On 17 May 1893 the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens saw its one and only performance of Maurice Maeterlinck’s recently completed play Pelléas et Mélisande. The production had been organised by a devotee of the dramatist, the acclaimed actor Aurélien Lugné-Poë, who performed the role of Prince Golaud. In line with the author’s wishes, the costumes were produced in the spirit of Memling, the sets were reminiscent of the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and between the auditorium and the stage there was a trembling transparent tulle curtain. This version of the legend of Tristan and Isolde flowed in a dream-like manner. Among invited guests in the audience were the poets Mallarmé and Henri de Régnier, the painters Whistler and Lerolle and the thirty-year-old Claude Debussy. For a long time he had been looking for a plot for a possible opera.
While still a student at the conservatoire, when faced with his composition teacher Ernest Guiraud’s question about who could be his librettist Debussy replied “Someone who doesn’t say every single thing. I would like to add my dream to his – that would be the ideal. Neither a specific country nor time. (…) Today in opera there is too much singing. The musical clothing is far too heavy. You should only sing when there is a need to. Semitones. Grisaille. No working it for the sake of working it. A lengthy development should not be combined with the lexis. I dream of short verse and mobile scenes. I don’t care about the three unities! I need scenes that are varied in terms of place and style, where the characters don’t orate about their own existences, fates and so on.” These answers so prophetically describe Pelléas that when the text of this cited conversation was published many years later it gave the lie to the doubt: had it all been made up?
Pelléas is a drama where little is spoken and much is left unsaid, but this silence is more eloquent than words, it as if asks to be filled with the music of premonitions, doubts, suspicions and insights. Debussy was not even called on to create the libretto. He set Maeterlinck’s play, with the exception of three scenes, to music word for word. The composer began to create the music from the culmination – with the declarations of the protagonists before they are parted. With the scene, in which after an outpouring of emotions and Pelléas’ declaration “I love you”, Mélisande, in utter silence, almost imperceptibly replies on one note “I love you too.”
While looking for appropriate musical language, the composer complained to his friends that “All of this is too much like the duet by M. So–and–So, or nobody in particular, and worst of all the ghost of old Klingsor.” It was not by chance that he named a Wagnerian character. Debussy thought Wagnerian drama to be poisonous and, finding nothing comparable in contemporary French or Italian opera, his attention was focussed only on Bayreuth. Pelléas is his response to Wagner in the framework of a similar subject. Where Wagner forces his characters to declare themselves over half an hour and repeat the same thing many times, with Debussy there are mere modest statements, things left unsaid and semi-hints. Instead of the dense sound of Wagner’s orchestra Debussy gave his preference to a rarefied and pointillist palette with frequent divisi of the strings, gossamer-like solos and blends. To isolate the timbres he even considered whether or not he should position the orchestral sections so that the cellos were next to the bassoons or “split up the brass section” so that it sounded like an ensemble of soloists. He preferred static sequences to intense harmonic development, as if stopping musical time: it was not by chance that Maeterlinck’s plays were called “dramas of waiting”. Debussy avoided loudness and pathos – his music rarely extends beyond the confines of piano. The heroes’ leitmotifs appear only in the orchestra, and not in the vocal roles. Debussy the critic jokingly wrote that Wagner’s heroes, having sung their leitmotifs, were like someone who, leaving a calling card, excitedly recites its content.
At the opera’s premiere the lack of songs and dances in the score as well as of choruses and ensembles, those very semitones, the chemistry of micro-phrases and the extremely subtle sound patterns that had troubled Debussy left the audience perplexed. And when Mélisande replied to Golaud’s question in Act II as to why she is crying she responded “I am miserable here” the auditorium gloomily joked “So are we.” In Pelléas the dramatic energy mounts gradually. The first half of the opera takes place in an emotional range that is between “quiet” and “very quiet”. It is only towards Acts III and IV that tenderness, fear, despair and cruelty come to the fore – such as the jealousy scene in which Golaud makes his young son look out of the window at his wife and the prince’s brother. The censor insisted this scene be dropped in order not to shock the family audiences of the Opéra Comique, though in the end only fourteen bars were cut. Both Richard Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov found Pelléas monotonic. But for the French, Debussy’s opera became an object of national pride and, looking back, we can see that people’s estimation of it has only increased. Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen trace the starting point of 20th century music to 30 April 1902 and the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande.