Morris Museum, Morristown, N.J.
AÂ tune sheet from an 1877 Swiss music box with Chinese tunes that Puccini might have listened to, at the Morris Museum in Morristown, N.J.
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THE Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of mechanical musical instruments and automata at the Morris Museum here received national attention after Martin Scorsese’s film “Hugo,” which appeared last November. The museum’s Clown Illusionist, with a disappearing and reappearing head accompanied by a cheery tune, was featured on “CBS Sunday Morning.”
Even now few visitors spend much time in the room where the Swiss music boxes are displayed. Yet, being a musicologist, I lingered there alone last January as my children ran ahead. I kept listening to one box in particular, a harmoniphone from around 1877, equipped with a reed organ and able to play six Chinese tunes from a cylinder.
Confused at first, I suddenly realized that I had stumbled on the key to a musicological mystery many decades old. Scholars have long known that Puccini used Chinese tunes in his opera “Turandot” (set in China and left incomplete on Puccini’s death in 1924). But they have been puzzled by the origins of two “Japanese” tunes in his “Madama Butterfly” (set in Japan and first performed in 1904). What I had found were Chinese sources for two major themes in “Butterfly” and a surprising connection between that opera and “Turandot.”
Was it possible that Puccini had heard this very box in Italy and that it provided crucial inspiration for “Madama Butterfly”?
We know that he heard a “Chinese” music box in 1920 at the Bagni di Lucca home of Baron Edoardo Fassini-Camossi, a veteran of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China and of a military operation there at the end of World War I, and an amateur composer with published pieces to his credit. The baron probably acquired this box and other souvenirs in China at the notorious “loot auctions” that followed the suppression of the Boxers.
Puccini’s visit was leaked to the press and later reported in the librettist Giuseppe Adami’s books on the composer, so opera lovers have long known that three tunes from the Fassini music box, now in the private collection of Lionello Ghiotti in Italy, were prominently featured in “Turandot.” The most famous Chinese song, commonly called “Mo Li Hua” (“Jasmine Flower”), signals the seductive and glorious aspects of the fairy-tale Chinese princess Turandot; another tune accompanies the entrance of the three ministers; a third serves as an imperial hymn.
Thanks to a tip from a gas station attendant, this music box was rediscovered in Rome on Feb. 5, 1965, by the musicologists Michael Rose and Hans Hammelmann just in time for a BBC radio broadcast about the opera. This box was also featured on Italian television in the 1970s and ’80s and by William Weaver in a 1974 Metropolitan Opera intermission broadcast.
The Guinness box at the Morris Museum includes two of the “Turandot” melodies but also includes a principal theme from “Madama Butterfly,” a melody that the British scholar Julian Budden referred to as “almost the mirror of the soul of Butterfly.” Puccini used several popular Japanese tunes in “Butterfly,” including “Sakura, Sakura” and “Miya Sama,” but the Guinness box reveals that around 1901 he was apparently willing to use Chinese music as well in his representations of what he termed the “yellow race.”
For decades, in an effort to reconstruct Puccini’s models, scholars have been stitching together fragments of published Japanese songs that he might have seen. Fortunately the Guinness box includes its original tune sheet, listing the folk-song titles in Chinese and in transliteration, which turns this music box into a Rosetta stone. The main theme for Butterfly, a geisha, is labeled “She Pah Moh” on the tune sheet. Some musicological detective work, with help from the Chinese language scholars Cornelius C. Kubler and Ping Wang, identified the tune as “Shiba Mo,” or “The 18 Touches,” an erotic song often banned in China. This folk song, which also turns up in Chinese operas, is delivered in the voice of a male lover celebrating 18 parts of a woman’s body in explicit detail, moving caress by caress from head to toe.
The specific moments when “Shiba Mo” appears in “Madama Butterfly” and Puccini’s sense of humor, said to have been rakish, suggest that he knew what the song was about. The melody appears prominently at the climax to Butterfly’s entrance, as she presents herself to her lustful American bridegroom, Lieutenant Pinkerton. Butterfly sings the whole melody, in the same key as on the Guinness music box, as she explains to Pinkerton that she has severed all ties to her Japanese past and will devote herself entirely to him. The tune also appears at the climax of the Act I love duet, as Pinkerton eagerly leads Butterfly into the house to consummate their marriage.
Scholars have praised Puccini’s “Japanese orchestrations,” but his setting of “Shiba Mo” can best be described as sounding like a music box. This is especially true when the tune is heard at a fast music-box clip, complete with imitation birdcalls, as dawn breaks in Act II after Butterfly’s long night anticipating Pinkerton’s return. Knowing the pornographic and mechanical sources for this melody will certainly color our emotional response to this archetypal, cross-cultural tragedy.
The second musical motif closely associated with Butterfly — heard most prominently when reference is made to her father’s death — has also inspired an extended hunt for its Japanese source. This motif appears in two of the Chinese melodies on the Guinness box. It seems to have gone unnoticed that this second mystery motif in “Madama Butterfly” appears in slightly different form in “Turandot” as part of the Emperor’s hymn. So the same motif represents an exotic father in each opera.
W. Anthony Sheppard, who teaches music history at Williams College and is currently at the Institute for Advanced Study, is the author of âRevealing Masks: Exotic Influences and Ritualized Performance in Modernist Music Theaterâ (University of California Press).
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