Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

Performed by the Orchestre National de France under Bernard Haitink, with Anne Sofie von Otter, Wolfgang Holzmair, Laurent Naouri, et al., or below by the Vienna Philharmonic and many more under Claudio Abbado

So here we are with our first opera of the July series for this year. I intentionally picked operas that were not the typical works you might hear in the opera house, but this one is actually hailed, at least nowadays, as a monumental achievement.

In fact, the creation of our work today indeed began before the turn of the century, but was not premiered until 1902. It gives us an interesting history, some stories of struggle, not just with the characters, but also of its creation, the composer’s writing and later completion of the work, as well as it finding its place in the modern repertoire.

I’m afraid these are going to be big articles, but then again, they’re big pieces. What I won’t talk about, in most cases, is the story. For one, it usually isn’t the product of the composer himself, but an adaptation of a pre-existing work, but that isn’t the case with all the works I’ll be talking about. I also don’t want to spoil it. That’s one of the few things that words do justice to, and they’ve been written about much better elsewhere. Go do your homework.

Debussy and Opera

Debussy had wanted to write an opera for some time, and even began in earnest on a project in which he eventually lost faith. He says:

For a long time I had been striving to write music for the theatre, but the form in which I wanted it to be was so unusual that after several attempts, I had given up on the idea.

We’ll talk a bit later about Wagner’s looming shadow, but after a few dismissed opera ideas, he finally settled on something. It was a work from “the poet and Wagner aficionado Catulle Mendès.” It’s no secret that the young Debussy was influenced by the German master, but Wikipedia also says he was likely swayed by more practical factors associated with the project, some assurance of fame and greater assurance of success, and the promise of a performance at the Paris Opera, as well as pleasing his father.

The composer’s eagerness to “sink his teeth into a project of substance” apparently overrided his judgment of the kind of project he wanted to take on, so he accepted, despite the conventional nature of the work. Of the process, he said, “My life is hardship and misery thanks to this opera. Everything about it is wrong for me,” and later expressed to Dukas that the work was “totally at odds with all that I dream about, demanding a type of music that is alien to me.” Doesn’t sound like much fun, but maybe it built in him a passion to create something he really believed in.

That was a decade before the work we’re discussing today, and by 1892 he had abandoned work on the nightmare that his efforts with Rodrigue et Chimène had become, and had interest in a play of one Maurice Maeterlinck entitled Pelléas et Mélisande. The original play was published in 1892, and a number of composers showed interest in it. People like Sibelius and Fauré wrote incidental music for it, and Schoenberg wrote a tone poem based on it, but only Debussy approached the writer to inquire about setting it as an opera. The playwright was amenable to the idea, even giving the composer freedom to make whatever cuts or adjustments to the text he felt necessary. But it didn’t stay friendly.

Trouble among Artists

Debussy did indeed remove four scenes from the work, and cut back in other places. Maeterlinck’s work was in prose, not poetry, and Debussy set it that way. Russian composers had toyed with this before, but it was quite uncommon in Europe. The composition was rather smooth, the short score having been completed by August of 1895. Perhaps smartly, he didn’t compete the full score until he was assured of a staging, which came from the Opèra-Comique. Thy agreed to a performance in 1898, and Debussy finished the score, which eventually was used for the rehearsals, in 1902.

But… promises of another kind caused problems.

The playwright’s “companion,” one Georgette Leblanc was an operatic soprano, famous for the role of Carmen in the Bizet opera of the same name. Debussy promised Maeterlinck that the role of Mèlisande would go to Leblanc, but this was not to happen.

Instead, someone else captured the hearts of Debussy and head of the Opèra-Comique Albert Carré. One Mary Garden had such a voice that after hearing her sing, the composer said, as quoted by Paul Holmes:

That was the gentle voice that I had heard in my inmost being, with its hesitantly tender and captivating charm, such that I had barely dared to hope for.

Welp, that makes things awkward.

Maeterlinck apparently first learned of this artistic betrayal in some newspaper ad, perhaps an article about the staging, or an advertisement for the production, I’m not sure. The Trouble with Maeterlinck section of the Wikipedia article goes into greater detail, but the playwright’s response involved his wishes for the work’s “immediate and decided failure” (also from Holmes), threats of legal action, and even physical violence. (Maeterlinck would later acquiesce, agreeing Debussy’s work was exceptional.)

Debussy and Wagner

When I decided on this piece for the blog schedule, having never heard it, I just assumed it was a very French, but also very Wagnerian piece. How could opera exist after Wagner and not be enormously influenced by it?

Well, Pelléas et Mélisande is kind of an answer to that. In fact, as Esa-Pekka Salonen says, Debussy’s composition of this opera was his own working out of his affections for Wagner, a vaccine maybe (my words). As below:

So the answer is noOpera doesn’t have to be either exactly like Wagner, or else something entirely different (like we will see next week). Not only did Debussy give us a modern, 20th century opera that was significant and spectacular and not derivative of Wagner, he gave us one of the quintessential works of French classical music. Indeed, Salonen claims it irrevocably influenced all French music that came after it.

But what is it about this work that makes it particularly unique? Let’s talk about that.


Well, if we’re talking about uniquities (a word English needs, as in ‘the things about something that are unique; its unique elements), we can mention a few things that the work does have in common with Wagner. For one, we don’t have the kinds of things that make opera boring for some and intensely satisfying for others: arias and big tunes. Wagner did away with the showy aspects of opera, where the story stops every few minutes for one of the performers to bask in the spotlight with a pretty song stuck in the middle of the action, like a product placement for the composer or the performer.

