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Madame Butterfly: The Final Chord

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Geraldine Farrar in the role of Madame Butterfly, holding a parasol, in a production from 1908.

Geraldine Farrar in the role of Madame Butterfly, holding a parasol, in a production from 1908.

A Well-Loved Opera

It’s one of the best-loved operas of all time. Puccini’s Madame Butterfly has delighted audiences across the world for over a century. The stage show Miss Saigon took its inspiration from this tale of sorrow.

When you leave the auditorium why are you an emotional wreck? Is it just the tale of betrayal by an American cad of a trusting young Japanese slip of a thing?

Of course not. Music pulls at the heart strings, has always done so, whether it’s accompanying words or not. So powerful is the emotion music can bring to the human body, should words not be in the frame, we’re frequently apt to privately imagine a story to fit the piece we happen to be listening to.

Hardly surprising then, that music can just as easily make its appearance before the words when it comes to songwriting. Not that the subject matter has to be of a tragic nature, it could just as easily be the opposite. There are plenty of uplifting songs around.

But why should the final chord of Madame Butterfly have such a devastating effect on the listener? To understand the full impact Puccini pulls out of the bag it's necessary to have journeyed the full distance through the opera, drinking in not only all the poignant music but identifying with the predicament of the eponymous heroine, Madame Butterfly.

You can’t pick it up with a few minutes to go and appreciate the uppercut that's delivered with such utter devastation at the double bar.

Notation of the opening of the aria 'One Fine Day' with Puccini's signature.

Notation of the opening of the aria 'One Fine Day' with Puccini's signature.

Puccini: Master of the Big Tune and Onto the Final Chord

Puccini was a master of the big tune. They effortlessly wind their way through coy introductions, building up to the soaring heights expected of great arias. Immediately we think of Mimi and Rodolfo’s pledge of love in La Bohème, and Pavarotti’s gloriously unforgettable and impossibly sustained top note which finishes Nessun Dorma from Turandot.

And another notable, One Fine Day, Puccini handing the unlucky heroine her own long, harrowing high pitched cry of longing in Madame Butterfly. He certainly had a way of pulling on the heart strings. If you’re looking for a shot of emotion to wallow in, Puccini’s your man.

By the time the sumptuous music has reached this aria in Act II with all its naïve hope for reunification with Pinkerton, Puccini already has you cradled in the palm of his hand, and you’re ready to discreetly slide a tissue from inside your sleeve to dab your eyes.

Not surprisingly after journeying all the way through the opera Puccini is able to twist the impassioned knife with devastating ease when he announces the final chord. But the choice of chord is totally unexpected, surprising and unconventional. So, what did he do?

1903 edition of John Luther Long's book "Madame Butterfly"

1903 edition of John Luther Long's book "Madame Butterfly"

The Original Story

The story of Madame Butterfly underwent several changes. Firstly published in 1887 by Frenchman Pierre Loti under the title "Madame Chyrsantheme," the tale was picked up by a lady called Jennie Correll who related it to her brother, John Luther Long. He in turn reworked it as a short story, and from there it was dramatised as a play by the American impresario David Belasco for his Manhattan theatre.

How Puccini Heard About the Story of Madame Butterfly

During a trip to London in 1900, Puccini attended the Lyric Theatre, which was presenting the one act play Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan. This inspired him to ask the theatre director, David Belasco, to write a libretto based on the tale.

One Fine Day With Renee Fleming as Butterfly

Understanding the Buildup to the Final Chord

The story is relatively well-known, but to appreciate why that final chord elicits so marked a response from the listener, it’s necessary to be completely familiar with the events leading up to the last bar.

After a short period of seduction, the young girl Butterfly, or to call her by her Japanese name, Cio-Cio San, weds visiting sailor Captain Pinkerton whose attitude to married life is cavalier. Almost immediately he sets sail promising to return not knowing Cio-Cio San is now pregnant.

Unfortunately for Butterfly, in Japanese culture marriage is a rather loose arrangement, the knot may be easily untied, and while she waits for his broken promise of a return, Pinkerton literally jumps ship and marries someone else.

  • Three years elapse during which time Cio-Cio San has adopted all things western to the total disapproval of her relatives. As she continues to believe Pinkerton will come back to resume their marriage, his ship anchors off shore.

In an ironic twist, it is the usurper and second wife, Kate Pinkerton, who visits Butterfly at her home. The implications are grave. In the blink of an eye, Butterfly’s position has become hopeless. Kate, on the other hand, is the reverse of the coin. She displays a streak of heartlessness, requesting Butterfly hand over her son. Who would ask that of a devoted mother? And what devoted mother is likely to comply?

