The Kennedy Center

Pelléas and Mélisande

About the Work

Image for Sibelius Composer: Jean Sibelius
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Maurice Maeterlinck's haunting and haunted play Pelléas et Mélisande, premiered in Paris in 1893, embodies the Symbolist poets' philosophy that mood is more important than plot. Such incidents as occur in the drama often defy logical continuity, seeming rather to be isolated events intended to suggest associations and feelings to the audience through the use of language and setting. Robert Layton summarized the plot in his study of Sibelius: "Pelléas is set in mythical Allemonde, the protagonists in the drama remain shadowy and we are left knowing little or nothing of their background. Prince Golaud out riding one day discovers Mélisande, weeping and lost in the forest, and takes her under his protection. Maeterlinck's play charts her growing infatuation for his younger half-brother, Pelléas, and Golaud's ensuing jealousy." The play inspired incidental music from Gabriel Fauré for a 1898 production in London, a full-length opera from Claude Debussy in 1902, and a vast symphonic poem from Arnold Schoenberg the following year, as well as incidental music-preludes to seven scenes, two melodramas (i.e., musical background to spoken dialogue) and a song for Mélisande-from Jean Sibelius for a 1905 staging of Bertel Gripenberg's Finnish translation in Helsinki. Sibelius conducted the premiere at the Swedish Theater on March 17, 1905, and arranged his incidental music into a concert suite later that year, retaining all the movements except for one prelude.

At the Castle Gate, the production's overture, establishes the majestic but brooding atmosphere of the castle of King Arkel, grandfather of Golaud and Pelléas. Mélisande, a valse triste for English horn, precedes the scene in which Golaud discovers the frail, mysterious maiden in the forest. At the Seashore occurs just after the first, fateful meeting of Pelléas and Mélisande, now married to Golaud. Pelléas and Mélisande are drawn together again at A Spring in the Park, where Mélisande accidentally drops her wedding ring into the water. Mélisande sings the sad, folk-like ballad The Three Blind Sisters from her window before Pelléas arrives for a playful but sensuous encounter. The Pastorale accompanies the brothers as they emerge from the gloomy vaults of the castle into the fresh midday air, when Golaud lectures Pelléas about his conduct with Mélisande, who is pregnant. Mélisande at the Spinning Wheel transmutes the whirring motion of the wheel into an uneasy anticipation of the unfolding tragedy. The spirited Entr'acte, the prelude to Act IV, may have been intended as a bright foil to the events that follow, but the composer's biographer Robert Layton cited the movement as an example of Sibelius' "sheer joy in music-making." The drama ends with The Death of Mélisande in childbirth, after Golaud has slain Pelléas in a fit of jealous rage.