Tosca - The Music and Synopsis
Political intrigue, jealousy, passion, love, and heartbreaking cruelty are all brought to brilliant and tragic life in Puccini's eternal classic.
In this NoteStream, we'll explore the fundamental structure and musical motives employed to great effect. Puccini was a composer who had an incredible gift for scene setting, or 'painting a picture' in order to achieve the perfect sonic environment for the dramatic situations provided by his librettists. Learn more about his tone-painting, the use of a form of Leitmotif, and the melodic shape of this beloved opera. The full Synopsis is also included.
For further exploration of the Libretto, the sites of the opera and the Battle of Marengo, please see Tosca: Historical Foundation.
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The Music of Tosca
Puccini was a composer who had an incredible gift for scene setting, or 'painting a picture' in order to achieve the perfect
sonic environment for the dramatic situations provided by his librettists. A brilliant master of orchestration, the composer used every color at his disposal in order to get the right effect. Hence, adjectives like 'sparkling', 'bright' and 'colorful' are often used to describe Puccini's operatic scores. In fact the scores became brighter and more brilliant as he evolved compositionally, to the logical conclusion of Turandot with its myriad oriental and exotic elements. Tosca may not be quite so brilliant in comparison, but it certainly has that unmistakable quality of orchestral sheen that we have come to expect from these operas.
Original poster, depicting the death of Scarpia, and Tosca's dismissive "E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!" (act 2)
The author died in 1928, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less.
Tightness of Structure
Tosca was not well received by the critics at the time of its première, primarily because of the 'sordid', violent nature of its story
and for what must have seemed to be the rather 'brutal' music created by Puccini to match the story. But what those critics failed to appreciate was the tightness of the opera's musical structure and what superb control Puccini utilized to tell his story perfectly in every detail.
The reason for this 'tightness of structure' can be found in the various compositional techniques that Puccini used consistently throughout his career. Let's take a look at some of those techniques and find examples in the score of Tosca so that you can listen for them in performance.
There are many wonderful examples of 'tone-painting' in Tosca, where the composer describes an emotional state,
a scenic setting or a dramatic action through musical means. A wonderful instance of this can be found in the prelude to Act III. Dawn is breaking over Rome and we find ourselves in the confines of the rooftop of the Castel Sant'Angelo on the banks of the Tiber River. It is a pastoral scene at first, providing a bit of a rest from the violence and bloodshed of the preceding act. A shepherd boy passes by and we actually hear the awkward gait of his animals, the clanking of a bell hanging from the neck of his guard dog, and the boy singing a song in country dialect.
The Castel Sant'Angelo from the South
Gaspar van Wittel 1656-1736
This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less
The Color of Sound
Slowly we feel a transition in the orchestra, a lightening of color as the sun comes up; and then we hear the bells and chimes
of the various churches, convents and monasteries in the area as they call the faithful to Morning Prayer and mass. Puccini went to great lengths to notate the exact pitches of these bells as he heard them during an early morning visit to the actual Roman location.
There is yet another transition as the music actually darkens and thickens in texture. We hear the first statement of the great tune from Act III of this opera, the tenor aria E Lucevan le Stelle (And the stars were shining), accompanied by the sound of the great bell in the cupola of St. Peter's.
This is almost a series of cinematic moments: imagine the camera as it moves from following the shepherd to an aerial shot
over the Castel Sant'Angelo overlooking the city, and then to a dark, interior shot as we join the brooding, near-despairing Cavaradossi.
These moments of tone-painting in Puccini are specific and highly detailed. They can be likened to a canvas by a great painter like David, Delacroix or Manet. Transitions between tonal colors or textures are quick but subtle, surrounding the principal characters in the work with a deftly drawn emotional context while at the same time pointing to specific objects, characters or psychological states that are present in the scene.
Moments of Mastery
Other moments in the opera come to mind: the entrance of Tosca wherein the pizzicato strings tell us everything we need to know
about her state of being at that moment; the dark and violent 'twists' in the basses and lower winds during the torture of Cavaradossi in Act II, drawing an all-too-specific picture of the device being used on him; the lengthy interlude at the end of the same act during which Tosca finds her salvation through the discovery of a knife. These are all moments that exhibit Puccini's supreme mastery of musical description.
