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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: Matthias Pintscher, conductor: Karen Gomyo, violin, plays Pintscher's Mar'eh / Works by Fauré & Ravel Feb. 19 - 21, 2015
© Thomas May

When our guest conductor for this program first began composing in his teens, his sensitivity to the French composer Debussy was already apparent. The French aesthetic - in particular as it helped paved the way toward modernism - remains a significant thread in Matthias Pintscher's thinking as both a conductor and a composer. For example, he found the inspiration for his first opera, L'space denier ("The Final Space," which premiered in 2004), in his ongoing fascination with the life and work of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, even crafting his own libretto in French.

Both of the French works on our program - which frame the U.S. premiere of Pintscher's Mar'eh - involve music written for the stage. Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) is best known for his Requiem and chamber music, but another of his most popular works is the result of a commission he took on to write incidental music for the play Pelléas et Mélisande. Fauré had already written stage music for productions of Alexandre Dumas père's Caligula and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice when, in 1898, he was asked by the celebrity English actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell (née Beatrice Stella Tanner) to supply an incidental score for a new production of Pelléas et Mélisande to be given in English on the London stage.

Pelléas et Mélisande had its premiere in Paris in 1893. This epochal play by the Belgian poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), one of the masterpieces of the Symbolist movement, left its mark not only on fellow writers and poets but on a wide range of composers as well - most famously, Claude Debussy, who immediately embarked on his project of transforming Maeterlinck's play into an opera. That goal would take nearly a full decade to reach the stage, however; Debussy declined to draw on "excerpts" of the opera in progress, though he had in fact been Mrs. Campbell's first choice of composer.

The older Fauré produced his score at great speed, creating 17 numbers of incidental music within less than a month. But that doesn't count the task of orchestrating this material, which he handed over to his student Charles Koechlin. Fauré supervised the orchestration, making suggestions along the way. The production, which opened in June 1898, enjoyed great success (engendering a certain amount of professional jealousy on the part of Debussy) and eventually toured to the U.S. Mrs. Campbell continued to reuse the score in revivals over the years. Meanwhile, Fauré excerpted several numbers from the stage music to fashion a separate concert suite. While doing so he revised Koechlin's orchestration (for all but one of the numbers in the Suite), in general thickening the textures and slightly expanding the orchestra beyond the quasi-chamber pit ensemble that had played in the theater. (Another chapter of its afterlife has been Balanchine's use of the Pelléas music for his evening of various ballets, Jewels.)

Maeterlinck's shadowy drama of doomed love represents a Symbolist reflection on the timeless love triangle (as found, say, in Tristan and Isolde, which it resembles in some ways, in particular in the minimalism of its plot). The tale revolves around the figures of the mysterious young Mélisande, who is found at the beginning wandering in a forest by Prince Golaud. Golaud rescues and marries Mélisande. But at his castle she and Golaud's step-brother Pelléas discover their mutual attraction. The jealous Golaud stalks and kills his rival. Mélisande reveals her innocence but dies while giving birth, leaving a remorseful Golaud.

One reason Maeterlinck cast such a spell on composers of the time was later expressed by Arnold Schoenberg, whose first major work for orchestra was a tone poem inspired by the play (1902-03).  (He'd initially planned to write an opera, only to discover that Debussy had done just that.) Schoenberg lauded Maeterlinck for "his art of dramatizing eternal problems of humanity in the form of fairy-tales, lending them timelessness without adhering to imitation of ancient styles." Another world-class composer to find inspiration here was Jean Sibelius, who likewise wrote incidental music for a production, later turning it into suites for the concert hall and solo piano.

The first of the four numbers in Fauré's Suite serves as a prelude to the opening act. Set in G major, this gentle music introduces a theme associated with the lost Mélisande, as well as a sense of the dreamy elusiveness of Maeterlinck's drama overall. Golaud's presence is indicated near the end by hunting horn calls. There follows a genre set piece, also in G major, of the heroine at her spinning wheel, Fileuse ("The Woman Who Spins") - the prelude to Maeterlinck's third act (the scene of the spinning Mélisande was omitted by Debussy in his opera). Figuring her work at the wheel are the incessant triplets played by muted first violins, the backdrop to the oboe's expressive melody.

There's an interesting background story to the third number, a G minor Sicilienne (referring to a type of dance written, as here, in a lilting 6/8 meter. This is the most familiar number of the score, yet it's the one Fauré did not write specifically for Maeterlinck's play. In fact, he recycled this tune from a score projected for the Molière comedy (!) Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme from several years earlier (a project that was abandoned), later reusing it as a chamber piece for cello and piano as well. Why interpolate such relatively lighthearted music in this context? (Fauré in fact decided to add this number to the Suite at a later stage.) The biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux points out that we should recall the dramatic situation here, which is as a prelude to the second act, when Mélisande and Pelléas are playing together by a well (one of the play's most memorable symbols). "This piece," writes Nectoux, "is absolutely right for introducing one of the few playful scenes in the drama in which, for one brief instant, Pelléas and Mélisande seem to escape their destiny and enjoy a few brief moments of unclouded happiness."

La mort de Mélisande ("The Death of Mélisande") is from the prelude to the final act and epitomizes the tasteful balance of sentiment and restraint, of emotion and poise, that defines Fauré's approach to Maeterlinck's great drama. This sad music was heard during the funeral ceremonies held in honor of the composer himself in 1924.