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The Music of 'Madame Butterfly'
(Italian title: Madama Butterfly)
An Opera by
Giacomo Puccini

The outstanding feature of the music is its fitness to the stage picture. It emphasises the dramatic situation, intensifies the emotional expression of the text, and throughout gives the appropriate atmosphere to the work.

Poster designed by Adolfo Hohenstein (1854–1928) for Puccini's opera, Madama Butterfly.

The first bars take the listener to Japan, and he leaves that land of flowers only when the last chord has brought down the curtain. The music allotted to Pinkerton and Sharpless has naturally no Japanese flavour, and the love music is not specially Oriental in character, for love is cosmopolitan and its language universal; but the rest of the work is essentially Japanese. Particularly so are certain parts distinguished by archaic intervals and restless tonality. Indeed, in several cases Japanese melodies have been incorporated in the score, notably the melody which accompanies Goro’s enumeration of the guests, the Butterfly motive, and the Yamadori theme, so strongly reminiscent of the Mikado’s theme in Sullivan’s masterpiece. Yet the composer’s nationality betrays itself in orchestration and otherwise, and certainly none but an Italian could have written the great Love-Duet.

If Puccini’s own melodies are in themselves not always original -- they occasionally remind us of Gounod, Verdi, and others -- his treatment of them is uniformly happy. In some cases they are very beautiful and haunting; for example, the melodies of the first chorus and the Love-Duet, the Consul’s motive, and perhaps finest of all, Butterfly’s farewell to her child. Concerted vocal writing is not the composer’s forte, judging from his handling of the trio in the last scene, which would have afforded a greater master an excellent opportunity of displaying his skill in this branch of composition

Puccini, like Wagner, discards all conventional forms except such as arise naturally out of the subject under consideration. Thus it happens that in "Madam Butterfly" the chorus work is slight (what there is, by the way, scarcely showing the composer at his best), and there is an absence of what may be called "set numbers." The music runs on continuously from start to finish, and the chief melodies are often given to the orchestra, which here plays a more important part than in any of Puccini’s earlier operas. The characters are aptly illustrated in the music assigned to each of them; and the leit-motive is used with consistency and discrimination. The work as a whole is full of interest and charm, and in the last scene rises to a great height of dramatic power, spiritual insight, and musical beauty.

ACT 1.-- There is no overture or prelude to the opera. The lively and characteristic theme of the short introduction at once creates the atmosphere of Japan, and prepares us for the scene that meets our eyes on the rising of the curtain. This phrase, which is given out by the first violins, and here developed fugally by the other strings, recurs frequently during the earlier scenes, and may be regarded as typical of a Japanese marriage and all the gaiety and bustle of the ceremony and reception. It is repeated again and again until Goro begins to enumerate the guests, when he is accompanied by a delightful figure, suggestive of their short tripping step, a figure which is heard later on as the relatives arrive.

The first of the party, Sharpless, is introduced by a tuneful phrase, throughout associated with the

Consul, and descriptive of his kindly, sympathetic nature. After Pinkerton has commented upon the elastic nature of Japanese houses and contracts, he sings a suave strain characteristic of his easy-going, optimistic temperament. The opening phrase in the orchestra will be recognised as the melody of "The

Star-spangled Banner." It is heard several times in the course of the work, when Pinkerton’s nationality is referred to.

That his convenient gospel may have fatal consequences, Sharpless points out in a phrase that recurs in the last scene, where the Consul is justified in his philosophy:

During Goro’s absence, Pinkerton describes how he has been fascinated by the little Japanese girl in a dainty, piquant melody, set out with delicate touches of orchestration, suggestive of her grace and butterfly-like charm. A second time Sharpless warns him, now in the following themes, also heard in the second Act, telling him that this child is not to be

