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Length: 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 21, 1948, Charles Munch conducting
The deeply brooding atmosphere of the symbolist Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck's play Pelléas et Mélisande has cast its spell on composers as diverse nationalistically, temperamentally, and stylistically as the Frenchmen Debussy and Fauré, the Austrian Schoenberg, the Finn Sibelius, and the Englishman Cyril Scott. Interestingly, it was Gabriel's Fauré's incidental music for a production of the drama in London that was the first Pelléas score to be presented to the public. Although Debussy completed the vocal score of his opera in 1895, the opera was not completed and staged until 1902; Fauré's incidental music, written on commission from the celebrated actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell for a London production of the drama in an English translation, was performed in 1898.
The chronology of the Debussy and Fauré Pélleases is simply a statistic; the works themselves are poles apart. Debussy's music profoundly reflects the infinite shades of subtle symbolism permeating the story and its characters. As incidental music, Fauré's score functions on a much less immediate dramatic level. It must be said, as well, and importantly, that Fauré's muse was a quite different aesthetic creature than that of his generation-younger colleague. A precursor of the Debussian French music labeled Impressionism, Fauré was fastidious, serene, his works characterized by limpid melodies that float on a sea of harmonic elegance, their sails often billowed by modality, an element that conjures a soft, antique ambiance.
Fauré composed the Pelléas incidental music in a very short period of time, so rapidly in fact, that as each piece was finished in short score, he sent it to his pupil Charles Koechlin for orchestration. Koechlin's scoring was for a small orchestra, appropriate for the music's theatrical use. Later, when Fauré decided to extract three sections of the score to make a concert suite, he re-orchestrated these parts for larger forces. Several years later, the Sicilienne, now probably the best-known of the pieces, was added (in Koechlin's original orchestration) to the Suite making it the four-movement work we now know.
The opening Prelude (to Act I of the play) sets a tone of quiet mystery that suffuses the scene with subtle suggestions of the inevitable tragedy surrounding the attraction between Mélisande and Pelléas, her husband Golaud's brother. Following a restrained climax, a horn call announces Golaud's appearance.
In the second movement, Fileuse (the spinner), a most delicate picture of Mélisande at a spinning wheel, is etched as rapid triplet figures in the violins propel the wheel while a solo oboe sings limpidly.
The serenely cool, pastoral Sicilienne sets a solo flute against harp and pizzicato string accompaniment. In the play, the piece introduced the fountain scene where Mélisande loses her wedding ring in the water.
The music for the Suite's final section, used as the prelude to the last act, finds Fauré setting the tragic mood for the death of Mélisande. As in his most affecting songs, the composer remains poised even when plumbing deep emotions.
- Orrin Howard served as the Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives for more than 20 years. He continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.