He was born into a family with a musical pedigree with his grandfather, Domenico Puccini having been a composer and for five generations one of the family was organ master at San Martino Cathedral in Lucca.
His father died when he was five years old, leaving his mother struggling to bring up the family of young children. He was sent to study with his uncle Fortunato Magi who declared him to be a 'poor and undisciplined' student. Unlike most other gifted and famous composers, the young Giacomo showed no interest in music and in fact was a rather lazy boy who struggled with any kind of academic work.
His mother however, was convinced that the young Giacomo had talent and she found him a tutor at the Conservatorio Musici. He eventually started making a little progress and by the time he was 14 he was a choirboy and played the organ at San Martino Cathedral and earning enough money to help support the family.
He started composing small pieces of music but the turning point for him was when he was 17 and attended a performance of Aida by Giuseppe Verdi. He and his brother had walked 30km from Lucca to Pisa to see the opera and Giacomo decided there and then that he wanted to concentrate on becoming a composer of operas.
He spent the next few years working very hard and with the help of friends, a grant and a subsidy from a great uncle gained a place at the Milan Conservatory. His teachers there were Ponchielli and Brazzini and his years there were successful. For his graduation 'Maestro' Puccini wrote an orchestral composition which was greatly acclaimed.
Now out in the real world and with no more of the financial support he had been given whilst studying, Puccini had to find work. He declined the offer of a position as a teacher at the Instituto Pacini in Lucca and decided to follow his dream of composing opera. His old teacher Ponchielli bought to his attention an operatic competition with a prize for the winning one act opera. With the help of Ponchielli he acquired a libretto from Ferdinando Fontana and settled down to work on the score of Le Villi. He wrote it in such haste in order to reach the deadline that it was declined by the judges as it was presented in a barely legible rough draft. Luckily for Puccini, both Ponchielli and Fontana were so convinced of its worth that they managed to gain support from Arriago Boito (Verdi librettist and opera composer) and the owner of the Ricordi publishing house, Giulio Ricordo. In 1884 a production of Le Villi was performed in Milan and was an enormous success. This led to the critic from the 'Corriere della Sera' commenting "We sincerely believe that Puccini may be the composer for whom Italy has been waiting a long time" as well as Ricordi publishing the music and commissioning Puccini to compose a new opera.
Five years later, this second opera 'Edgar' was staged at La Scala, Milan on Easter Sunday 1889. Edgar was not well received and in fact was only performed twice more. It was considered to be pretentious, with an overly melodramatic plot and poorly executed libretto. Puccini spent much time afterwards trying to revise and perfect it but Edgar has remained a failure. Despite being advised to drop him by the shareholders of the company, Ricordi stuck by Puccini, even offering to pay him a retainer from his own pocket.
During this period Puccini's Mother had died and he had eloped with Elvira Gemingnan, the wife of a friend, and one of her children. She subsequently bore him an illegitimate son, Antonio.
In 1893 Puccini's third opera Manon Lescaut was completed and was a resounding success with Puccini being pronounced the true successor to Verdi.
Puccini's house in Torre del Lago
After this, Puccini moved to the then remote area of Torre del Lago where he had a villa built (now known as Villa Museo Puccini) enabling him to work in peace. He worked slowly and continued to have problems with librettists after the ill fated Edgar. He wanted to write his own libretto but was persuaded by Ricordi not to and after several had been appointed and dismissed he eventually worked well with Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
They worked with him on his next three operas La Boheme, Tosca and Madame Butterfly. The first two were instant successes but the premier of Madame Butterfly in 1904 was a disaster. This was in part due to Puccini insisting, against all advice, that it should only be in two acts, not three. The two long acts with only a very short interval were too much for people to concentrate on and it wasn't until later, when it was split into three acts that this opera was fully accepted and appreciated. Out of all of his works, Madame Butterfly was Puccini's personal favourite.
By now Puccini had married Elvira Gemingnan, finally making his son legitimate, but their marriage was not a happy one. Puccini had many affairs, many of which were not very secret and some of which caused scandal. Elvira, although beautiful, was reputed to have been a jealous, rather dull woman with little or no humour. Her raging fits of jealousy resulted in the suicide of a young maid after Elvira wrongly accused her of having an affair with Puccini. The outcome was that Elvira was successfully sued by the girls parents and Puccini had to pay a large sum in damages. Also during this time, Puccini acquired a liking for driving fast cars and had a major accident in 1903 which nearly cost him his life.
It was not surprising then that his next opera La Fanciulla del West took him so long to compose. Although it portrayed an advance in his musical style and was well received by the audience at the time, it has not been popular over the years.
The First World War broke out soon afterwards and Puccini was greatly critised for his opera La Rondine which he wrote for the Vienna Opera. He had also, by now, fallen out with Ricordi and this opera was the only one not published by him.
There followed three one act operas called Il Trittico. Puccini insisted that all three should be performed at the same time but again, the length of time was too much for the audience. After going to see a performance himself, Puccini relented and they were performed separately Only one of these operas became popular and that was Gianni Schicchi, the other two virtually disappeared but Il Tabarro has recently regained some popularity.
Torre del Lago
By now Giacomo Puccini was over 60 years old and with failing health he was forced to leave his home in Torre del Lago due to the nearby construction of a peat factory. He referred to this move as 'the greatest sorrow of my life.' Determined to write an opera that would different and on a higher level than the others he began work on Turandot. A lifelong chain smoker of both cigarettes and cigars, Puccini began to complain more and more of a bad throat and cough and was eventually diagnosed with throat cancer. Although the cancer was advanced and inoperable, Puccini went to Brussels where surgeons attempted new and experimental radiation therapy. His heart was not strong enough to withstand this and he died, in Brussels on November 29th 1924.
There was a funeral in Brussels and he was buried in Milan. Two years later his son arranged for his body to be transferred to a mausoleum which had been constructed at his Villa in Torre del Lago. His wife and son were buried there with him after their deaths.
Puccini did not manage to complete Turandot and the last two scenes were finished by Franco Alfano. Turandot was premiered in 1926 to a sold out audience of prominent Italians. The conductor, Arturo Toscanini, stopped the music when he reached the last two scenes, turned and addressed the audience, although his exact words of remembrance seem unclear. He then continued the performance which closed to rapturous applause.