Performing Chopin

Beethoven: Sonata op. 57 ("Appassionata")

Discovering "L'altro Rossini": Young Meyerbeer's Semiramide

40 to the minim - a study of tempo in Puccini's "Turandot"

Revisiting Senta

How fast does the Dutchman fly?

The Descent from Mount Sinai

Slow movement in Rondo-Sonata form?

Beethoven: Sonata op. 2 no. 2

The Interrupted Feast

40 to the minim - a study of tempo in Puccini's "Turandot"

Whoever study carefully the score of Puccini's last opera might look at some of the master's tempo indications with astonishment. In fact, performance tradition of this very popular opera has changed some of the slower tempi to faster ones and vice versa. The reason for that – as is mostly the case with what is referred to in the opera world as "tradition" – is that some of the tempi seem "unnatural" at first sight. This is particularly true for the slower ones, which are technically and musically quite difficult to sustain whether it be for the chorus, the orchestra or the conductor himself.

However, a thorough study of this aspect of the score will reveal that Puccini is employing the tempo indications in a way which is similar to the treatment of tonalities: to be more precise, it is a specific metronome indication which is used as the basic indication of the piece – in the same way a composer would use a principal tonality. It is the indication of 40 to the beat, to which I will refer from now on as the basic tempo of the opera.

Puccini creates a general structure in which this tempo indication serves as a point of reference during the whole opera. It is employed in the key moments of the opera, always related to its two protagonists – Turandot and Calaf.

It should be noticed that 40 is the slowest metronome indication on the mechanical metronome, which was naturally the one Puccini used. The impression one gets is that the composer, while creating his most ambitious opera, wanted to choose an extreme basic tempo of reference, in the same way he was using extreme vocal writing for the singers and an extreme harmonic, rhythmic and orchestral language.

Act I: structure and dramaturgy

In the first act, Puccini creates a clear structure by the 40 indication, which he uses in the opening and closing sections as well as in the middle of the act: the opera begins with Andante sostenuto (half note =40), which is maintained throughout the long opening solo of the Mandarin. This is of course one of the most important moments of the opera, because it gives us the clear background to the whole story. It is therefore underlined by the basic tempo of the piece.

It is interesting to notice the sudden change of tempo in the third bar of the opera, containing only two beats (instead of four) and marked mosso. To make sure we understand it correctly, Puccini adds I.Tempo (primo tempo) in the next bar, so that it become clear that the third bar should create an effect of a more rapid movement. This is unfortunately seldom heard in performances, because it requires serious insistence on the part of the conductor. Whether the effect become clear is indeed determined not only by the speed in which the mosso bar is played, but also by the holding back to the first tempo in the next bar – just as the composer wrote. I am pointing out this detail, first because it is another example of the negligence of many – including big and admired – conductors in performance, but also because if we keep the analogy tempo – tonality, we can say that Puccini wants to establish right in the beginning a world in which nothing is certain: a harmonic analysis will show that the tonal center is f-sharp minor, but this is not at all clear to the ear, because of the extensive use of bi-chords and whole-tone scale elements. In the same way, the basic tempo is immediately undermined, and the fact that it continues for the next bars without interruption can not compensate for this first impression of lack of stability of the most basic element in music: the beat.

The finale of the first act in its current version is a fruit of a long and elaborate rewriting, its concluding concertato being added at a later stage, once Calaf's aria was put after Liù's "Signore, ascolta!". The concertato was therefore conceived as an extension of "Non piangere, Liù!", maintaining its mood, tonality and tempoAndante lento sostenuto (half note =40) . Puccini's fabulous sense of musical theatre made him stretch the beautiful tenor aria into an ever growing musical number during which the orchestration becomes thicker and richer. The last eight bars of the aria (just before rehearsal number 16) return during the concertato, which makes it even clearer that the tempo should not be changed. The slow tempo allows the rich vocal and orchestral writing of the concertato to come out clearly, instead of sounding like a big mess of sounds and voices. As if all these musical considerations were not sufficient, the composer – wishing to assure the preservation of this highly intense moment – put a clear indication in the score: after a ritenuto in the last bar of the aria (where the orchestra plays alone) he wrote a tempo adding the special phrase con calma tragica. No other words could describe better the fabulous effect of this piece when played in the same tempo of the preceding aria from which it was generated. The calmness of the tempo renders the music tragic and the result is breathtaking. In terms of musical dramaturgy, Puccini again underlines here a fundamental moment of the story: Calaf's decision to confront the challenge and try to solve Turandot's riddles.

