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Composed: 1893-95, 1901-02
Length: 25 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, glockenspiel), 2 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: September 2, 1954, Pierre Monteux conducting (interludes); February 4, 1995, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, for Los Angeles Opera (complete opera)
Like Wagner, Debussy preferred the "lucid exposition of inner motives" to historical incident and physical action in a music drama. In June 1885 he wrote to his patron Eugène Vasnier: "I would always prefer something in which, in some way, action would be sacrificed to the long-pursued expression of the feelings of the soul."
Debussy found what he was looking for when he attended a performance of Maurice Maeterlinck's play Pelléas et Mélisande in May 1893. He began sketching ideas for an opera on the subject almost immediately, and when he received Maeterlinck's permission to use the play he made very few cuts.
Debussy worked at his opera fairly steadily for two years (during which he also completed the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune), though not without numerous starts and stops. In October 1893, for example, he wrote to the composer Ernest Chausson: "I was hasty in singing a victory song for Pelléas et Mélisande as, after one of those sleepless nights that always is a good counselor, I had to recognize that this wasn't it at all. The thing resembled a duo of Mr. So-and-So, or it doesn't matter whom, and most of all the ghost of Old Klingsor, alias R. Wagner, appeared at the turn of a measure. So I tore everything up and struck out searching for a new chemistry of more personal phrases, and strove to become as much Pelleas as Melisande... Quite spontaneously I've made use of a means of expression that seems to me quite special, which is silence - Don't laugh! It acts as an agent of expression and perhaps is the only means of giving full value to the emotion of a phrase."
One of the things Debussy did to support himself while composing Pélleas was to play Wagner's scores - including Tristan - on the piano for private salons. There are many points of connection between Tristan and Pélleas besides the love-and-betrayal storyline, including Debussy's own highly idiosyncratic use of identifying leitmotifs.
But there are at least as many points of departure, beginning with the use of the French language - Wagner was horrified by the thought of Tristan translated into French - and Debussy's one-syllable-per-note respect for its inflections. Then there is Debussy's revolutionary use of silence in many contexts, a psychologically expressive and structurally articulate silence.
Debussy had the vocal score largely completed by the summer of 1895. In the years before Pelléas was finally staged at the Opéra-Comique in 1902, there was much interest in the score among French musicians. Debussy was very reluctant, however, to let the music be heard out of context. He vetoed the idea of concert selections, writing in October 1896 that in such circumstances "you could not hold it against anyone for not understanding the special eloquence of silences, with which the work is star-studded."
Once the work was well-established - having been performed 100 times in Paris within its first ten years - Debussy was less paranoid about sampling it in concert. After his death several adaptations for orchestra were made, including a version by the French-Romanian composer Marius Constant. One of the problems confronting Debussy during rehearsal was that he had not allowed enough time for scene changes, so he had to create or extend orchestral interludes in several places. This Suite, which includes music from all five acts and is based on a suite arranged by Erich Leinsdorf, draws mainly on these interludes.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.