trifled with. He drinks to Pinkerton’s friends and relatives at home, to the accompaniment of the warning motive (3a), and when the Lieutenant also raises his glass to his future American wife, the phrase (3b) continues the timely advice. Now Goro returns, announcing the approach of the bridal party. He sings a quaint Japanese phrase that forms an accompaniment to the first strains of their voices, heard in the distance, then nearer, and at last in full force on the stage. In this lovely chorus the girl-friends of the bride sing in praise of nature -- the sea, sky, and flowers, as seen from the path leading to the house, and Butterfly at the same time reveals her anticipation of great happiness, supported by the delicious flowing melody of the orchestra. The broad themes of this movement are afterwards used in the duet at the end of the Act, where the lovers declare their mutual passion, intensified by the beauty of the night and the surrounding scene. As the number closes with a burst of ecstasy, Butterfly appears

on the stage with her friends, and the motive representing her is given out in the orchestra. Just as the theme (2a) seems to depict the light-hearted American,

so this mysterious, haunting tune admirably characteristics the dainty, delicate creature, whose love is her existence, fragile and elusive like her namesake the Butterfly, yet capable of tragic self-sacrifice for the sake of the adored one.

During the simple and artless recital of the story of her life, Butterfly sings to the words-- "But the strongest oak must fall, when the storm-wind wrecks the forest" -- a phrase which must be noted. It is developed from one occurring in the unison passage of eastern tonality that ushers in her girl friends. Here the phrase refers to the poverty which caused her to become a Geisha. Later on it recurs twice -- in the First Part of the second Act, when Goro tries to persuade Butterfly that she is deserted by her husband, and, being very poor, ought to marry the wealthy Yamadori; and again in the opening bars of the orchestral introduction to the Second Part, where it indicates that her desertion by her husband will lead to a tragic end. Another important motive is introduced when the death of Butterfly’s father is referred to, the motive of self-destruction, which has a peculiarly crude Japanese flavour. This theme,

here incomplete, will soon be heard in a more developed form. Refreshments are brought from the house into the garden to the accompaniment of the marriage theme, and the figure heard before, when Goro enumerated the guests, announces the arrival of the Commissioner, the Registrar, and the relatives. This merry, fascinating measure is continued while the new-comers express their very candid opinions of the bridegroom. As the chorus proceeds, Sharpless offers Pinkerton his congratulations in a bold, striking phrase that stands our from the chattering of the other guests, with which it is cleverly combined.

While the Consul, with the other officials, gets the bond ready and the guests are regaling themselves, the bridegroom approaches the bride, and the

beautiful and passionate love melody (4a) rises pianissimo from the orchestra. When Goro whispers to Pinkerton that the dagger, Butterfly’s greatest treasure, was sent to her father by the Mikado, the motive of self-destruction (6) occurs in its complete form. Presently Butterfly sings her own theme, (5) telling how she has renounced her religion to adopt her lover’s.

After the wedding ceremony the orchestra breaks into a quick, rollicking measure while the relatives are feasting. Then with the Bonze’s denunciation there is heard a weird, uncanny phrase, signifying that Butterfly is cursed and cast off by her kindred. This theme (7a), consisting of an archaic progression of three major thirds, continues to assert itself till all the relatives have left the stage, when it passes into the gloomy motive of self-destruction (6), which, after more execrations, growing fainter in the distance, and more of the (7a) figure, reasserts itself, as the lovers are left in peace and the daylight wanes.

At this moment Suzuki is heard within chanting her evening prayer, the marriage theme sounds from the orchestra, and there commences the exquisite Love-Duet. One of the finest parts of the work, it is remarkable for wealth and beauty of melody, for grace and charm of character, and for passionate abandonment. The movement begins with the communing of the lovers, accompanied by a sweet, soothing melody, which with its dreamy, rhythmic flow is wonderfully suggestive of the restful stillness of the summer night, and presents a delightful contrast to the noise and bustle of the wedding ceremony. It is interrupted by a snatch of the marriage motive, when Butterfly retires to a corner at the back to change her wedding garment for one of pure white, and again when the curse (7a) theme breaks in and accompanies her recollection of the Bonze’s male-dictions.