Unfortunately performance tradition makes even the most respectable conductors ignore the clear indications in the score and change the tempo right at the beginning of the concertato, into something which the composer would have indicated as a simple and clear Più mosso, had he desired it to be played so. The reason for this is twofold: first, maintaining the original tempo indication puts a considerable strain on the singers – in vocal terms, and on the conductor – in musical terms, but then no one has ever pretended that "Turandot"  were an easy opera to perform.

The other reason has perhaps deeper roots in operatic tradition: the concertato, being the last part of the concluding section of the act (which could be defined as starting with Liù's aria, or a little earlier) is seen as a stretta of a finale, and is therefore given the usual rise in velocity traditionally employed in Italian nineteenth century opera. Puccini was indeed an Italian composer, but he was influenced by many other types of music and this is especially apparent in "Turandot". He does yield to his compatriots' tradition and natural instinct, but not right at the beginning of the concertato: a first sign of the coming "stretta" or its equivalent appears during the last time the main theme is heard (7th bar of 47), where Puccini added the indication incalzando, giving way to a certain extent to that natural Italian tendency to rush the finales. But the real effect of the stretta arrives finally in the end of the act, when the orchestra is left alone. Here Puccini writes: Energico – movendo, and gives us a brief moment of that famous Italian effect. However, using an insistant sostenendo and a final poco rall., the composer goes back to the original basic tempo of the piece with which he concludes the act. It is significant that the traditional stretta section is squeezed into four bars: conciseness being one of the most important characteristics of modern art, to which "Turandot" certainly belongs.

As we have seen, the beginning and the end of the first act are marked by the basic tempo of the opera, thus creating a clear frame to this highly dramatic act. Yet Puccini employs the 40 indication in two more points during the act. The more important one, in terms of structure, is the funeral march of the Persian prince. Mosco Carner, seeing this act as a symphony in four movements, defined this section as the second slow movement. The tempo indication is Andante triste (quarter note=40) with the addition (Tempo di Marcia Funebre). It is indeed extremely slow and requires a high capacity of sustaining the sound and the musical tension, especially on the part of the conductor. Puccini – aware of the vocal difficulty of singing in such a slow tempo - did not write long phrases to the chorus, but rather gave the different voices melodic fragments which lie on the long melody played by the orchestra. Even Calaf's longest phrase - towards the end of the number (his second "o divina bellezza, o meraviglia!") – is marked piano so that it become easier to perform it. Again, this tempo is usually not respected, but its effect is inexplicably beautiful. It creates an overwhelming suspension, and its real effectiveness becomes clear in the reprise of the minor theme, when Calaf sings his solo ("O divina bellezza"). The slow tempo Puccini indicated gives the precise musical rendering of the libretto's stage direction: "abbacinato dalla visione di Turandot" (1). 

In terms of musical dramaturgy it underlines the first meeting of the two protagonists as well as extending the background information provided by the Mandarin at the beginning of the opera and connecting it to the actual preparation for the execution. In purely architectonic terms, this is the central part of the act and it therefore creates a third and central column between the two outer ones.

A fourth, brief, appearance of the basic tempo occurs in the middle of the first act Ping-Pang-Pong section. The scherzo music (to use Carner's symphonic analysis) is interrupted by the mysterious voices of the ghosts of the princes executed by Turandot; the tempo indication is Lento (quarter note=40). This short passage is not significant in terms of structure, like the other three discussed above, but dramaturgically it is yet a further important development of the background story: the basic law pronounced by the mandarin leads to a death march for any failing prince (in this case the Persian one) after which he joins the ghosts of his predecessors. These three stages create a line of development, leading directly to the end of the act in which Calaf – a typical mythological hero – after having learned and understood the situation, hits the gong.