Photo by Andrea Balducci
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We can't truly call what Puccini does with short, suggestive motives anything like a "leitmotif system", certainly not in the Wagnerian sense.
But he comes as close as any Italian composer would dare to the German composer's unique method of providing unity to his sprawling works.
In Wagner's case, these musical ideas were brief, pithy, powerful nuggets of melody attached to a character, object or psychological state in an opera that would develop musically in direct relationship to the psychological or emotional development of the character through the course of the opera.
Therein lies the difference: Puccini's leitmotifs don't develop. They remain static throughout the course of an opera or, at least, don't develop as much as their Wagnerian counterparts.
The most famous example of Puccini's use of any kind of leitmotif is surely the Scarpia motive that dominates the score of Tosca.
It is also the easiest motive to identify as it is essentially the first two bars of the opera. The motive is unusual in that it is really not a melody or melodic fragment at all; it is, rather, a series of three sinister-sounding chords blared fortissimo from the full orchestra. Being that this motive is the first thing Puccini wants us to hear as an audience, he's telling us that the dynamic force in this opera entitled Tosca is really Scarpia, the villain.
Scarpia in Tosca
Photo by S. Haymann
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We don't hear the motive again until Scarpia's actual entrance, as he descends upon the poor sacristan in the church of
Sant'Andrea della Valle in his search for the escaped prisoner, Angelotti.
After this entrance, however, we're never many measures away from the 'Scarpia motive' or a variant of it. Listen, for instance, to the music which accompanies Scarpia's conversation with the sacristan immediately after his explosive entrance. The whole dialogue is underpinned by a development of the motive, those three chords virtually everywhere.
The three-chord idea becomes a descending three-note idea at the very beginning of Act II as we are ushered into Scarpia's apartments in the Palazzo Farnese.
Death is no Barrier
Here, in Scarpia's Baroque and sumptuous domestic environment, the brutal chords of the original motive seem out of place
(at least until the torture and questioning of Cavaradossi begins!), and transformed, the motive takes on a more elegant nature echoing the outward charm of the man.
At the end of the act, as Scarpia lies on the floor of his apartment in a pool of his own blood, his sinister presence is hinted at by the playing of the motive once again, this time slowly by the strings in a low, hollow register. His motive is there again even in the prelude to Act III, just prior to the shepherd's song. Puccini is telling us that even after his death, Scarpia will continue to exert his evil influence on the development of the plot.
Death of Scarpia
Photo by Bengt Nyman
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One of the most remarkable and most unifying features of Puccini's music is his melodic style, the way he shapes his melodies.
It is this aspect of his compositional style which we find most accessible about Puccini's music, most identifiable. Almost all of his melodies are memorable because of the way they are built. And the most memorable of his tunes are conjunct melodies which 1) move in scale-wise motion with consecutive melodic steps; and 2) feature the use of occasional small melodic leaps. Most children's songs and folk melodies are built this way and are, by design, easy to remember.
Take, for example, the melody for Mary Had A Little Lamb. This is a perfectly conjunct melody which moves entirely in
step-wise motion until the last three syllables of the first half of the tune: "Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, LIT-TLE LAMB". The notes on "LIT-TLE LAMB" are a small leap up; every other melodic motion in the tune is made through consecutive note movement or steps. The tune Three Blind Mice is also conjunct, with mostly step-wise movement, but with considerably more leaping than in Mary…. One may wonder why these simple tunes are so memorable, but it is simply because of this conjunct movement that we find them relatively easy to recall.
Source: Roud Folk Song Index # 7622
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Puccini's greatest melodies are built in much the same way. Large leaps or dissonances in the melodic line
(not in the harmonies, which are often full of discord) are generally avoided, and step-wise motion with occasional leaps of three, four or five notes becomes the rule.