And indeed, if you’ve ever watched a Wagner opera, you see there’s continuous action, and usually tons of it, plenty of drama and tension and the kind of large strokes that people associate, for better or worse, with that name. And we hear that with Debussy as well. There’s no ‘stop, let’s have another pretty number now’ moment.

One would think that Wagner was the epitome of drama and theatrics, writing his own story, his own music, his own libretto, building his own hall for his works, all that kind of stuff, but in some ways, maybe, Debussy is even more dedicated to the storytelling aspects of the opera. As Salonen mentions above, we don’t even have some of the other common elements of opera, like duets, trios, etc. Solo arias aside, there’s almost no independent musical element of this work, a segment that can be plucked out as a standalone performance piece.

To take that even further, there’s almost nowhere in the work where more than one person is singing. It’s almost entirely dialogue, one person speaking (singing) to another, who then replies, or a narration of some kind or other, all adhering closely to the story, all the while furthering the story, or the  development of the relationship between the characters.

And what about the text? Interestingly, you may read (or hear from Salonen above) that there’s almost zero melisma in this work. You know what that is, you just don’t know you do. It’s when a single syllable is sung over multiple notes, that is to say, for example, a vowel sound (a-a-a-ah) where multiple notes are sung to that sound. We hear this tons in Mozart and the famous Italian operas, well, basically, everywhere. But Debussy’s setting of the text is particularly human in that it sets each individual syllable to its own sound, seeming even more to mimic human speech.


Something that’s so powerful about this work, so ethereal, amorphous, and kind of obsessively fascinating, is the plethora of ambiguities in the work, with large question marks everywhere.

For one, there’s the musical language this work is written in. I shan’t get into analyses, not because it would take too long (though it would), but because I’m really incapable of it, but the modern harmonic language of this work is a distinctly important quality. When we describe harmonies or harmonic language as ‘modern’ that isn’t always to say it’s atonal or dissonant, but the use of whole-tone scales, unprepared modulations, and certainly a particular comfort or more generous use of dissonance and more colorful, nonstandard chords are important, and we hear this in much of Debussy’s other work. Try the composer’s Nocturnes, for example.

In any case, this is one ambiguity, a sense of wavering, of being unsettled, something to create atmosphere and tension. The music is stunningly gorgeous, but conveys a quality that pervades the entire rest of the work in many other ways.

For example, the very beginning of the piece presents us with a character who is lost, who comes across another character who is lost, or else abandoned. We don’t know of Mélisande’s background or origin, but poof, there she is.

Spoiler alert.

Throughout the work, we also don’t have a definite, clear statement of the relationship between any of the characters. In one statement, simply put, it’s a love triangle, and that’s accurate, but in what degree? Poor Golaud, himself doubting and unsure, questioning Mélisande’s love for him or Pelléas, and indeed it seems he has reason to, but at each attempt to confirm his suspicions, he fails. There seems to be the greatest romantic tension between the two title characters, obviously, hence the title of the piece, but what are we to believe?

Act one ends with Pélleas offering to help Mélisande down a steep path, her refusal, and another question mark when she asks him why he may have to go away. In Act two, Mélisande, potentially feeling guilty about the incident with the ring, expresses her unhappiness in the in the castle and how gloomy it is. More lies and half-truths, the disappearance of the ring, etc.

Even Yniold is recruited to go and see what he can learn about the two. I said I wouldn’t give synopses, but all of these things, indecision, layers of deception, of vacillation, create tension and ambiguity that listeners must try to untangle and interpret for themselves. On the one hand, it can be thought of as a soggy, mushy, whiny indecisive mess, but for me, it’s human nature, and feelings ebb and flow, things change, get complicated, and how we view matters and even the matters themselves are constantly changing. Just when we think we’ve got something, it slips through our fingers. The final act of this opera is also an example of that, which we will talk about below as yet more musical evidence of what we’ve discussed.

More Music

Something else of note as far as music goes, that I wanted to discuss after the general mood of the piece, is how there are very few cataclysms, very few true climaxes in this work, perhaps just three or four really thunderous, great moments of full orchestral roar. This is another area in which Debussy’s piece differs from Wagner. As we’ve discussed above, it’s a piece of questions and ambiguities, of unsureness and raised eyebrows, and it happens largely in whispers. Don’t get me wrong, the music is sumptuous and lavish, intoxicatingly beautiful, addictive even, but the crunch and heft and violence that one would expect from Wagner (or, outside opera, Mahler or Bruckner) is not to be found but in a few rare places. (Spoiler alert) Even in Act five, at the very end of this piece, as our female lead is dying, she does so slowly and quietly, drawn out and resigned, not grandly and dramatically as Pélleas did. That one last final tragedy is wrung out slowly, but is it torturous, apathetic, resigned, indifferent, grievous? You decide.


So I feel, as always, that I’ve failed to convey what this work really means, really expresses, but I have at the very least gained an almost insatiable wonderment at what it says, or at least begun to appreciate it. With each listen, I want to listen to it, experience it, excavate it yet more, to try to unravel its secrets and gems, but thankfully, it never changes, never tells all, for then it would lose its magic. The answers are what you decide they are, I think, and while that may seem terribly cliché, we can at least appreciate a work of love and humanity, of tragedy and realism, a reflection of the human experience, and wonder at its beauty, majesty and mystery.

So that’s Debussy’s only opera. We move a little farther ahead in time next week with the two works we’ll be discussing then, so please do stay tuned. This is going to be an exciting month, and as always, merci beaucoup for reading.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s