Act II: the center of gravitation

In Act II Puccini chooses a completely different strategy regarding the basic tempo of his Chinese opera. Instead of continuing the monumental architecture technique used in the first act, he points out the center of the act, which – considering the fact that the opera is in three acts of equal length – is also the center of the opera. It is in this moment that Turandot appears, explaining the origin of her drive for revenge on men. In what is structurally the heart of the opera, Turandot reveals her own heart and soul, where Lou-Ling's desperate cry for help found a shelter. The tempo indication is Molto lento (quarter note=46) and it is preceded by a shortened reprise of the Mandarin's opening solo in the original Andante sostenuto (half note=40). The slightly faster tempo indicated for Turandot resembles the use of very light chromaticism in a clearly defined tonality. It remains in the same tempo space of 40, and suits better the recitative character of the music. What is important here is the creation of a suspension just like the one created during the funeral march of the Persian prince. The effect repeats itself whenever something vital to the story happens or is stated. In this case Puccini chooses to put one clear point in the center of the act – the center of gravitation of the whole opera.

Act III: straight line through three points

Puccini has always used the same technique in regard to the endings of his operas: somewhere during the last act, at a point where it is absolutely clear that the tragic end is inevitable, he puts an aria for the protagonist, whose music he did not use before and will not use after. In the very end of the opera, after the death of the protagonist, he lets the orchestra alone play the theme, as if it were a final cry of death: "Sono andati", "E lucevan le stelle", "Che tua madre" (2) are the most famous examples, but the endings of "Il Tabarro", "Suor Angelica" and even "Manon Lescaut" and "Gianni Schicchi" actually use the same technique. This method is somehow related to the great death or death-presentiment scenes in many Verdi operas – usually at the beginning of the last act, such as "Il Trovatore", "La Traviata", "Un Ballo in Maschera","Don Carlo", "Aida", "Otello" and even "Falstaff". The connection is in the position of the aria, while the use of the music for a final orchestral statement is a totally new device employed by Puccini. It can not be compared with Wagner's endings because of the extensive use of the Leitmotivs during the opera. The special thing with Puccini is the fact that he marks only two points with the same music: the aria and the end of the opera.

According to a letter written to his librettists, Puccini intended to end "Turandot" with a chorus singing the melody of "Nessun dorma" set to a new text he was asking for in that letter. That this was his intention is highly significant since – as is widely known - the last duet was eventually not written by him. The opening of the third act moves constantly between an unstable Andante mosso, misterioso (dotted quarter note=44) to a Molto sostenuto (dotted quarter note=40), remaining finally on the last one, ending in the Andante sostenuto (no further metronome indication) of Calaf's famous aria. It is clear again that the difference between 44 and 40 is a shade of the same tempo, in the same way that an introduction of some flat or sharp in a clear c-major does not create a modulation or change the tonal center. Since the aria actually opens and ends the last act, its use of the basic tempo gives a clear architecture in a way similar to that used in the first act. The chorus' proniment role through the opera made Puccini add it to the otherwise purely orchestral finale, thus creating a new variant of his own device.

A long and laborious way leads the act from Calaf's confident aria through Liù's sacrifice to the final love duet. The first part of the duet follows a continuous sketch by Puccini and the tempo indication is Andante sostenuto (half note =40). This highly dramatic moment in which the final confrontation between the two protagonists takes place is again marked by the basic tempo of the opera, creating the middle third column, just like the one created in the first act by the funeral march.

One can summarize the architectural form created by the use of the basic tempo of "Turandot" in the following diagram (the "ghosts" are omitted since they are of dramaturgical and not architectural value):

Act I            MANDARINO                 MARCIA                   FINALE 

Act II                                            TURANDOT 

Act III          CALAF                           DUET                     FINALE

It seems clear that there is a real thought behind this scheme and that it is in no way accidental. It should be a challenge for conductors to respect it and try to realize it, however unfamiliar to the ear or difficult to perform it may be. Art is not natural, and in studying a work of art it is our job to submit our nature to the masterpieces of the great composers, rather than – as the so called "tradition" implies – submit the masterpieces to our nature. 