Think, again, of the big tune from Act III of Tosca, the tenor aria E Lucevan le Stelle. It begins with a melodic leap of four notes, then arcs up and down in step-wise motion, almost outlining a simple scale. And speaking of scales, that is exactly what the voice outlines in the next phrase: a long, achingly beautiful ascending scale. And so it goes, a melody built very simply from leaps of a fourth or fifth, combined with scale-like passages.
It seems a dull affair indeed to write about this, or to speak of it. But when you listen to it, and realize the formulaic nature
of Puccini's gift, and then accept that this tune has always been one of your most beloved memories of the operatic repertoire, the genius of it begins to communicate itself to you. Apply this same formula to any other of Puccini's great melodies…from La Bohème, Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly…and you begin to wonder how it was possible for this composer to come up with so many staggeringly beautiful melodies by following what is essentially an ancient melodic pattern.
The richness of the orchestration is made possible by the many different instruments called for in the score:
two flutes and one piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, four trombones, harp, tympani, Glockenspiel, bells, contrabassoon, tam-tam, celeste, deep bell, organ, organ, cannon and gun shots. In addition there is a banda of flutes, viola, harp, four horns, three trombones, and two small drums.
Afiche Tosca - G. Puccini
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Synopsis - Act I
The action takes place on July 17, 1800, three days after the July 14 Battle of Marengo.
There is no overture or prelude. Three ominous opening bars introduce the Scarpia motif.
ACT I — The Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle.
An artist has been at work and his brushes and equipment are scattered about. Angelotti dashes in, out of breath and fearful, having just escaped from the Castel Sant'Angelo. He had been a consul with the short-lived Roman Republic but was made a political prisoner when the control of Rome returned to the Kingdom of Naples. He finds the key to one of the chapels which his sister has left for him and hides as he hears someone approaching. It is the Sacristan, surprised at finding an untouched lunch basket but no painter.
Act I (Continued)
As the sacristan kneels to say the Angelus, the artist, Mario Cavaradossi, enters. The Sacristan gazes at the painting and
recognizes in the Mary Magdalene of the painting, a lady he has seen praying the church. Mario confesses he used the stranger as a model. He compares her blond, blue-eyed beauty with that of his dark-haired love, the famous singer, Floria Tosca (Recondita armonia — Hidden harmony).
After reminding Cavaradossi to lock up, the Sacristan leaves. Angelotti reappears and is delighted to recognize the painter as an old friend. When Tosca is heard calling through the locked door, Cavaradossi gives Angelotti the basket of food, and he hides once more. Mario admits Tosca. Suspicious because the door was locked and she heard voices, Tosca thinks that there must have been another woman with the painter. When he tries to kiss her, she insists upon laying flowers before a statue of the Madonna and saying a prayer first.
Act I (Continued)
When a preoccupied Cavaradossi does not react to her plans for the evening, the annoyed Tosca describes how romantic it will be
(Non la sospiri la nostra casetta?— Do you not long for our little house?). About to leave, she notices the painting, recognizes the blue-eyed model, and once more suspects Mario of betraying her. He finally convinces Tosca that he loves only her and her black eyes (Qual' occhio al mondo — What eyes in the world). He accuses her of being jealous. Admonishing her lover to paint the Magdalene's eyes black, the singer leaves.
Act I (Continued)
The mysterious woman in the painting is actually Angelotti's sister and, as well as the key, she has left women's clothes
and a fan for him to use as a disguise. Cavaradossi gives Angelotti the key to his own house and tells him he can hide there, in the well if necessary. When the sound of a gun is heard, announcing the escape of a prisoner has been discovered, the friends rush off together.
The Sacristan enters calling excitedly to the choir boys; there has been a report that Bonaparte has been defeated by the allies in Northern Italy, and a great celebration is being planned. The boys are overjoyed because they will be paid double for the Te Deum they are to sing at a special service.
They are interrupted by the appearance of Baron Scarpia, the chief of police, who orders his men to search the church for the escaped Angelotti.
Act I (Continued)
Finding the empty food basket and the embroidered fan belonging to Angelotti's sister, they guess that the prisoner has been there.