At last all but their mutual love is forgotten as the couple go out on the terrace, and under the starry heavens give fervid expression to the bliss in their hearts. Pinkerton’s flowing phrases are answered by Butterfly’s characteristically dainty measures. Then, becoming more responsive, Butterfly pours out her absorbing devotion in exalted strains, echoed by the orchestra. Even yet, however, she cannot entirely forget her relative’s harshness, and again the curse motive (7a) intrudes for a moment on her happiness. But she immediately recovers herself, and continues more ardently, expressing her contentment and felicity in her lot. Following the words, "Yes, I am happy," there is the first suggestion of a phrase, afterwards to play an important part in the second Act. It is

developed from the curse theme and may be taken to signify the fulfilment of the curse in the death of the heroine. In this place it suggests that her bliss will end in despair, that her trusting love will bring her great suffering.

Meanwhile she tenderly beseeches her husband to "love her a little, just a very little," in a simple pathetic melody, to which the orchestra whispers an ethereal accompaniment. This short, haunting phrase rises higher and higher, and is finally taken up by Pinkerton, when it culminates in a passionate outburst, in which he declares that she is aptly named his Butterfly, and the orchestra resumes the broad, exalted strain already heard. Thereupon the bride reminds her lover of the fate of the butterfly in his country, and at this point the curse motive (7a) rises once more like a presentiment that her own fate may be similar -- that her heart may be pierced by the one who has caught her. Her fears are quickly dispelled by her husband’s assurances and caresses. The music becomes still more passionate, the orchestral accompaniment grows more intense, until the love theme is heard in its entirely, and is worked up by both voices and orchestra to a magnificent climax fortissimo, and then merges into Butterfly’s motive in the orchestra alone. This fascinating air diminishes to a tender pianissimo, as Pinkerton leads his bride from the garden, and together they disappear into the house. Here may be noted the unusual close on the sixth of the key, as the curtain falls on this wonderfully touching and poetical love idyl.

ACT 2, FIRST PART. -- After a few bars of introduction, seemingly evolved from the death motive (7b), the curtain rises. The curse theme (7a) is heard in the orchestra, then the death motive (7b). this is followed by Suzuki’s prayer that her mistress may be comforted. Presently a forceful, decisive theme accompanies Butterfly’s fears that the gods of Japan will be little use of them. This theme, which appears to denote her belief in her husband’s loyalty, recurs in the orchestra in a persistent manner. In a phrase associated with her husband’s return and also later on with the child, the faithful Butterfly recalls his promise to come back to her when the robins are nesting, the chirping of the birds being indicated in the accompaniment; and she displays her trust in his fidelity by describing their happy reunion in a charming song. The introduction here

of the death motive in unison appears to presage that she will not survive the meeting. When the concluding symphony dies away, the Consul’s motive, and the marriage theme with its attendant strains, announce the arrival of Sharpless in the company of Goro.

During the scene between the Consul and Butterfly, the warning phrase (2b) is repeated frequently, pointing to the fulfillment of Sharpless’ prophecy in the first Act. Here also a theme

representing Yamadori is heard for the first time. Its occurrence at this stage seems to hint that Sharpless is going to favour the suit of this wealthy lover. When Butterfly inquires of the Consul concerning the nesting-time of the robins in America, the twittering of the birds is again suggested in the orchestra. As the Prince enters, his melody is proclaimed fortissimo, the basses in unison accompanied by the full orchestra. This melody, and the music of this scene generally, have a specially Japanese character. During the interview Butterfly lets them all understand that she still considers herself married to Pinkerton, and therefore, however poor she may be, she cannot accept Yamadori. At this point there is given out in the orchestra the theme already referred to first sung by Butterfly to the words -- "But the strongest oak must fall, when the storm-wind wrecks the forest."

Presently the poor girl grows excited, and the music reflects the state of her mind, as she expounds her idea of the American law of divorce. Tea is handed round to a phrase in dainty show waltz rhythm, then Yamadori’s theme accompanies his departure, after which Sharpless’ motive is repeated as he settles down to read Pinkerton’s letter to Butterfly. Here a passage occurs, which was heard first in the Love-Duet, when the fate of the Butterfly was referred to. The symphony which accompanies the letter, and which will be heard again at the end of this part of the Act, consists of a repetition of a short phrase for the lower strings, with pizzicato and wood-wind accompaniment, and as the reading proceeds a charming melody is whispered by the higher strings.

