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Pelléas et Mélisande, Suite, Op. 80

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Gabriel-Urbain Faure
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Lorin Maazel, conductor/Han-Na Chang, cello, performs Elgar Nov. 29 - Dec. 1, 2007
© Richard Freed

Maeterlinck's dramatic masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande had its premiere in Paris on May 17, 1893, and within a dozen years of that date no fewer than four distinguished composers, representing varied backgrounds and personal styles, responded to its peculiar fascination with masterworks of their own. Of these, the best-known and largest in scale is the opera by Claude Debussy, who began his project even before the play was produced and who enjoyed the collaboration of Maeterlinck himself. In 1903, the year after the premiere of Debussy's opera, Arnold Schoenberg, who at that time still pursued a more or less Romantic course in his compositions, and had considered an operatic treatment of Pelléas himself, completed instead the large-scale tone poem that was the first of his works for orchestra. Two years later Jean Sibelius composed a set of incidental music for the play which is one of the most remarkable of his several scores for the theater. Earlier than all of these was another set of incidental music, composed by Fauré at the request of Mrs. Patrick Campbell for her 1898 London premiere of an English translation of the play (which had been presented there in the original French three years earlier).

Fauré was not Mrs. Campbell's first choice. When she learned that Debussy was writing his opera, she approached him for music for her production, but he quite understandably declined, and Fauré was approached during his visit to London in April 1898. "I shall have barely a month and a half to write all this music," he wrote to his wife, adding, "It is true that part of it already exists in my big head!" With help from his pupil Charles Koechlin in orchestrating the score, which comprised more than a dozen numbers, he had it ready in time for the opening. A short time later he selected three numbers which he revised and reorchestrated to form the concert suite introduced in 1903.

The PRELUDE at once sets the mood of the drama, suggesting the character of Mélisande against a somber background. The horn calls toward the end of this section suggest the approach of Golaud to discover her in the forest. (The key to the mystery of her wandering is more than hinted at in a subsequent Maeterlinck drama, Ariane et Barbe-bleue, written specifically as an opera libretto for Paul Dukas; in that work one of Bluebeard's wives, who is especially timid and resistant to Ariane's rebellious plans, is named Mélisande.)

The piece headed FILEUSE ("The Spinner") served as the introduction to Act III, in whose first scene (not included in Debussy's opera) Mélisande, at her spinning wheel, talks with Golaud and his son Yniold.

The magical SICILIENNE was not part of the suite when it was first performed in 1901, but was added before the score was published eight years later. This piece had been sketched in 1893 as part of the incidental music for Molière's comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which Fauré never finished; it was published separately in a version for cello and piano (Op. 78), written for the English cellist William Henry Squire just before Fauré accepted the Pelléas commission from Mrs. Campbell. Koechlin's light-textured orchestration was retained for the Sicilienne, which, whatever its actual origin, seems to have come from nowehre but the special world of Pelléas. The suite's final movement, THE DEATH OF MÉLISANDE, served as prelude to the last act of the play. It is based on the music of a song for Mélisande in the preceding act - which in turn is related to the second motif in Fileuse. The music manages to combine lamentation with consolation, as one would expect from the composer of the much beloved Requiem of 1887.