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About this Piece

Composed: 1893-1895, 1901-1902
Length: c. 155 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (chime, cymbals, glockenspiel, triangle), 2 harps, and strings
First LA Phil performance (complete opera): February 4, 1995, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting (for Los Angeles Opera)

Discussing his dramatic interests in 1885, Debussy wrote a patron that he “would always prefer something in which, in some way, action would be sacrificed to the long-pursued expression of the feelings of the soul.”

He found what he was looking for when he attended a performance of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande at its premiere in May 1893. He had already read the published play and he began sketching ideas for an opera almost immediately. When he received Maeterlinck’s permission to use the play, he took it largely as given, cutting four scenes (with the author’s consent) and descriptive details from the dialogue.

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 Pelléas as Mélisande... 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.”

Debussy had a short score largely completed by the summer of 1895. He returned to it again to finish the orchestration and other details in preparation for its premiere at the Opéra-Comique in 1902, including creating or extending orchestral interludes in several places to cover scene changes.

Objective plot action is only one level of meaning in Maeterlinck’s drama, which is focused on psychological chiaroscuro and symbolic contrasts of light/vision/love and darkness/blindness/tragedy. The first scene is set in a forest in the vaguely medieval kingdom of Allemonde. Golaud, grandson of King Arkel, has been hunting, as the vigorous dotted notes of his theme suggest, and has lost both hounds and prey. He encounters Mélisande, whose past will remain a mystery. Golaud is attracted by her eyes and fey air of sorrow, and persuades her to follow him. In the next scene Geneviève, Golaud’s mother, reads a letter from him to his younger brother Pelléas, telling Pelléas that he has been married to Mélisande for six months and asking that if Arkel accepts her, a lamp should be lit to indicate that. Aged and nearly blind, Arkel forgives Golaud for marrying a stranger, and at the end of the scene Geneviève reminds Pelléas to light the lamp. More time passes, for in the third scene of Act I, Geneviève, Mélisande, and Pelléas are outside on the coast, seeking some relief from the gloomy half-light of the castle. A half-seen ship passes (with a chorus of sailors), and Pelléas and Mélisande are left alone for the first time.

At the beginning of Act II, Mélisande and Pelléas are outside by a well. Mélisande is attracted to the water, and her wedding ring fells into the well (to a harp arpeggio). The ring’s connection of her and Golaud seems more than symbolic, for at the moment it fell into the water, Golaud was thrown from his horse and injured. In the next scene, he lies in bed, tended by Mélisande, who again complains of the brooding darkness of the castle. Golaud is sympathetic until he notices the ring is missing; he roughly orders her out to search for it, aided by Pelléas. In the next scene she has Pelléas show her the eerie seaside grotto where she told Golaud that she lost the ring in the sea, and there they see three beggars in the moonlight.

In Act III Mélisande sits in a castle window brushing her long hair. Pelléas comes by outside under the window, and asks to kiss her hand, since he must leave the next day. Her hair falls over him as she leans out, but Golaud interrupts the scene and tells them to stop behaving childishly. Golaud leads Pelléas into the oppressive castle vaults, and warns him to stay away from Mélisande. In the final scene of the Act, Golaud tries to calm his rising jealousy, but interrogates his young son Yniold (by a previous relationship) about what he has seen pass between Pelléas and Mélisande, finally lifting Yniold up to spy into the room where Pelléas and Mélisande are quietly staring at a light.

As Act IV begins, Pelléas and Mélisande agree to meet one last time by the well where she lost her ring. Arkel joins Mélisande and expresses pity for her unhappiness. Golaud joins them, and becomes enraged by the sight of his wife and her innocent appearance. In the next scene, Yniold is outside, playing by the well, where he loses his golden ball and watches a flock of sheep and their shepherd pass. Pelléas and Mélisande arrive and finally speak clearly about their burgeoning love, in highly symbolic discussion of light and darkness. They hear the castle gate close, and rejoice in the idea of death as a kind of affirmation. Golaud enters and kills Pelléas with his sword; Mélisande flees.

Act V is a single scene in a castle room, where Mélisande lies in bed. The doctor in attendance offers some hope for her, but Arkel understands that she is dying. Golaud is consumed by remorse but also still jealous, questioning Mélisande about her relationship with Pelléas. She is delirious, though, as if in a dream, and he learns nothing concrete. Mélisande has recently given birth to a girl, and Arkel asks her to hold her child, as her own life slips away.

Debussy underlines Maeterlinck’s symbolism with astonishingly original music, even though his use of motifs to identify all the actors and other forces is quite Wagnerian. A carefully calculated, psychologically potent progression of rhythmic and harmonic development impels and closes the fateful circle of life and love, providing stunningly orchestrated musical gleams and shadows that flicker with the drama. Like Wagner, Debussy varies and develops each musical motif in accordance with the dramatic context. All except one, that is: “Notice that the motif which accompanies Mélisande is never altered,” the composer wrote. “It comes back in the Fifth Act unchanged in every respect because in fact Mélisande always remains the same and dies without anyone – only old Arkel, perhaps – ever having understood her.”

— John Henken


Words to Pelléas et Mélisande

The dramatic and lyrical power of Pelléas et Mélisande hangs on the fragility of Debussy’s score. All but one of the opera’s five acts emerge from hushed silence, and begin almost before we are aware of it. True, there are two forceful endings (to Acts 3 and 4) and one headlong opening (to Act 4); but for the rest, most take place somewhere near the threshold of our hearing.

In the darkness of the theater this is thrilling, but in a half-lit concert performance, such concentrated quietness can be harder to achieve.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s solution is to introduce a speaker, who brings us faint shadows of the story and helps through the power of her voice to adjust our ears to the hushed atmosphere. Perhaps, he said, she might be the child born in the play’s final moments, recalling from the distance of a lifetime.

All these spoken words are pillaged from Maurice Maeterlinck and are taken from three sources: his original French play, from which Debussy drew his libretto; two of the play's earliest translations into English; and – most fascinatingly – the author’s combative and poetic “Preface to Pelléas et Mélisande,” in which he defends himself against his critics – “I have been asked more than once if my dramas were really written for a puppet theater...” – and states his credo: “Art always works by detour and never acts directly.”

This was a credo Debussy understood from the moment he encountered Maeterlinck's text, and which led him to create from it an operatic and symphonic masterpiece.

— Gerard McBurney is a composer, writer, and broadcaster. He is currently Artistic Programming Advisor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Creative Director of the CSO’s Beyond the Score.