When Butterfly runs off to fetch her child, the orchestra bursts fortissimo into the love motive (4a), now in more jubilant rhythm. It merges into a theme, already associated with her husband’s return, and here associated with the baby, as the mother shows her treasure to the Consul. This melody is continued in the orchestra, while she is speaking of the child, but it is interrupted by snatches of the "Star-spangled Banner" theme; by the phrase expressing her belief in her husband’s return, as she exclaims, "Can such as he be forgotten?" and afterwards by a reminiscence of the love motive (4a), when she says he was born after his father’s departure. In the extremely pathetic song to the baby, a somber, striking theme, principally heard in unison, seems to denote the sacrifice which the mother will eventually make for the sake of her son’s future. This melody and the phrase associated with the first appearance

of the child, form the main features of a most touching and dramatic number. Sharpless’ motive is heard as he takes leave of Butterfly, and as the devoted wife joyfully anticipates her husband’s home-coming, the beautiful haunting air (8) is sung out by the orchestra.

Suddenly loud cries are heard outside, and Suzuki enters, dragging in Goro, who has been maligning her mistress in the town. This passage is accompanied throughout by the curse theme. Full of violence and hate, it presents a fine contrast to the scenes preceding and following it, where the tenderness of the mother’s love is so beautifully expressed. And now a cannon-shot announces that the Abraham Lincoln has arrived in the harbour. While Butterfly and Suzuki run towards the terrace, the theme of return (8) is repeated. In an ecstasy of gladness Butterfly bursts into the charming Flower-Duet with Suzuki. This number is somewhat marred by a restlessness of tonality, scarcely warranted by the subject, and the opening is rather commonplace and reminiscent. As a whole, however, it is distinguished by suave melody, and picturesque and dainty tripping accompaniment; and it very happily suggests the spring, the season of love and joy. Butterfly dons her wedding garment to the first theme of the Love-Duet, heard while she was adorning herself on the bridal eve. As night falls the passage that accompanied the reading of the letter rises like a murmur from the orchestra, while sopranos and tenors behind the scenes sing the beautiful melody bouche fermée. The strains grow fainter as the curtain slowly falls.

SECOND PART. -- The orchestral prelude to the Second Part commences with the bold theme sung by Butterfly in the first Act, when she tells of her poverty, and heard again in the scene with Yamadori, when she refuses to believe that she is no longer the wife of Pinkerton. Here it is a premonition of her desertion and the impending catastrophe. This is followed by a phrase also heard before, in the Love-Duet, when the bride confesses that a first she had not wished to accept the Lieutenant’s offer through the broker. Presently there begins softly a barcarolle-like movement, which, after flowing along for some time, works up with snatches of the Love-Duet, the 12/8 rhythm being maintained. Then there is a reiteration of the second phrase, each time higher and higher, until cries of sailors are heard in the distance. The clanging of chains and anchors sounds from the harbour, after which the inexorable motive of death (7b) occurs in unison, creating an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair. At last the curtain rises as a new theme is softly enunciated in the orchestra. This marked rhythmic phrase suggests a chorus of sailors at work in the dawn. It is followed by the Butterfly melody, and afterwards repeated several times, higher and higher. As the rosy dawn spreads and the day breaks, it increases in power till it is finally set forth by the brass, the sunshine streams into the room, and Butterfly at length bestirs herself. It gradually fades away, while she turns to the baby and lifts him in her arms. The orchestra gives out the simple lullaby-like phrase associated with the child, and this the mother takes up and sings to her babe on her way to the room above.

When Suzuki hears the knocking at the door, a new theme will be noticed, suggesting the utter hopelessness of Butterfly’s position. It accompanies the maid’s description of her mistress’s weariness after her midnight watch. The moment Mrs. Pinkerton is discovered in the garden the music becomes agitated, and at last the accompaniment ceases altogether while the faithful soul declaims -- "Ah, the world is plunged in gloom!" And now Sharpless sings the melody -- "I know that for such trouble there is no consolation," already introduced in the orchestra. It is continued there, when the Consul is joined by Pinkerton and Suzuki in a Trio, in which the singers give vent to their emotions in characteristic style. Presently there may be recognised in the orchestra a suggestion of the phrase with which this Part opens. This is followed by the warning themes (3a and b), while Sharpless reminds Pinkerton of his advice to him before his marriage.

