The Kennedy Center

Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5

About the Work

Arnold Schoenberg Composer: Arnold Schoenberg
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document

Schoenberg composed his tone poem Pelleas und Melisande between July 1902 and February 1903, and conducted the premiere on January 26, 1905, in Vienna. In the present concerts the National Symphony Orchestra is giving its first performances of this work.

The score calls for piccolo, 3 flutes and a second piccolo; 3 oboes, English horn; 3 clarinets and bass clarinet, a second bass clarinet, and E-flat clarinet; 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 5 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, field drum, cymbal, triangle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, 2 harps, and strings. Approximate duration, 42 minutes.


Maurice Maeterlinck's play Pelléas et Mélisande is an obvious, if unexpected, link between the two composers whose music frames the present concerts. The play, first produced in Paris in 1893, drew remarkable music from four eminent composers of disparate tendencies and techniques. Even before the play was produced, Debussy got together with Maeterlinck to turn it into an opera, which was eventually introduced in 1902. Jean Sibelius composed a set of exquisite incidental music for a Finnish production of the play in 1905, and seven years earlier Gabriel Fauré composed a score for a production in London. Fauré is perhaps, of all composers, the one whose general style might be thought to have suited him best for such an assignment, though in his case, as in Sibelius's, the idea was not his own but simply a commission from the play's producer. (Both Fauré and Sibelius, however, did undertake on their own initiative to prepare concert suites from their music for the play.) Arnold Schoenberg is perhaps the composer one might have thought least suited, or in any event the least likely to be responsive, to the idea of dealing musically with Maeterlinck's play, but in it provided him with subject material for his most expansive orchestral work. Before Debussy's opera was produced, in fact, he too had considered an operatic treatment. His only unusual gesture was to reject the specifically French form of the title: he labeled his score Pelleas und Melisande, omitting the accents Maeterlinck placed on the two names .

As Schoenberg himself pointed out repeatedly, he was not born an atonalist or a 12-tone composer. Pelleas und Melisande is one of several large-scaled works he produced early in his creative life which, we might say, represent more of a capstone to the Romantic era we think of as having ended with the end of the 19 th century than anything heralding the new roads to be taken in the 20 th --though it was this tone poem, completed before he was 30 years old, that provided some of the specific impetus toward his own later style, in which he concentrated on shorter forms.

Pelleas und Melisande is, properly speaking, Schoenberg's sole venture into the realm of the symphonic poem, since his better-known, and by now widely beloved, Transfigured Night is not a symphonic work but one written in 1899 as chamber music--a string sextet, subsequently expanded by the composer to the familiar setting for string orchestra. Transfigured Night is in a single movement about a half-hour long; by the time he conducted the premiere of his Pelleas, in 1905, Schoenberg had finished most of the orchestration of his massive choral work Gurre-Lieder, though that work would not be completed and performed till 1912, the year after the death of Gustav Mahler.

It would be unthinkable to discuss this music without invoking Mahler's name, for the music itself would very likely have been unthinkable without Mahler. Schoenberg and his disciples revered him, and energetically castigated the public whose failure to understand his music caused Mahler himself to lose faith in it. Those huge early works of Schoenberg's were part and parcel of the same terminal effusion of Romanticism that gave birth to Mahler's symphonies; their vastness, in terms of both content and means, is of the same nature. Mahler, who died in his 51 st year (in 1911), was, however, of a temperament somewhat different from Schoenberg's, and would probably not have been impelled toward shorter forms or the other innovations Schoenberg devised. In any event, his artistic destiny was fulfilled within a generally Romantic frame, while Schoenberg's was to encompass stylistic explorations which earned him distinction on his own terms--without, however, invalidating any of the achievements of his earlier periods.

Schoenberg's Pelleas is about the same length, in terms of performance time, as Strauss's tone poem A Hero's Life , which preceded it by a half-dozen years. While Strauss was attacked in some quarters for his blatant celebration of himself in that score, the work was taken into the repertory and has never left it. Pelleas, on the other hand, was received with hostility on the part of both the public and the critics (Ludwig Karpath, reviewing the premiere, described the work as "a 50-minute-longwrong note," and one of his colleagues suggested confining Schoenberg to an asylum in which paper would be kept out of his reach), and has never made much of an inroad toward repertory status, even though the initial hostility disappeared after a few years and the performances Schoenberg himself was able to conduct years later in France, Russia and the United States were well received. In hearing the music now, we can understand the good response it enjoyed in those few performances, and we must wonder about its long neglect, for it is at once one of the most opulent, the most expressive and the most accessible of the Tristan -touched works of its remarkable period.

Strauss's presence in this discussion is quite as apt as Mahler's, for Strauss, who was only ten years older than Schoenberg but since his twenties one of the most respected composers of his time, took an encouraging interest in his young colleague's work. It was at Strauss's suggestion, in fact, that Schoenberg considered an operatic Pelleas before settling on the symphonic poem. He did not know Debussy's opera, which had its premiere in Paris only ten weeks before he started work on his own Pelleas in Berlin (where Strauss had helped him get a teaching position), but simply decided that the symphonic poem would be the right response for him to what he described as Maeterlinck's "art if dramatizing eternal problems of humanity in the form of fairy-tales, lending them timelessness without adhering to imitation of ancient styles."

Like Strauss's Heldenleben, Schoenberg's Pelleas does break down into discernible sections, though they are linked without breaks in the score. Schoenberg's disciple Alban Berg published an analysis of the score in which he described its four sections as the movements of a programmatic symphony; these may be summarized as follows:

1. Sonata movement with a slow introduction ("In the forest"), leading to an exposition in which a "Fate" theme is introduced and then the theme of Mélisande (oboe, then English horn). Golaud's appearance is signaled by soft horns; his theme is then taken up by the orchestra to describe his assuring the frightened young woman and taking her to his father's castle as his bride. Following a brief transitional section, Pelléas makes his appearance, his motif bespeaking youthful vigor, nobility and idealism; by way of a sort of "extended coda" there is a section representing "Mélisande's awakening to love."

2. A scherzo, beginning with the scene at the well, where Mélisande plays with her wedding ring till it falls from her finger into the well's depth. At that moment Golaud, riding in the woods, mysteriously falls from his horse. An interlude representing Golaud's developing suspicion leads to the touching scene between Pelléas and Mélisande at the tower window, the scene in which her long hair falls over his face. In another change of scene, the huge orchestra is used brilliantly to depict the scene in which Golaud escorts his half-brother through the menacing darkness of the castle's underground vaults, and the long scherzo ends with a representation of the lovers' tryst at the well, which serves a "bridge section" to Part 3.

3. The symphony's "slow movement," an exquisite Adagio limning the love scene and farewell of Pelléas and Mélisande. As they embrace for the last time before parting, the enraged Golaud springs from his concealment to slay Pelléas with his sword.

4. The death of Mélisande. A grand summing-up is suggested by the references to the work's earlier sections. Mélisande has given birth to a daughter and now lies dying. Golaud, remorseful but still torn by jealousy, is assured by her that her love for Pelléas had been innocent. The servants enter, to kneel at Mélisande's bedside as she dies. With her passing the intensity is lifted: in a poignant epilogue the music achieves a purity and serenity reflecting the character of the tragic heroine and her fairy-tale world, and the end is soft and simple.

(A clue to how Mélisande came to be wandering in the woods when Golaud found her is found in a subsequent Maeterlinck opera. In his Ariane et Barbe-bleu, which he wrote specifically to serve as the libretto for Paul Dukas's opera of that title, one of Bluebeard's surviving wives is named Mélisande.)