I remember a colleague and fine organist playing me a transcription for organ of a pot-pourri of excerpts from Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ and very effective it sounded too. I was reminded that Giacomo Puccini came from a family of organists (for example, one of his predecessors, Domenico Puccini, wrote some excellent organ sonatas) and was foreseen by his family to eventually succeed his father (who prematurely died in 1864) as organist of Lucca’s San Martino cathedral. Indeed, in 1875 Puccini came first in the organ examinations held at Lucca’s (then Pacini, now Boccherini) music institute where he was a student.
(Giacomo Puccini as student)
However, despite his mother Albina’s persuasion, Giacomo Puccini’s applications to become organist of Lucca cathedral were all turned down. This didn’t, however, mean that Puccini was able to make a modest living playing the organ. Indeed, several of Lucca’s churches all benefitted from his competent playing. The Servite church (where Colombini holds some magnificent concerts with the Lucca Philharmonic orchestra), and San Pietro Somaldi (where Puccini carved his name on the organ case) are just two in Lucca and there were other churches where Puccini played the organ; for example at Farneta (where the recently restored organ also bears his carved name – rather in the fashion of English schoolchildren on their desk-tops).
Puccini also improvised, transcribed and composed pieces for the organ in his youth. Perhaps it was because of his improvisations that he may have been refused the ultimate accolade of becoming organist of Lucca’s cathedral. Evidently, Giacomo introduced some themes that may have been regarded as not religious enough by the church authorities and veering too much towards the operatic. Nevertheless, it was not unusual to do this until the advent of the Caecilian reform undertaken by Saint Pius X in the first years of the twentieth century. In any case, Giacomo must have soon come to the conclusion that he was more fitted for the opera stage than for the organ loft.
A CD of Puccini’s organ compositions played by Liuwe Tamminga, head organist of Bologna’s San Petronio, was issued in 2008 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. It’s available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Giacomo-Puccini-Organist-Liuwe-Tamminga/dp/B009E7S9XA. Many of the items on the disc consist of transcriptions but there are also some fugues which Puccini wrote for his pupil Carlo Della Nina who lived in Porcari (not too far from the Materis paint factory where I worked as a business English teacher).
Indeed, as recently as 2014 a march written for organ was rediscovered in a private collection at Porcari and performed ninety years after the composer’s death.
Specific Puccini works where the organ (or even harmonium, if the organ is not available) plays a major part is the ‘Vexilla Regis’, the ‘Salve Regina’ (subsequently incorporated in his first opera ‘Le Villi’), and his Requiem in memory of Verdi of 1905.
In Puccini’s major operatic works the organ plays a magnificent part in the sumptuous ‘Te Deum’ concluding act one of ‘Tosca’ and at the end of ‘Suor Angelica’.
Puccini also has an important organ connection with Bagni di Lucca. Restoration of the organ at our parish church at Corsena is commencing. This instrument, which has remained silent since 1987, was built by Paolino Bertolucci in the first half of the nineteenth century.The organ pull-down screen is particularly charming:
It is also the same organ on which Giacomo Puccini played the accompaniment to his youthful ‘Vexilla Regis’ commissioned by our mayor Betti’s great grandfather, Adelson Betti for Holy Week in 1878 when the composer was barely twenty years old and very much in need of some cash. ‘Vexilla Regis’ is a favourite of our local church choir and to look forwards to the day when this piece will be accompanied by the same organ on which Puccini himself played will, indeed, send a tingle down my spine.
(If you want to know more about San Pietro di Corsena, the ‘Vexilla Regis’, hear a recording of it and learn further about Puccini’s connection with Corsena do read my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/puccinis-first-hit/ ).
(Some Views of the Parish Church of San Pietro di Corsena)
Of particular interest is the fact that our parish church’s organ was originally built for the church of San Michele in Foro in Lucca.
(San Michele in Foro)
If you climb up to the attic of Puccini’s birth house in Lucca you’ll get a wonderful view of the statue of San Michele which the composer would wake up to see every morning.
It was this very organ which was remounted in Corsena when San Michele received a new organ built by Odoardo Landucci in 1864. A true organ transplant, if ever there was one!
Happily, funds have now enabled restoration on Corsena’s organ to be started. The firm of Samuele Maffucci from Pistoia, where the colleague I mentioned at the start of this post also works (Enrico Barsanti), is in charge of the repair.
(The organ cabinet as it appears at present without its organ under restoration)
The work is due to be completed by 2017 and the organ will again become a major contributor to liturgical functions, concerts and general music-making. The cost is around 45,000 euros, much of which comes from local sponsorship, the Italian episcopal council and from parishioners’ contributions.
(The Samuele Maffucci Team)
I am sure that it will be a great day when our parish church will again resound to the strains of its resurrected organ. It will truly turn out to be a fabulous occasion!
What next I wonder? The restoration of the 1774 Michelangelo Crudeli organ at the Pieve di Controni? I do hope so!