Giacomo Puccini – “Crisantemi” (Chrysanthemums)

From 1980 to 1982 I lived in Italy, the first year in Naples, the second in Rome. How does a boy from Indiana get bitten by the Italian bug? The country grabbed my attention in the early 1970s the moment I saw my first Fellini film, Satyricon. It was either my friend, Kerry Wade, or my high school english teacher in my junior year, William Ribblet, who turned me on to it.

The film’s depiction of life in ancient Rome, blew me away. It was a harsh, brutal society, but it gave us western civilization and the foundation of our republican democracy. But I wasn’t thinking of that in high school: Satyricon overflowed with sex, which for a teenager was continuously on my mind. And it also showed an ancient world that was a funny, venal, and real as our modern one.

The scene in Satyricon that blew me away showed how blasé and decadent the Romans had become by the 3rd century before Alaric and the Visigoths sacked the city. The action takes place in the house of a wealthy roman patrician who has hired a troupe of actors to give a performance of some ancient Greek tragedy. The master of the house, epicene and impotent, is unimpressed by the play. To spice things up, the manager of the troupe comes out and announces a special treat. They will bring out a criminal caught stealing and cut his hand off. Which they do. Supposedly, it was not fake. Fellini found a person who had a gangrenous hand and paid him to have his hand cut off, heavily drugged of course, which Fellini filmed.

In his 1972 film Roma, Fellini drew an even stronger parallel between ancient and modern day Rome by in a scene where a modern construction crew takes an archeologist down into the bowels of Rome because they had discovered an ancient Roman villa while digging a subway tunnel. The villa was almost intact with wonderful frescoes on the walls. As more are discovered, you realize that they are actually portraits of the modern visitors. Then the air from modern day Rome, with its pollution, starts to eat away the paint and stucco of the frescoes and in a few minutes they disappear in front of our eyes.

Today’s piece, “Chrysanthemum” has nothing to do with my time in Italy. I heard it some 15 years after moving back to the states, (why I still sometimes wonder). My wife and I ended up living in the god-forsaken town of Gaithersburg, Maryland, which lies about 20 miles north of Washington, DC. Our suburb was beautiful. I had a 3000 square foot house. The neighbors had immaculate lawns. There was a community pool. The neighbors were lawyers, businessmen, veterinarians, journalists, catholics, evangelicals, white, and computer entrepreneurs. Many were drunks. Not once did I ever have an interesting conversation with any of them about classical music, art or literature.

One forlorn day, riding back from somewhere into this air-conditioned nightmare, I switched on the classical music channel, WBJC from Baltimore. Today’s piece by Puccini was playing. My heart melted at its beauty. I wondered why I had never heard it before. Maybe it’s overshadowed by all of his operas.

Puccini wrote it as a string quartet in 1890, “Alla memoria di Amedeo di Savoia Duca d’Aosta.” Allegedly, he wrote it in a single night in memory of his friend, Amadeo, the Duke of Aosta. Amadeo, according to Wikipedia, was “the second son of King Vittorio Emanuele II (King of Piedmont, Savoy, Sardinia and, later, first King of Italy).” He himself became King of Spain from 1870 to 1873, at which point he abdicated because the country was turning into a republic, and moved to Turin. Puccini was active at that time and they became friends. I’m not a big fan of the monarchy, but this they did cause some great works of art to come into being. And art has the power to assuage the soul, even if you live in Gaithersburg.

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Puccini, Giacomo: “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot

During my second semester of college at Indiana University at South Bend, I enrolled in a piano class. We met in the basement of the main complex and the room contained about 10 electric pianos. These were wired into the teacher’s console and we wore headphones so we could hear ourselves practice. From time to time, the teacher would flip a switch, listen to how we were doing, and give a few suggestions.

Our teacher was a rather flamboyant old Swedish gentleman named Eijnar Krantz. He probably was the only professor I think who ever taught me who wore a suit every day, and definitely the only one who had a silk handkerchief stuffed into his breast pocket. Professor Krantz had huge bushy salt and pepper eyebrows that matched the hair that he wore slicked back. Thin and moutstachioed, he looked a bit like someone out of a Fred Astaire film–kind of dapper, actually.

