About this Recording
8.660047-49 - DEBUSSY: Pelleas et Melisande

Claude Debussy was born in 1862, the son of a shop-keeper who was later to turn his hand to other activities, with varying success

Claude Debussy was born in 1862, the son of a shop-keeper who was later to turn his hand to other activities, with varying success. He started piano lessons at the age of seven and continued two years later, improbably enough, with Verlaine's mother-in-law, who claimed to have been a pupil of Chopin. In 1872 he entered the Conservatoire, where he abandoned the plan of becoming a virtuoso pianist, turning his principal attention to composition. In 1880, at the age of eighteen, he was employed by Tchaikovsky's patroness Nadezhda von Meck as tutor to her children and house-musician. On his return to the Conservatoire he entered the class of Bizet's friend Ernest Guiraid and in 1884 won the Prix de Rome, the following year reluctantly taking up obligatory residence, according to the terms of the prize, at the Villa Medici in Rome, where he met Liszt. By 1887 he was back in Paris, winning his first significant success in 1900 with Nocturnes and going on, two years later, to a succes de scandale with his opera Pelleas et Melisande, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, a work that established his position as a composer of importance.


Debussy's personal life brought some unhappiness in his first marriage in 1899 to a mannequin, Lily Texier, after a liaison of some seven years with Gabrielle Dupont and a brief engagement in 1894 to the singer Therese Roger. His association from 1903 with Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker and an amateur singer, led eventually in 1908 to their marriage. In the summer of 1904 he had abandoned his wife, moving into an apartment with Emma Bardac, and the subsequent attempt at suicide by the former, who had shared with him the difficulties of his early career, alienated a number of his friends. His final years were darkened by the war and by cancer, the cause of his death in March 1918, when he left unfinished a planned series of chamber music works, only three of which had been completed.


As a composer Debussy must be regarded as one of the most important and influential figures of the earlier twentieth century. His musical language suggested new paths to be further explored, while his poetic and sensitive use of the orchestra and of keyboard textures opened still more possibilities. His opera Pelleas et Melisande and his songs demonstrated a deep understanding of poetic language, revealed by his music, expressed in terms that never overstated or exaggerated.


The Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck was a close contemporary of Debussy, born in Ghent in 1862. He occupies an important position in the development of the Belgian and French Symbolist movements and, after starting his career as a poet, established himself in the theatre with a series of plays, set in a mysterious dream-world of mystic implication, haunted by the inexorability of fate. Debussy had sought permission to set Maeterlinck's play La Princesse Maleine, staged in Paris in 1890 and considered by Satie as a possible opera. Maeterlinck refused Debussy his permission but three months after the latter had seen the single Paris performance of Pelleas et Melisande at the Theatre des Bouffes-Parisiens on 17th May 1893, he allowed the composer to set the work to music, later demanding a principal role for his then mistress Georgette Leblanc. Debussy's refusal to engage her as the first Melisande, a role taken by Mary Garden at the first staging of the work by the Paris Opera-Comique on 30th April

1902, led to a quarrel and to Maeterlinck's expressed disapproval of the opera.


Debussy's opera Pelleas et Melisande was written over a period of years, starting at once, in 1893, with the fourth act love scene between Pelleasand Melisande. Work continued in the following years, but not in order, with the final composition of the second act in the summer of 1895. The opera was accepted in 1898 by the Opera-Comique, leading Debussy to work on a vocal score and a full orchestral score, but after this, during rehearsals for the first staging in 1902 and again for subsequent productions in Brussels and in London, Debussy made a number of changes, not fully represented in the second published edition. These included the lengthening of orchestral interludes between acts and scenes, at the request of the first conductor, Andre Messager, for very practical purposes of scene-changes. The present recording takes account of some of the further changes noted by Debussy in his own copy of the score.


In writing his opera, Debussy made various necessary changes in the original play, with the approval of Maeterlinck. Principally these changes involved the opening scene, where maidservants were seen attempting vainly to wash away stains from the steps and gate of the castle and repetitions and descriptive elements in the text, which served the original dramatic function of stage directions. The result is a work that is even more mysteriously allusive and elusive. It is clear that Erik Satie had some influence over the direction that Debussy's music and Pelleas et Melisande in particular were to take. Influenced himself by the painter Puvis de Chavannes, Satie avoided the Wagnerian, which was alien to him, but urged a form of music that was French, completely without choucroute, music that might follow the artistic theories of Puvis de Chavannes, with his search for the indistinct, floating background in painting. Satie himself claimed to have turned Debussy away from the Wagnerian and from the influence of Mussorgsky to the creation of musical scenery and a musical atmosphere in which characters might move, without traditional formal restraints and without the heavy trappings of the Wagnerian Leitmotif.


Whatever the views that Debussy had by then formed on Wagnerian methods of structure and symbolism, in Pelleas et Melisande he certainly associated certain characters, moods and events with musical motifs, as, for example, in the short motif associated with Melisande, which, as Debussy pointed out, was not developed, but remained unchanged, as it re-appeared. The search for Leitmotifs, however, has afforded pleasure to a number of writers who have excavated from the score meaningful motif after motif. Others have been careful to point out the harmonic debt to Wagner, in particular to Tristan und Isolde and its famous Prelude. Nevertheless, it must be at once apparent to an audience that Pelleas et Melisande is essentially French and essentially a reflection of its original, of the spirit of the time and of a legacy that took part of its mystery from the work of Edgar Allan Poe, part from the Nazarenes and Pre-Raphaelites and part from contemporary impressionism.