Nevertheless, Cio-Cio San does accede, on the understanding Pinkerton himself comes to collect his son. Kate has misread the situation, the ramifications of Butterfly’s loss of honour and fails to anticipate her subsequent reaction. Suicide is preferable to a life without Pinkerton. For her, everything has been invested in this sham of a marriage.

I still love Butterfly. I never listen with pleasure to any of my operas, with the exception perhaps of the last act of La bohème. But Butterfly, yes — everything! And I have the knowledge that I have written the most modern of my operas.

— Puccini

David Belasco, Impressario

David Belasco was highly influential in promoting the careers of many actors, including Barbara Stanwyck, Leslie Carter and Maud Adams. He also wrote the libretto for another Puccini opera, The Girl of the Golden West.

Original poster for the first performance of Madame Butterfly, which took place at La Scala Milan in 1904.

Original poster for the first performance of Madame Butterfly, which took place at La Scala Milan in 1904.

Consequences in Madame Butterfly

It is a shift in dynamic Kate cannot ignore and with it her perspective of the child. From her viewpoint, the handover over of the boy is a practical solution: Pinkerton lays claim to his son, Butterfly is free to pursue her life and find a husband suited to her culture unencumbered by someone else’s child.

She has not foreseen Butterfly’s unswerving attachment to Pinkerton, her humiliation, and her peceived loss of honour, culminating in her stabbing herself in a bid to take her own life.

There are consequences, those consequences being: if Kate and Pinkerton take the child, he will be an unremitting reminder of the suffering they have brought upon Butterfly and how will Pinkerton and Kate explain his mother’s fate later in life?

What Is a Chord?

Chords are made up of more than one note, played simultaneously. If a chord is played with the notes in quick succession, this is called an arpeggio.

Madame Butterfly Put on Hold

Puccini was involved in a serious car accident in 1904, which prevented him from working on Madame Butterfly for eight months.

Madame Butterfly was subjected to another setback when it received poor reviews at the forst performance. Puccini cut the opera from three acts to two and used the Humming Chorus as an interlude between the two acts.

The bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 caused America to boycott performances of Madame Butterfly. Staging of the opera did not resume until about 1950.

"Madame Butterfly": The name of this rose was inspired by the story of Madame Butterfly.

"Madame Butterfly": The name of this rose was inspired by the story of Madame Butterfly.

The Final Chord

And it is this twist which forces Puccini to consider how he finishes this tragic drama. The final scene is written in C minor, a brooding key with the dark quality of three flats reflecting the low lighting of the set and the hopelessness of Cio-Cio San.

Does Puccini do the usual thing, and end on the key chord? It’s very rare to switch to another chord at the double bar, in fact, I can’t bring to mind an example of where an alternative chord has been selected.

The last scene is played out in C minor. The chord of C minor is composed of C, E flat and G. Normally a composer would pop the key note, in this case, C, on top, giving the finish a strong square feel. For example, the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony ends in this manner. The music is charged with a sense of irrefutable finality, an expression of absolute termination.

But Puccini pushes up the G to A flat, changing the chord. It's an astonishing choice, for now that chord is not in the minor, one we associate with sadness, but in the major, and generally we perceive happiness, or at least a sense of well-being when a major chord is heard.

Yet this augmented chord does not imbibe the listener with any notion of all’s well - it has the opposite effect. Puccini leaves the chord in what is called first inversion. The chord, now A flat major would ordinarily be underpinned by the A flat at the bottom.

Puccini keeps the next note up in the chord sequence as the bottom note, strongly drawn out by the cellos, the C. The effect is of being in limbo, unfinished, there is more to come. Of course, there is, the story cannot finish here. As I say, there are consequences.

Moreover, we do not know for sure if Madame Butterfly is alive or dead. That inspired Puccini final chord keeps the audience guessing and hungry for more.

© 2017 Frances Metcalfe

Please Comment On My Hub

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on January 31, 2017:

What a lovely comment! Thank you. And I do really have a passion for Madame Butterfly (and its last chord!) as well as so many other marvellous classical music works.

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 30, 2017:

I've also never seen it, but now I want to. Your passion for it inspires the reader.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on January 29, 2017:

It's so wonderful, a real tear jerker and a treat to see. If you don't know la Boheme or Tosca they're also fantastic. Puccini tops the charts for the most loved operas of all time. Tosca also has a flourish of a finish by the way, instead of the keynote on the top of the final chord, Puccini puts the third note instead. It's D minor and he cleverly has A as th upper note so it gives the feeling of being stretched. You can't help but throw your head upwards in anguish. I only put this up a few minutes ago - it's still pending! Thanks for reading.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on January 29, 2017:

That's lovely. I've never seen Madam Butterfly. I would love to see this opera.