A Musical Collision Course: Puccini's Representation of Conflicting Cultures
For this activity, students will need the reproducible handouts entitled A Musical Collision Course, a copy of the Ten Essential Musical Terms, and the audio clips.
Music, History and Social Studies, Humanities, and Arts
- To develop students’ musical vocabulary while exploring the notion of “exoticism” in music
- To deepen students’ critical listening skills
- To foster students’ creativity and awareness of their own musical preferences
COMMON CORE STANDARDS
This activity directly supports the following ELA-Literacy Common Core Strands:
Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
When beginning work on a new opera, Puccini was often inspired by settings that included a strong local flavor or ambience. Whether a bohemian garret in Paris in La Bohème or a mythic version of ancient China in Turandot, these locales stimulated Puccini to evoke the setting in his musical representation and to compose music that inhabits the same world as the opera’s characters.
In Madama Butterfly, the composer was very deliberate in crafting a sound world that would transport listeners to Japan—a sound world that further juxtaposes Cio-Cio-San’s world with that of Pinkerton. Puccini incorporated Japanese and Chinese folk songs into the musical fabric of the score and quoted the Japanese national anthem. He also utilized Japanese gongs in the percussion parts and approximated the sound of Japanese music through the use of pentatonic scales. For Pinkerton, in contrast, he developed an identifiably “American” sound. For audiences both past and present, the musical representation of the cultures that collide in the opera’s story increases the dramatic tension and embodies the dueling desires within the person of Cio-Cio-San herself. In this activity, students will:
- Become familiar with some of the ways that Western composers have evoked Asian culture through music
- Listen to and analyze a selection of musical excerpts from Madama Butterfly
- Relate Puccini’s musical choices to character, plot, and the emotional arc of the opera
Students will listen to and analyze a selection of musical passages in order to discern Puccini’s compositional process in developing “Japanese” and “American” musical styles. They will use new musical vocabulary to describe the attributes of each passage and will apply their knowledge in the creation of an independent musical representation of their own identity and culture.
Distribute copies of the Ten Essential Musical Terms found in this guide. Have your students review it as a pre-lesson assignment or at the beginning of the class. Where applicable, you may want to demonstrate the terms on the piano or on another instrument. Several of the terms in particular will help students develop an ear for the ways that Western composers have evoked Asian culture, namely the concepts of pentatonic and whole-tone scales.
Using the chart provided in the reproducible handouts for this activity, invite students to listen to a selection of excerpts from Madama Butterfly. Each of the examples includes a musical element that Puccini uses to illustrate a kind of “local color,” either American or Japanese. Have students makes notes in the right-hand column on how that musical element is presented, any associations they feel the element possesses, and any opinions on what its meaning might be. It may be necessary to play each excerpt a few times.
Further details on how Puccini uses each musical element throughout the opera are provided below for your reference.
Track 1 | The Star-Spangled Banner
Puccini quotes the American national anthem in the opera’s first scene to represent the character of Pinkerton and his nationality.
Track 2 | Imitation of the sound of traditional Japanese instruments
The music includes delicate combinations of harp, piccolo, flute, bells, and tremolo strings, which Puccini uses to recreate the effect of traditional Japanese instruments.
Track 3 | Japanese national anthem
This brief moment quotes the second phrase of “Kimigayo,” the Japanese national anthem. It corresponds to Butterfly’s text at “La legge giapponese,” or “The Japanese law.”
Track 4 | Chinese folk song
By quoting this excerpt from a Chinese folk song, Puccini is emulating a generic “Eastern” sound that audiences would have recognized.
Track 5 | Japanese chant melody (based on the Pentatonic scale)
This moment quotes a Japanese chant melody and is based on the pentatonic scale. It is another example of Puccini creating an “eastern” sound in a more general sense. The melody has a minor pentatonic sound to it, above a repetitive, static harmony.
Tracks 6, 7 | Pentatonic harmonies (two examples)
Puccini utilizes the pentatonic scale both melodically (creating melodies out of the notes of the pentatonic scale) and harmonically (playing two or more notes from the scale simultaneously). Using the pentatonic scale often creates open-sounding intervals, such as the perfect 4th and perfect 5th.
Track 8 | Japanese percussion
Puccini accentuates the cry of the chorus with the crash of the tam-tam.
Now, have students turn to the texts and translations found on the next page of the reproducible handouts, corresponding to Tracks 9 through 12. These excerpts are longer and involve connecting the meaning of the words with the sound of the music. Working through the excerpts one at a time, have students follow along with the translation while listening to the corresponding music. As they listen, they may wish to highlight or underline passages in the text where they feel that Puccini is using one of the musical elements explored in the previous step. Play the excerpt two or three times to allow students enough time to make notes below the text with details on Puccini’s musical techniques and how they correspond to the meaning of the words.
Before moving on to the next excerpt, discuss the passage as a class and have students provide details on the musical sounds Puccini uses to paint a colorful picture and create meaning. Encourage students to use their new musical vocabulary and to give concrete examples as they are able. A completed chart is provided below for your reference.
Track 9 | Act I, Pinkerton’s aria “Dovunque al mondo”
Pinkerton reflects on the benefits he enjoys as a member of the U.S. Navy, taking pleasure where he finds it. The Star-Spangled Banner is quoted, creating a strong association between his character and America.
Track 10 | Act I, from Pinkerton and Butterfly’s first conversation, “Gran ventura”
The delicate melody in the solo violin is a quotation of a Chinese folk song. Puccini also emphasizes Pinkerton’s question about Nagasaki by underscoring his vocal line with harmonies based on the pentatonic scale, creating a generic “eastern” sound. When Butterfly reflects on her family history, Puccini quotes another folk song, now with a more minor inflection, as she tells of the hard life she has led.
Track 11 | Act II, Cio-Cio-San’s aria “Un bel dì”
The aria includes frequent pentatonic inflections, both harmonically and melodically. Several melodic motives are drawn from different folk songs.
Track 12 | The opera’s final scene
The final scene is rife with pentatonic and folk-like melodies. The opera ends with a dramatic quotation of a Japanese folk song, played in unison.
As homework, have students use the final page in the reproducible handout, “The Songs and Sounds of My World” to brainstorm musical and other sound elements that they associate with their own cultures and everyday life. Using these elements, students should compose a brief essay, incorporating as many musical terms as they are able, in answer to the following questions:
If Puccini had written an opera with you as the title character, how would he have created local flavor to represent your world? What are some of the songs, instruments, and sounds he would have incorporated into the score to capture the world and culture you live in?