Welcome to my new series, in which I briefly present my favorite moments in music history. Instead of discussing entire pieces or songs, this series of posts will focus on intimate glances into music–formal sections, motives, phrases, even single chord changes that have had a powerful effect on me at some point in my formal or informal musical studies.
My undergraduate institution was fairly focused on early music, and so I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the major operatic repertoire. Not only was it not an emphasis in my music history courses, I never had the opportunity to play in the pit orchestra for one until I started my doctorate (Falstaff, in case you were curious). If it weren’t for my opera singer best friend from undergrad, I might still be woefully ignorant of all opera (though I still admit that I have a long way to go). I learned, eventually, that 20th century opera resonates powerfully with me–so I’m convinced that there is opera for everyone, if you expose yourself to enough of it. Some people want a good story with beautiful vocal lines, others value rich orchestration, but operas are often good stories.
I Crisantemi (Puccini)
During my master’s degree, the string orchestra performed Puccini’s I Crisantemi on a concert. I had never performed Puccini before, due to my lack of opera experience. And the man was practically singularly known for his operas–though he loved the string quartet, he left only four short works for the medium. The elegiac I Crisantemi isn’t what I’d call exceedingly popular in the orchestral or chamber music repertoire, though others may beg to differ. When I came across it, I thought it was a really striking and unexpected choice for a program.
Puccini claims to have written it in a single night in 1890, in response to the the death of a friend. The intense feeling that gave rise to these melodies resonated with the composer (just as it has with his audiences); he later re-used the melodies of I Crisantemi in his opera Manon Lescaut (1893).
The moment in Puccini’s “I Crisantemi” where I get real chills is the B section a little bit before minute 3…where the low strings have the ostinato underneath the violin melody. That whole section is like magic. It happens at 2:04 in this video, after a cathartic exhale of a chord.
I love the way the trattenuto measure begins this musical sigh that lets out the tension of all of that motive’s chromaticism in the final measure of the A section.
What is it about this moment? It’s one part contrast–the textural change of moving from lush homophony and the passionate dynamic swells that came before it to this softly undulating wave. But a piece of it also has to be the melodic contour–the leaps in the first violin melody are like question marks, open-ended and yearning and hesitant.
The questioning leaps in the first violin melody against the softly rolling wave in the violas.
It’s an incredible tune to contrast with the chromatic climb of the opening gesture, which was less like a question mark and more of a slow, deliberate intake of breath followed by the resolution at the top of the ascent each time.
It’s specifically the first iteration of this that gives me the thrill. At 2:54, the cello joins the violin (now up an octave), and it’s gorgeous (and no moment of this piece isn’t, in all honesty), but there’s always been something about the transition in particular that captivates me. It’s a moment that caught my breath and I remember listening to it over and over again, moving the cursor back on recordings and on YouTube. Perhaps it will catch you, as well.