Next to me in class sat a guy about my age, who one day started a conversation with me. What struck me about him was his high, dramatic voice. In fact, he turned out to be a tenor who was studying voice. He had to take a piano proficiency class in fulfillment of his music degree. His name was Mike Snyder and we eventually became friends.

Of course, Mike loved opera and was very enthusiastic when I told him how much I liked classical music. “Well,” he said to me. “You must come to my house and hear Bjorling sing Nessun Dorma.” Before then the only tenors I knew by name were Mario Lanza and Enrico Caruso. “Who’s Bjorling?” I asked. “Why,” Mike responded, “he was only the greatest tenor of all time.”

I was quite happy to go along to Mike’s house. After all, until then, I’d never met anyone who shared my passion for music.

Mike lived in a middle class section of South Bend in a small bungalow with his parents. The day I paid him a visit, I found him in front of his house pitching a baseball to his little brother. That struck me a bit odd. Because most of the athletes in my high school were pretty much anti-intellectual, I thought that having a love of music precluded an interest in spectator sports. Of course, my swimming hundreds of laps in practice was probably as boring to him as his playing baseball was to me, so maybe Mike, like me, had used listening to music as a way of passing the time.

Mike had a prodigious collection of opera recordings and highlights. He had several recordings of Jussi Bjorling singing Nessun Dorma and he discussed the merits of each one and even played me other recordings of it by other singers.

This was in 1974, mind you, and Placido Domingo was just getting a reputation, and Pavarotti was almost unknown. Jan Pierce and Robert Merrill were still alive and dominated the American opera scene. So I had never heard “Nessun Dorma” before, and it sent shivers down my spine. Nowadays, because of the three tenors, it’s become pretty hackneyed, but Bjorling’s recording is still unique enough that I almost consider it a different piece of music altogether.

Mike was particularly cruel to Placido Domingo. He had a recording of some work that a very young Domingo sang with a very old Callas in which Domingo’s voice breaks. “Listen to that!” Mike shouted when he played it for me. “It sounds like he’s singing inside of a can or something. Or like his head is in a bag filled with cotton.” I guess Domingo’s voice has matured enough by now. He’s sought-after and is even featured in his own Rolex Oyster magazine advertisement.

I enjoyed hanging around with Mike. He introduced me to a lot of good vocal music and a number number of artistic acquaintances whom he had met through his music studies. It was hard to believe there was such a cultural elite in South Bend. Of course, some of them weren’t so elite. My dates are starting to blur a bit. Mike eventually moved in with another musician, named Jerry, and later they had a falling out. Mike said Jerry had started hanging out with some pretty rough “low-lifes.” About a year later, Mike told me that Jerry had been found stabbed in his apartment.

What I liked most about Mike was his complete lack of self-doubt. He knew he one day he would become a successful and famous tenor. He got odd jobs singing as a cantor and was not afraid at all of performing. In a way, he taught me that you can have a lot of talent, but you also need attitude.

Do I need to say anything about “Nessun Dorma?” It comes from the opera, “Turandot,” which is about a contest to guess three riddles proposed by a Chinese princess. Should a suitor try and fail, he would be executed. A prince named Calaf appears and answers the questions. Turandot does not want to marry Calaf, so he says that if she can guess his name by dawn, he will release her. The emperor announces that no one must sleep (nessun dorma) until the prince’s name is discovered. Calaf sings this aria in which he says that he will only reveal his identity when he is ready and will make Turandot love him. The last line, which is the piercing high note of the tenor’s aria is “Vincero” (I will win!).

To me what is so beautiful about this aria is the oriental feel to it. Puccini uses that to create a series of climaxes that never quite seem to resolve. The aria climbs and climbs and only finally resolves on the final line.

Unfortunately, I have lost track of Mike over the years. Were I to meet him now, I’d start by thanking him for introducing me to this piece. It would also be nice to know whether he “won” his dream as well.

Puccini Biography

Buy or Download The Very Best of Jussi Björling on Amazon

Puccini, Giacomo: “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot

During my second semester of college at Indiana University at South Bend, I enrolled in a piano class. We met in the basement of the main complex and the room contained about 10 electric pianos. These were wired into the teacher’s console and we wore headphones so we could hear ourselves practice. From time to time, the teacher would flip a switch, listen to how we were doing, and give a few suggestions.