In 1902 the opera met with mixed reactions. Pelleas et Melisande, after all, deliberately defied the conventions of French grand opera, lacking the clarity of a well defined structure and the customary accoutrements. Conservatoire students, who had been forbidden to attend the rehearsals or performances, attended in increasing numbers, Dukas and Vincent d'lndy approved, Satie abandoned any further attempt at opera himself, finding that Debussy had said it all (Plus rien a faire de ce cote-la: il faut chercher autre chose ou je suis perdu), while Florent schmitt, Ravel and the pianist Ricardo Vines attended every performance. Maeterlinck's play already enjoyed popularity and had drawn incidental music from Faure and from sibelius and a symphonic poem from schoenberg. In London Maeterlinck had taken particular pleasure in Mrs. Patrick Campbell's appearance as Melisande, in a dress designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Debussy's setting created a new work that reflected and accentuated the elusive symbolism of the original drama, taking it into a world that evoked an immediate response in a series of performances abroad, in Brussels, Frankfurt, New York, Milan, Munich, Berlin, Prague and London, and constant revivals in Paris. While Richard strauss could find in it no music, no musical phrases and no development, and Camille saint-saens and Rimsky-Korsakov deplored the lack of thematic interest, others were outspoken in their praise, hailing a composer superior to Wagner and equal to Mozart. Without indulging in the excesses of hyperbole, it must be admitted that in Pelleas et Melisande Debussy had written a major work, innovative, even revolutionary, it suggested a new world of music, yet, in its own very French way, it may be seen as part of the spirit of the age, of the fin de siecle and its aesthetic principles.


Keith Anderson

(based on information supplied by Ates Orga)



Summary of the Plot

CD 1

Out hunting in the forest and having lost his way, Golaud, half-brother of Pelleas and grandson of Arkel, King of Allemonde, now a widower, meets the strange woman-child Melisande, weeping. He takes her with him and marries her, as he tells his half-brother in a letter, seeking some sign of his grandfather's approval, which is granted and signified by a lighted lamp in the window of Arkel's castle. In the third scene Melisande arrives at the castle, greeted by Genevieve and by her second son, Pelleas, who now plans to go away.


The second act finds Pelleas and Melisande together by a fountain in the park of the castle. She plays with the ring that Golaud has given her, throwing it up into the air and catching it. The ring falls into the water and cannot be retrieved and Golaud should be told the truth about what has happened. In a room in the castle Melisande is with Golaud, injured when his horse fell on him, at the moment that she lost the ring. Melisande is troubled with foreboding and when Golaud sees that her wedding-ring has gone, she tells him she dropped it on the shore, looking for shells for his son Yniold. He insists that she go out to look for it, with Pelleas. She leaves the room, in tears. By the entrance to a cave with Pelleas, Melisande must know the scene, in case Golaud questions her, although her ring had not fallen there. In the cave they see three old men asleep, victims of famine, and she draws back in fear, before they both hurry away.


CD 2

The third act opens on one of the towers of the castle. It is a beautiful summer night and Melisande is combing her long hair by an open window. Pelleas, below, begs her to come out, since he plans to leave in the morning. She lets her hair down and he fondles it in delight. Their conversation is interrupted by Golaud, who sees them as a pair of children. In the following scene Golaud takes Pelleas down to the castle vaults, a threat implied, as he tells Pelleas to lean over the stagnant pool there and smell the scent of death. Outside again, in the fresh air, they see Melisande and Genevieve at a castle window, and Golaud warns Pelleas about his behaviour with Melisande, particularly as she is with child. It is now evening, and Golaud, with his young son Yniold, is below Melisande's window. Golaud questions his son about Pelleas and Melisande and then holds him up so that he can see into her room and tell him what is happening between his half-brother and his wife. Eventually Golaud lifts him down.


CD 3

In the fourth act, set first in a room in the castle, Pelleas wants to talk with

Melisande and asks her to meet him at the fountain in the park, before he leaves for eve. Pelleas's father, whose illness has detained him there, is better. Pelleas leaves and Arkel now expresses his relief in the departure of the handmaiden of death, illness, from the castle; now Melisande will bring a feeling of youth and happiness to the place. Golaud comes in, blood on his brow, and seeks his sword, to Melisande's fear. He scolds her for her infidelity and forces her to her knees. In the park by the fountain Yniold has lost the golden ball with which he was playing. He meets a shepherd, herding his frightened sheep away for the night. Now Pelleas appears, soon to leave. He is joined by Melisande, her dress torn and out of breath. They confess their love to each other and kiss, but are observed by Golaud, who emerges from hiding and strikes Pelleas dead.


In the fifth act, set in a chamber in the castle, Arkel, Golaud and a doctor stand in the corner of the room, while Melisande lies on a bed. The others leave and Golaud seeks her forgiveness, but wants still to know if she and Pelleas were guilty. She denies it, but he still doubts her. Arkel and the doctor return and a serving woman brings to Melisande her baby girl, but she is too weak to hold the child. Suddenly and quietly she dies, and Arkel, the wise old man who alone has understood her, tries to comfort his grandson, for now the child must live in her place.





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