When Scarpia is told the identity of the painter, he gleefully plots to get Tosca for himself. Once more we hear Tosca calling for her Mario. Scarpia shows her the fan, thus confirming her former suspicions. As people arrive for the service of thanksgiving, Tosca laments her lover's supposed unfaithfulness, and Scarpia feigns pity. When the jealous singer runs off to find Mario, Scarpia instructs his henchman, Spoletta, to follow her. (During the grand religious procession, we hear victory cannon shots, imitated by drums.) Scarpia gloats "Va, Tosca" (Go, Tosca), and cries,"Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!" (Tosca, you make me forget God!)"
Scarpia, Tosca and the Fan
Photo courtesy The Festival Opera Association, Inc.
That evening, Scarpia's quarters in the Palazzo Farnese.
Elsewhere in the palace the Queen of Naples is giving the reception at which Tosca is singing. As he eats a sumptuous meal, Scarpia thinks of his hoped-for capture of Cavaradossi and Angelotti, thus leaving Tosca free for him. (Ha più forte sapore — [The violent conquest] has a stronger flavor). Spoletta arrives; he has captured Mario but cannot find Angelotti. From offstage we hear the sounds of the celebratory cantata and Tosca's voice. Cavaradossi is brought in and questioned but he denies any knowledge of the escaped prisoner.
Tosca enters. Mario embraces her, whispering that she should say nothing about what she saw at his house. Scarpia orders the artist to be tortured until he reveals Angelotti's hiding place. On being questioned, Tosca denies knowing anything at first, but upset at hearing Mario's groans under torture, she gives in.
Act II (Continued)
She reveals that they can find Angelotti in the well in Mario's garden. Scarpia sends Spoletta to find the escapee.
When a bleeding and faint Cavaradossi is brought in, Tosca lies, telling him she has said nothing. Suddenly news is brought that Napoleon has defeated the Allies at the battle of Marengo after all, a blow for Scarpia's side. Cavaradossi's strength returns and he exults in the victory (Vittoria!). In spite of Tosca's pleas, Scarpia orders Mario executed for his defiance.
Left alone with the police chief, Tosca demands the price of Mario's freedom. Scarpia does not want money — he wants Tosca, otherwise Mario will die.
Act II (Continued)
When news is brought that Angelotti had killed himself before the police reached him, Tosca finally relents.
Scarpia instructs Spoletta to change Cavaradossi's sentence from hanging to shooting, "as we did with Palmieri", makingTosca think that he means to fake the execution. Tosca asks if she can take the news to the painter herself and asks for a safe-conduct to leave Rome. As Scarpia writes, Tosca spies a knife on the table and hides it behind her. He tries to embrace her, but she stabs him crying, "Questo è il bacio di Tosca!" (This is Tosca's kiss!). Scarpia dies, and she takes the safe-conduct from his hand exulting, "E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!" (And before him all Rome trembled). Tosca lights two candles, places one on either side of the body, lays a crucifix on Scarpia's chest and leaves.
Placing of the Crucifix
Photo source The Victrola book of the opera
This image is in the public domain in the United States.
An upper courtyard at the Castel Sant'Angelo
It is near dawn. A shepherd boy is heard singing a sad love song. Cavaradossi is led to a cell and asks for paper to write a last letter. He starts to write but is overcome by his memories (E Lucevan le Stelle — And the stars shown). Tosca is brought in, shows Mario the safe-conduct, and describes the murder of Scarpia. Cavaradossi wonders that such a gentle creature could perform such a terrible deed (O dolci mani — Oh soft hands). Tosca explains the execution plan and instructs him on how to 'die' . In a passionate duet, they sing of their future together.
Photo Courtesy Isabela Zogaib
The firing squad arrives, performs the 'fake' execution, and departs. However, Scarpia has had his revenge from the grave.
The bullets were real. Just as Tosca realizes Mario is dead, voices are heard shouting the news of Scarpia's murder. Men rush onto the stage but, before they can apprehend her, Tosca jumps from the parapet exclaiming, "O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!" (Oh Scarpia, [we will meet] before God).