Our teacher was a rather flamboyant old Swedish gentleman named Eijnar Krantz. He probably was the only professor I think who ever taught me who wore a suit every day, and definitely the only one who had a silk handkerchief stuffed into his breast pocket. Professor Krantz had huge bushy salt and pepper eyebrows that matched the hair that he wore slicked back. Thin and moutstachioed, he looked a bit like someone out of a Fred Astaire film–kind of dapper, actually.

Next to me in class sat a guy about my age, who one day started a conversation with me. What struck me about him was his high, dramatic voice. In fact, he turned out to be a tenor who was studying voice. He had to take a piano proficiency class in fulfillment of his music degree. His name was Mike Snyder and we eventually became friends.

Of course, Mike loved opera and was very enthusiastic when I told him how much I liked classical music. “Well,” he said to me. “You must come to my house and hear Bjorling sing Nessun Dorma.” Before then the only tenors I knew by name were Mario Lanza and Enrico Caruso. “Who’s Bjorling?” I asked. “Why,” Mike responded, “he was only the greatest tenor of all time.”

I was quite happy to go along to Mike’s house. After all, until then, I’d never met anyone who shared my passion for music.

Mike lived in a middle class section of South Bend in a small bungalow with his parents. The day I paid him a visit, I found him in front of his house pitching a baseball to his little brother. That struck me a bit odd. Because most of the athletes in my high school were pretty much anti-intellectual, I thought that having a love of music precluded an interest in spectator sports. Of course, my swimming hundreds of laps in practice was probably as boring to him as his playing baseball was to me, so maybe Mike, like me, had used listening to music as a way of passing the time.

Mike had a prodigious collection of opera recordings and highlights. He had several recordings of Jussi Bjorling singing Nessun Dorma and he discussed the merits of each one and even played me other recordings of it by other singers.

This was in 1974, mind you, and Placido Domingo was just getting a reputation, and Pavarotti was almost unknown. Jan Pierce and Robert Merrill were still alive and dominated the American opera scene. So I had never heard “Nessun Dorma” before, and it sent shivers down my spine. Nowadays, because of the three tenors, it’s become pretty hackneyed, but Bjorling’s recording is still unique enough that I almost consider it a different piece of music altogether.

Mike was particularly cruel to Placido Domingo. He had a recording of some work that a very young Domingo sang with a very old Callas in which Domingo’s voice breaks. “Listen to that!” Mike shouted when he played it for me. “It sounds like he’s singing inside of a can or something. Or like his head is in a bag filled with cotton.” I guess Domingo’s voice has matured enough by now. He’s sought-after and is even featured in his own Rolex Oyster magazine advertisement.

I enjoyed hanging around with Mike. He introduced me to a lot of good vocal music and a number number of artistic acquaintances whom he had met through his music studies. It was hard to believe there was such a cultural elite in South Bend. Of course, some of them weren’t so elite. My dates are starting to blur a bit. Mike eventually moved in with another musician, named Jerry, and later they had a falling out. Mike said Jerry had started hanging out with some pretty rough “low-lifes.” About a year later, Mike told me that Jerry had been found stabbed in his apartment.

What I liked most about Mike was his complete lack of self-doubt. He knew he one day he would become a successful and famous tenor. He got odd jobs singing as a cantor and was not afraid at all of performing. In a way, he taught me that you can have a lot of talent, but you also need attitude.

Do I need to say anything about “Nessun Dorma?” It comes from the opera, “Turandot,” which is about a contest to guess three riddles proposed by a Chinese princess. Should a suitor try and fail, he would be executed. A prince named Calaf appears and answers the questions. Turandot does not want to marry Calaf, so he says that if she can guess his name by dawn, he will release her. The emperor announces that no one must sleep (nessun dorma) until the prince’s name is discovered. Calaf sings this aria in which he says that he will only reveal his identity when he is ready and will make Turandot love him. The last line, which is the piercing high note of the tenor’s aria is “Vincero” (I will win!).

To me what is so beautiful about this aria is the oriental feel to it. Puccini uses that to create a series of climaxes that never quite seem to resolve. The aria climbs and climbs and only finally resolves on the final line.

Unfortunately, I have lost track of Mike over the years. Were I to meet him now, I’d start by thanking him for introducing me to this piece. It would also be nice to know whether he “won” his dream as well.

Puccini Biography

Buy or Download The Very Best of Jussi Björling on Amazon

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