Skip to page content

Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande (1902-1903) is one of several compositions that has come to be regarded as the last gasp of Romanticism -- or one of its grandest survivors -- while simultaneously suggesting a future path for music. In this respect, it has much in common with the old-new music of Gustav Mahler, whose Fifth and Sixth symphonies were taking shape at roughly the same time. Of the two composers, it was Schoenberg ("Schönberg" until moving to the United States in 1934) who at the turn of the century clung more tenaciously to the past, a past dominated above all by Richard Wagner's by then nearly half-a-century old Tristan und Isolde, whose themes, dramatic and musical, haunted Schoenberg.

The immediate inspiration for Pelleas und Melisandewas Maurice Maeterlinck's 1892 drama, which gave rise to numerous other musical treatments, most notably the incidental scores by Fauré and Sibelius and Debussy's opera -- the latter to serve as a guiding light for a generation and more of European composers.

The Belgian-born (in 1862) Maeterlinck and his misty Pelléas et Mélisande -- Schoenberg dropped the French accents, literally and figuratively -- proved to be the right man and play at the right time, presenting a shadowy, open-to-many-interpretations world of inner conflict. In this it served as a counterpoise, intentionally or not, to the socially-conscious naturalist drama (think Ibsen) that had long reigned in Europe. Maeterlinck's world of half-lights, of repressed and barely expressed emotions that could burst forth frenziedly, if briefly, proved ideal musical fodder.

If the Fauré and Sibelius scores mined the play's delicate poignancy and Debussy's its elements of longing, menace and mystery, Schoenberg took his cue from its dark, destructive passions.

The subject of Pelleas und Melisande was introduced to Schoenberg in 1901 by Richard Strauss, who had facilitated the younger man's move from Vienna to Berlin and helped him obtain a position at one of the city's outstanding music schools, the Stern Conservatory. Strauss thought Maeterlinck's play had operatic potential and that Schoenberg was the man for the job. Neither composer was at the time aware of Debussy's opera-in-progress. Schoenberg, still unaware of what had happened four months earlier in Paris -- i.e., the well-publicized (there) premiere of Debussy's work -- began his symphonic poem in July of 1902.

"I had planned then to convert Pelléas et Mélisande into an opera," Schoenberg recalled many years later in a radio talk, "but I gave up this plan, though I did not know that Debussy was working on an opera at the same time. I still regret that I did not carry out my original intention. It would have differed from Debussy's. [Why, one wonders, didn't Strauss, who must have been in the know, keep him better informed?] I might have missed the wonderful perfume of the poem; but I might have made my characters more singing. On the other hand, the symphonic poem helped me, in that it taught me to express moods and characters in precisely formulated units, a technique which an opera would perhaps not have promoted so well. Thus my fate evidently guided me with great foresight." Another instance of Schoenberg the lecturer sounding so much more schoolmasterish, so much more cold-blooded and damned practical, than his music.

During the summer of 1903 the composer returned to Vienna for the premiere of his Pelleas und Melisande. Of that event he wrote, "The first performance... under my own direction, provoked a riot among the audience and even among the critics. Reviews were unusually harsh and one of the critics suggested that I be put into an asylum, with music paper kept out of my reach."

Another of the negative reviews, written by the critic Ludwig Karpath, who plays a part as well in Mahler's career, is worth quoting: "Schönberg's Pelleas und Melisande is not just filled with discords, in the sense that Don Quixote by Strauss is, but constitutes in itself a discord lasting fifty minutes. This is to be taken literally. What else might be concealed behind this cacophony is difficult to guess."

What was concealed, from Dr. Karpath at any rate, is in fact a clear symphonic structure, based on sonata form, while its outer-limits chromaticism is undeniable, centered on the key of D minor -- the key, not incidentally, of the other work on this Los Angeles Philharmonic program.

It took only five years for the musical world to realize that Schoenberg was not deranged, or that the work was not irredeemably cacophonous, merely dense and demanding. By 1910, with more futuristic creations by the composer already exposed to the world, e.g., the epochal First Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, and the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16, Pelleas may have seemed relatively comforting when Oskar Fried conducted it in Berlin, to a generally favorable reception.

Pelleas und Melisande, scored for a huge orchestra, is to our ears at once spectacularly complex and accessible. Its motives are continually surrounded by counter-motives, with at one point five different themes sounded simultaneously. Yet it is as rapturously, achingly melodic as the equally hyper-Romantic Schoenberg creations that surround it: the string sextet Verklärte Nacht and the massive Gurrelieder cantata.

The symphonic poem is in one continuous movement divided into four parts, each corresponding to a movement of a classical symphony. The "action" mirrors that of Maeterlinck's play. The introduction deals with the discovery of the mysterious, waif-like Melisande by Golaud, Pelleas's step-brother, as she weeps, lost (as is Golaud) in the forest.

Golaud's theme is announced by three horns, Melisande's by a descending figure that begins in the oboe and is completed by English horn. These two themes and a "fate" motive (heard almost at the beginning, in the bass clarinet) alternate and mingle with Pelleas's theme, which had begun as a muted trumpet solo and developed into a heroic pronouncement for full orchestra.

Part II, the symphony's scherzo, if you will, opens with the scene of Melisande -- now married to Golaud -- losing her wedding ring in a well, to Golaud a particularly ominous sign. The famous "tower scene," immortalized in Debussy's opera, follows. Melisande is combing her hair in a window of the castle's tower. Her tresses cascade down the tower wall and are caressed by the enraptured Pelleas. Golaud angrily interrupts the scene. The ensuing section of part two depicts the increasingly agitated and by now dangerously jealous Golaud leading Pelleas through a series of dank caverns, pointing out images of death.

Part III, the symphonic adagio, is a wordless love duet for Pelleas and Melisande, which rises to a thrilling climax reminiscent of the most heated moments of the Act II love duet of Tristan und Isolde. As they embrace, Golaud rushes toward Pelleas, fatally wounding him with his sword.

In Part IV, after having borne Golaud a daughter, Melisande is on her death bed. She begs the repentant Golaud to believe that her and Pelleas's love was innocent, "like the love of children". Melisande dies and in a magnificently lush, poignant epilogue all the principal themes are intertwined, with the "fate" motive prominent. The piece ends bleakly, with the theme of the tragedy's catalyst and its stricken survivor, Golaud.

-- Note by Herbert Glass, English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.

DETAILS:

Composed:
1902-03

Length: 44 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes
(3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 5 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbal, field drum, glockenspiel, tam tam, triangle), 2 harps, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 6, 1966, Hans Swarowsky conducting