Jasmine Flowers | Chinese Folk Song adapted in Puccini’s opera Turandot

Lisa Ruping Cheng

Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini’s hit opera Turandot (杜蘭多) adapted the tune of a very popular Chinese folk song Jasmine Flowers (茉莉花). After the premiere in 1926 in Milan, Italy, Turandot has become one of the most performed and celebrated operas to this day. It has always been the exotic settings of the stories and the hightened emotions that make Puccini’s operas compelling and unforgettable.

Turandot is no exception.

Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Turandot”, on 25 April 1926 (Wikimedia Commons)

It is intriguing to discover that the story of Turandot was set in the capital city of China. The cold princess, Turandot challenged one of her admirers, prince Calaf with three riddles and would not marry him if they were not answered correctly. Enchanted by Turandot’s beauty, the prince fell in love with the princess immediately. Calaf was smart and answered all three questions correctly, but Turandot still refused to marry him. Calaf’s determination to win Turandot’s love was so strong that he offered Turandot a new deal: if Turandot could guess his name before dawn he would die; but if she could not guess his name, she would have to marry him. During the intense, grueling hours of waiting, the cruel princess ordered that no one in the whole country shall sleep until she was able to find out the name of the prince. The famous aria Nessun Dorma is the love song the prince sung to express his passion, anguish and longings for the love of the princess during the night while waiting for the dawn to come.

Folk tune of Jasmine Flowers as the motif representing the princess

We can see that in the opera the protagonist is Turandot, the ruthless, beautiful princess. Puccini had used the tune of the Chinese folk song Jasmine Flowers as a motif (a musical idea) representing the princess. I imagine Jasmine Flowers had worked as a perfect material for Puccini to portray the princess as an oriental beauty. How did Puccini adapt Jasmin Flowers in Turandot? The original lyrics and meanings were in fact omitted. In Act I, the melody was adapted to chorus singing by children. The motif had reocurred in Act II and Act III as well. If intimidated by the length and the unfamiliar vocal style of opera singing, you can search Jasmine Flowers and Turandot in YouTube to find the shortened excerpt of the adaptation.

Original lyrics and meanings of Jasmine Flowers

好一朵美麗的茉莉花 (what a beautiful Jasmine flower)
好一朵美麗的茉莉花 (what a beautiful Jasmine flower)
芬芳美麗滿枝椏 (beautifully they abound on the stems)
又香又白人人誇 (fragrant and white everyone praises them)
讓我來將你摘下 (let me pick you up)
送給別人家 (and give you away)
茉莉花呀茉莉花 (Jasmine flowers, Jasmine flowers)

Jasmine Flowers is based in Pentatonic scale

The melody of Jasmine Flowers is created with a pentatonic scale, very often referred to as a scale that gives oriental colors. If we sing Jasmine Flowers in solfege we can easily discover the pentatonic scale: the pitches of fa and ti do not exist. There are only six pitches: do, re, mi, so, la. It goes like this:

“mi mi so la do do la |so so la so|

mi mi so la do do la | so so la so|

so so so mi so | la la so|

mi re mi so mi re | do do re do|

mi re do mi re mi | so la do so |

re mi so re mi do la |so |

la do re mi |do re do la so”

Further interest

I find the three riddles Turandot gave the prince utterly brilliant. Here are the princess’ three questions and the prince’s answers:

What is born in the night and dies at dawn?

(The prince answered, “hope”.)

What heats warm like a flame, yet it is no flame?

(The prince answered, “blood”.)

What is the ice that gives you fire?

(The prince answered, “Turandot”.)

Published by Wowospot

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