Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) was perhaps the last of the great “Romantic” composers. He composed almost exclusively operas, and his deeply lyrical operatic style and gorgeous, soaring vocal melodies are well suited to being played on string instruments – especially perhaps on the cello because of its similarities in range and timbre to the singing voice.
What extraordinarily expressive, dramatic and beautiful music this is, but it is deeply and intimately emotional rather than virtuosic and pyrotechnical. There are not many notes in the vocal line of a Puccini aria. Rather than fireworks, we find here rivers of molten steel or lava – flowing deeply, thickly, usually quite slowly …….. and burningly intense. This is the opposite of “laid-back” music!
This extreme intensity is perhaps why Puccini favoured the high voices. When we are agitated or excited our voice register tends to rise, and in Puccini’s music it is often as though the singer was nearing breaking point. A quick search on www.opera-arias.com shows 135 arias in which a soprano sings but only 1 with a contralto! Likewise for the male voices: the same search reveals 214 arias featuring tenor and/or baritone …… but only 28 with a bass voice. There are 46 solo arias for soprano, 28 for tenor, 24 for baritone ….. but only 1 for contralto and 4 for bass.
Many songs and arias of other composers, both classical and popular, can be played on the cello first in one octave and then an octave higher (or lower), as though we were alternating between male and female voices. But not Puccini – or not often at least. Only in “Lucevan le Stelle” – which has the smallest vocal range of his most famous arias – can we use this “trick” to be able to repeat the aria with a different character. This is a fortunate coincidence as this is the only aria of Puccini’s “Greatest Hits” that actually does repeat itself identically (almost).
Even with the limited vocal range of this aria (one octave and a third) we are still obliged to go up to a high F in order to avoid the lower octave rendition sounding “too low”. Basically, for Puccini on the cello, we need to avoid the two lower strings in the same way that Puccini avoided using the contralto and bass voices. They are just too floppy, too loose, too “tubby” to transmit Puccini’s intensity.
The burning intensity of this music makes it especially suitable to a fast high-intensity vibrato. If you need to slow you vibrato down and relax, then DON’T play Puccini. If, on the other hand, you need to speed your vibrato up, this is the perfect music to play!
This is also the perfect music for practising our Fingering To Avoid Extensions. We have few notes to play in these arias, but each note has to be unbelievably beautiful and intense. This means that, for each note, the hand needs to be totally relaxed, which means that we need to avoid extensions as much as possible. We can do this by shifting more often which, because the music is slow, is not a problem. Not only is the frequent shifting not a problem, it is actually a hugely useful interpretative tool because by shifting more we can connect the notes with beautiful vocal glissandi even when they could be played in the same hand position (without shift or glissando). This connecting of the notes with glissandi gives our playing a more lyrical, vocal quality that mimics the way singers sing these arias.
It is curious that the small (present population 90 000) Italian town of Lucca where Puccini lived, studied and worked also gave us Boccherini (100 years earlier). Thank you Lucca (and Italy)!
There is a fine volume, published by Ricordi/Hal Leonard, of 10 Puccini arias transcribed for the violin which includes both the piano accompaniment sheet music as well as an audio CD of those accompaniments (to play along with). All the arias of that volume, have been transcribed/arranged here for cello, and can be played with the same piano accompaniments. This volume has since been arranged and edited for cello by the publisher, possibly making the following transcriptions unnecessary.
E Lucevan le Stelle (And the Stars Were Shining) – from “Tosca”
In Quelle Trine Morbide (Behind Those Soft Curtains) – from “Manon Lescaut”
Quando Men Vo (When I Go Out) ) from “La Boheme”
O Mio Babbino Caro (Oh My Beloved Daddy) from “Gianni Schicci”
Vissi d’Arte (I Lived For Art) from “Tosca”
Senza Mamma (Without Mother) from “Suor Angelica”
Nessun Dorma (Nobody Sleeps) from “Turandot”
Ch’Ella Mi Creda (That She Might Believe Me) from “La Fanciulla del West
Recondita Armonia (Secret Harmony) from “Tosca”
Un Bel Dí Vedremo (One Fine Day We Will See) from”Madame Butterfly”