This month on Clef Notes, our topic is Unfinished Music: The Mystery Remains. We’ve discussed this topic once before, but we only touched the surface of music that falls into this category. Let’s continue to explore the topic over the next few weeks.
Throughout history, there are many examples of compositions by well-known composers that, for various reasons, were left unfinished. For obvious reasons, this idea of unfinished music by some of the “greats” in music history is intriguing which is why scholars seek to find answers for their abandonment. While historians have been able to find adequate answers for many incomplete works, others still leave us with a sense of speculation.
The unfinished work I’d like to look at this week has a very obvious reason why it was abandoned—the composer’s death. Giacomo Puccini's (1858–1924) final opera, Turandot, used Carlo Gozzi’s play Turandotte as its source. The story is set in China and based on folk stories of a princess who uses riddles to test her suitors and to deem whether or not they are worthy to have her hand in marriage. For those who answer any of the riddles incorrectly, she has them killed. The opera is one of Puccini’s greatest, containing some of the most beloved opera arias of all time including “Nessun dorma!”
Puccini worked alongside two librettists for his Turandot: Renato Simoni and Giuseppe Adami. After completing the orchestration for the first two acts by 1924, including a large orchestra with organ and exotic Chinese themes, Puccini decided he was unhappy with the text for the final love duet in Act III. He envisioned the finale to his opera to be grand, with a big, memorable duet scene. The text the librettists provided just wasn’t what he had in mind for the powerful ending he hoped to achieve.
Unfortunately, Puccini died before he ever had the opportunity to work with his librettists to complete the ending to Turandot. After undergoing surgery to help fight throat cancer in 1924, Puccini suffered a heart attack and died. But what would happen to his masterpiece that he left unfinished? Join me next time for the rest of the story.