitropoulos to Giuseppe Valdengo, none of whom could truly contribute to a biography of Puccini. Naturally, this is related to the narrative style of the book, which lets the reader participate in the course of her own findings. However, this stylistic idea, charming in itself, has fatal consequences for the contents. Thus Phillips-Matz frequently allows herself to be misled by relating situations in Puccini’s life as if they were clear and distinct, although for present musicological research they still remain unexplained. This is true for her description of the meeting between Puccini and Elvira and for Puccini’s relationship to Elvira’s husband at the time (pp. 48 ff.): pure conjecture is put forth as if it were the truth, and naturally there are no references to sources. Moreover, events that have long been clarified are given extraordinary importance, because she complicates her description of finding the truth. Thus she dedicates three pages to the absurd thesis that Puccini took the beginning of Tosca from Alberto Franchetti, who was originally supposed to have set the libretto to music. The story is well known and can be related in just a few lines, but Phillips-Matz had several conversations with a descendant of Franchetti and with the Tosca expert Deborah Burton.  Regrettably, she did not wish to withhold this information from her readers – as if her own experiences were at least as interesting for her book as the actual sources. The author refrains almost entirely from discussing Puccini’s music. This is most fortunate, for what might have resulted is suggested by her explanation concerning Alfano’s completion of the conclusion of Turandot (pp. 308f.), which ends with the brief sentence: «More recently, Luciano Berio has also composed a new ending for it».
     One special problem often encountered by non-Italian authors (especially those from another continent) is their scant knowledge of geographical and historical facts. This often leads to peculiar information: that Boito had been «the country’s most respected intellectual» (p. 286); that in Capalbio a «damp climate» predominates (p. 228 – the little town lies in the vicinity of the once swampy Maremma, but it is situated on a mountain); that the most dangerous areas during the First Wold War were «north and east of Venice» (p. 240 – «east of Venice» is the sea); that Puccini took the train to Brussels via Ostende (p. 298 – Ostende lies one hundred kilometers beyond Brussels, in the direction of England). These may be small details, but they document the author’s tendency towards fabrication, instead of a careful consideration of the facts. Thus, for example, in one passage (again supported by the ever unreliable Del Fiorentino), the author has Puccini spending time in 1924 with his friend, the poet Renato Fucini, who died in 1921.
     It should be acknowledged that the author strove to obtain unknown sources, or at least sources not accessible to the public. Sometimes she quotes in detail from unpublished letters of Puccini found in auction catalogues – and renders their contents in faithful English translations. However, her bibliographic treatment of these sources is often as questionable as the entire book. In numerous cases, for example, she names private New York collectors as a source (referring to a longtime friendship), whereas these collectors were actually autograph dealers who soon sold the items cited. Other sources are clearly incorrect or cannot be deciphered. Sometimes one suspects that she fantasizes freely and even invents quotations when she lacks documentation or does not want to reveal it (for example, Puccini’s alleged affair with the sister of Ervin Lendvai, p. 190). Such conduct disregards the ethics of scholarship and contravenes important principles of serious research. This Puccini biography is an example of the ill-considered market strategy of the publisher, and a waste of limited scholarly resources.

Dieter Schickling
(English translation: Earl Rosenbaum)