The unexpected source of two of the most significant musical themes in Puccini's masterwork Madama Butterfly has been revealed by an American music scholar.
Writing in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, W. Anthony Sheppard of Williams College claims that Puccini drew directly on Westernised versions of two different Chinese folk tunes -- as reproduced in music boxes -- during the composition of Madama Butterfly, rather than any traditional Japanese melodies.
Sheppard also claims to have identified the actual music box encountered by Puccini: a Swiss-made six-tune music box made around 1877 and now in the possession of the Guinness Collection at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey.
For the first theme, 'the melody most closely associated with Butterfly herself', Sheppard reveals that Puccini drew on the erotic -- and often banned -- folksong 'Shiba mo'. He writes: "This melody, either in part or in its entirety, appears at multiple significant moments in the opera, and most often diverges from the music-box model only in minor details."
Evidence in the music itself leads Sheppard to conclude that Puccini encountered the melody on a music box rather than through a printed source; he also notes that it is highly likely that Puccini knew of 'Shiba mo's' controversial content, making its inclusion at particular points of the opera a bit of a 'private erotic joke'. This song, along with the source of the second significant melody, what Sheppard calls the 'Patrimony theme', is one of the tunes on the 'Guinness' music box.
In addition to offering new insight into the mind and music of one of the world's most famous composers, Sheppard's detective work also provides a fascinating glimpse into turn-of-the-century Orientalism and early cultural globalisation. The music boxes in question were created in Switzerland, and fitted out with music specially collected from China for the purpose; the boxes were then shipped to China for sale and occasionally made their way back to Europe, where one, at least, was chanced upon by Puccini. For listeners, the characteristic mechanical-sounding music they generated 'came to signal East Asia through the works of numerous composers in diverse genres'.
"Puccini's encounter with the brief tunes on these otherwise unremarkable music boxes resulted in a much broader global music impact over the course of the century," Sheppard concludes. Through both Turandot and Madama Butterfly, 'Puccini shaped -- and continues to shape -- the sonic image of East Asia in the West.'
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