An afterthought: "Liù, chi sei?" (tempo-wise)

As I mentioned in the beginning, it is significant that Puccini use the basic tempo of the opera only in relation with its two protagonists: the law proclaimed by the Mandarin thanks to which they will eventually be united, the two tenor arias – with the finale derived from the first, Turandot's monologue, the protagonists' first encounter (the funeral march) and their final duet. Important as it may be, Liù's role is a secondary one, and her beautiful music is never given a metronome slower than 50 ("Signore, ascolta!"). In her second aria - in the third act - "Tanto amor segreto", Puccini curiously wrote a simple Lento with no metronome mark. However, 40 or even 46 would seem undoubtedly too slow for this magical aria.

On the other hand, Liù's last aria – "Tu che di gel sei cinta" – offers an opposite example to the slow tempi discussed above. It is traditionally performed much slower than its tempo indication implies, and in order to understand why we could look at two other similar examples in earlier operas by Puccini.

Colline's short aria "Vecchia zimarra", near the end of "La Bohème" is traditionally performed at a slow pace in four beats per measure. Its tempo indication is Allegretto moderato e triste (fourth note=63) and I will not be exaggerating when I say that this tempo is exactly twice as fast as what is traditionally employed. The musical text is so clear that one wonders why on earth it is not played the way it is written: in addition to the clear metronome marking, the word Allegretto cannot imply the usual heavy tempo one is accustomed to; the orchestral accompaniment is a clear um-pah um-pah which -in any normal context - no musician would take in four; the various rubati along the aria are much less effective in a slow tempo and dramatically there is no time or sense for Colline to stop and sing a big aria: Mimì is dying and he has to run and sell his coat to try and save her life. Puccini obviously did not think that in order to express sadness one should employ a slow tempo. But basses and conductors ever since have made every possible effort to make this aria become something which it is not by slowing it down.

Another example of this kind is Lauretta's famous "O mio babbino caro". This popular aria has suffered considerably from being performed in the concert hall and lost its relatively fast tempo marked: Andantino ingenuo (eighth note=120). The question whether it should be conducted in six or in two is a technical one. I personally prefer two since it allows more space for expression, but even if it is conducted in six, it still does not have to become slower! The word Puccini uses: Andantino, just like Colline's Allegretto implies a rather quick tempo and the dramatic situation is highly tense: this aria appears as the climax of a long dramatic action, in which Lauretta finally tells her father – let me marry Rinuccio or I jump to the Arno! True, the music is sweet and naïve, but there is a certain agitation in it too and it must not be overlooked.

Liù's aria is dramturgically speaking similar to Lauretta's in being the climax of a long dramatic action. The anxiety of the people, leading to Liù's torture reaches its final step in her aria in which – fearing nothing anymore since she is determined to commit suicide – she dares confront Turandot and talk to her in a bold way no one would ever dream of. This is a brief, highly intense moment. Dramatically it is probably the strongest one in the whole opera. Puccini writes: Andantino mosso (quarter note=69) (con un poco d'agitazione). Everything here implies a relatively fast movement, and indeed, performed in this tempo the aria becomes something totally different than the usual funeral march like music we are used to hear. It should be sung with determination, with an explosive energy, changing expression on the piano phrases, and slowing down towards the end on the last "Io chiudo stanca gli occhi" – an effect usually lost, the tempo being too slow. 

Liù is a strong character. It has some of the most beautiful music Puccini has ever written, but in this aria she shows her powerful side, her determination and her strength of will. A formal consideration should also be added: this aria stands to "Tanto amor segreto" as the traditional cabaletta stands to the cavatina, with a tempo di mezzo sung by the chorus in the middle. Its tempo indication clearly supports this view and places "Tu che di gel" as the (relatively) fast aria in which a long dramatic action reaches its final climax.

(1) "dazzled by the vision of Turandot"
(2) it should be remembered that "Madama Butterfly" was originally in two acts, this aria appearing therefore in the last act of the two.

© 2008 Rani Calderon

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