The Lieutenant, seized with overwhelming remorse, bids a passionate farewell to the scene of his former happiness. In the accompaniment of this song a phrase from the Flower-Duet is introduced, emphasising the contrast between the welcome of the husband as pictured by Butterfly and his actual home-coming. Snatches of the marriage theme and the Love-Duet are heard as Mrs. Pinkerton promises to be a mother to the child. Then an ascending chromatic scale in octaves in the bass, accompanied by the strings tremolo, and culminating in a suggestion of the curse motive, describes the trepidation of Suzuki as she tries to prevent her mistress re-entering the room. While Butterfly searches every corner for Pinkerton, a roll on the drums accompanies the reiterated mutterings of the curse theme in the lower wood-wind, which alone continue a wailing phrase, consisting of a series of sustained thirds. This phrase increases the feeling of desolation. Suddenly Butterfly notices the American lady, and as she realises her position, her whispered questions are punctuated by pauses of awful silence in the orchestra. At length the child’s theme is heard again -- the lady is entreating to be allowed to do something for the son of the man whom they both love. Here a most pathetic touch is added by the recurrence of Sharpless’ warning phrase (2b). The admonition was unheeded, with disastrous results. While Mrs. Pinkerton goes on pleading for the child, the decisive phrase denoting Butterfly’s belief in her husband’s return sounds from the orchestra, followed by the curse theme.

Butterfly promises to give up her boy, if the father will come to fetch him in half-an hour, the death motive meanwhile providing a low-toned accompaniment. From this point onwards the funereal strain in persistently repeated in ever-changing keys till Suzuki draws the curtains, and the room is darkened. Then it passes into the motive suggesting the dawn, only to return again when Suzuki refuses to leave her mistress alone. As the latter takes up the dagger and points it at her throat, the dark, gloomy self-destruction theme prepares us for the end. The noble passage in which the despairing woman bids farewell to her last hope, the idol of her soul, depicts the state of exaltation in which she takes her own life. This is perhaps the finest passage in the whole work. It is replete with dramatic power and maternal passion, and the melody is strikingly beautiful. As Pinkerton is heard outside calling Butterfly," the solemn, stalking death figure is twice repeated fortissimo by the brass in unison with the strings tremolo, with ghastly, tragic import, then the motive of the child’s future is blazed forth by the orchestra with full force, and on the last chord, again as at the end of the first Act, including the sixth of the key, the curtain swiftly descends.

The orchestration as a whole is very picturesque and effective. Where there is so much to praise, it seems almost ungracious to point out defects, which after all, are perhaps noticeable only to the musician. For instance, the scoring may be said to be very Italian, insomuch as there is a good deal of "top and bottom" -- that is, doubling the melody in higher and lower octaves, with lack of richness in the in inner parts. Again, there are too many "ad captandum" effects, such as may be obtained, for example, from the harp, an instrument which is impressive in inverse ratio to the number of times it is introduced. Then, while there is an entire freedom from blatancy or noisiness, highly commendable in these days of orchestral fireworks, there is occasionally a want of sonority and dramatic vigour. In spite of these blemishes, however, the orchestration remains a strong feature of the opera.

The composer’s frequent use of certain pet harmonies and unusual discords, without any apparent reason, amounts to a mannerism, for these lose the effect they would otherwise have, if employed sparingly and for special purposes. One is, moreover, curious to know what Puccini meant by not finishing the opera on the tonic chord. With some composers all this might be felt to be striving after originality and attributed either to a desire to astonish, or to poverty of resource, but that idea is almost precluded by a knowledge of Puccini’s work in general.

To sum up, the opera assuredly deserves to live. On a first hearing it fascinates and produces a profound impression. As with all good work, this impression is confirmed on further acquaintance, and the general verdict must ratify the opinion already expressed that "Madam Butterfly" stands out as a distinguished example of modern opera.

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Madame Butterfly Poster

Early edition of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Artist: Leopoldo Metlicovitz (image)

The beautiful cover of an early Italian edition of the music and words for Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly (Madame Butterfly).

Leopoldo Metlicovitz. Date: 1904.

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Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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