Interpretation of Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande" and the story behind it

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2012

20 Pages


Interpretation of Debussy’s PelléasetMélisande

and the story behind it.

1. From play to Opera

The play of PelléasetMélisande was written by Maurice Maeterlinck. It was published in Brussels in May 1892, and first performed in Paris May 17, 1893. The main idea behind it is the dominance of fate in life. “Mélisande is the heroine because intuitively she grasps and accepts the conditions of fatality, offering no vain resistance.”[1] Golaud does not accept this fate. That is why he does reprehensible to us, and we will not be moved by it. For in the world of Allemonde, Golaud, more than any of the others, is ourselves.”[2]

In his play, Maeterlinck shows us that “nothing can change the order of events; that, despite our proud illusions, we are not master of ourselves, but the servant of unknown and irresistible forces, which direct the whole tragic-comedy of our lives. We are told that no man is responsible for what he likes and what he loves-that is if he knows what he likes and loves-and that he lives and dies without knowing why. These fatalistic ideas… have been wonderfully translated into music by Debussy; and when you feel the poetic and sensual charm of the music, the ideas become fascinating and intoxicating, and their spirit is very infectious.”[3]

Meanwhile, Debussy “wanted a text that achieved its ends through understatement and suggestion… He longed to find a dramatist who, ‘saying things by halves, would allow me to graft my dream onto his… someone who would conceive characters not bound by time or place, someone who would leave me free to have more art than he, and to complete his work.” Soon after expressing this hope he found his playwright, a Belgian by the name of Maurice Maeterlinck. Maeterlick’s new play, Pelléas et Mélisande, seemed to be exactly what Debussy wanted. It was a succession of short scenes in contrast to Wagner’s long acts requiring long spans of music.[4]

According to LoursLaloy who is Debussy’s friend and biographer, Debussy liked the play so much that he had decided to set it the day after he read it. Lugné-Poe who is actor and director states that composing a musical composition based off of Maeterlink’s play was suggested to Debussy by Mauclair who is a writer, and Lugné-Poe himself also claimed partial credit for the suggestion. But Debussy probably came up with the idea of setting this play on his own and his interest in it was from having read the play, not having seen it yet-“My acquaintance with Pelléas dates from 1893. Despite the enthusiasm of a first reading, and perhaps a few secret ideas about possible music, I did not begin to think seriously about it until the end of that year which is in1893.[5] Debussy finished a first version of the opera in 1895. He made many attempts to get the opera staged, but all failed until May 3, 1901, almost ten years after he first came in contact with the play, Albert Carré, director of the Opéra-Comique, wanted it to be performed there.Even though the public seemed dissatisfied at the first performance on April 30, 1902, and the critics gave poor reviews, the opera eventually made a “Powerful impression on the musical world at large.”[6] Mary Garden upon first hearing Pelléas writes:

I had the most extraordinary emotions I have ever experienced in my life. Listening to that music I seemed to become someone else, someone inside of me whose language and soul were akin to mine. When Debussy got to the fourth act I could no longer look at my score for the tears. It was all very strange and unbearable. I closed my book and just listened to him, and as he played the death of Mélisande, I burst into the most awful sobbing, and MmeMessager began to sob along with me, and both of us fled into the next room. I shall never forget it. There we were crying as if we had just lost our best friend, crying as if nothing would console us again.[7]

1. From act I to act V

First, in act I scene 1 symbolically, the servants open the castle gates at dawn and scrub the threshold; second, in act II scene 4, Arkel successfully persuades Pelléas to postpone his trip away from the castle as his friend Marcellus is dead; third, in act III scene 1, Mélisande is spinning in the castle with Pelléas and Yniold, who is afraid that Mélisande will leave him and lastly, act V scene, frighten servant assembled tones the events resulting from act IV scene 4.

PelléasetMélisande ’s first act is composed with three scenes.In act I, scene 1, the link between darkness, light and Mélisande is developed when Golaud “lights” upon Mélisande sitting by a well in the dark forest. The overall theme of the light becomes associated with the life of Mélisande. In the prelude, the orchestra plays three principal themes. The first act is different from two others. There are clear character motifs which are in the whole acts. For example,Golaud’s motif is a distinctive dotted rhythm like ex.1.

Ex.1Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

And Mélisande’s is a pentatonically curved phrase like ex. 2.


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Those rhythms and harmony carry the actions, the emotions and the symbols of the play and those are appropriately varied by the situation. In the scene one, when Mélisande sings ‘ Je me suisenfuie! enfuie! enfuie!,’ to express her sense of being lost or confused. Debussy used whole-tone chords in predominantly tonal surroundings.To carry Mélisande’s mystery, the orchestra plays an inverted pedal note high in the strings. The scene one finishes when Golaud admits being lost in a forest and his motif is varied with the white-note modality of the opening one for expressing Golaud’s power. In the first interlude, a trumpet plays a motif appeared before, when Golaud announced that he was Arkel’s grandson. In this part, Debussy used an implication.[8] In a room in the castle, the scene two begins. For this scene, Debussy use LocriannadPhrygrian modes on E for perfect simplicity. To underline Arkel’s inner strength, Arkel’s motif was played by the trumpet in the first interlude. And in this scene, it is played by the cellos in a half diminished chord like ex. 3.


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

In the final phrase of scene two, when Genevieve reminds Pelléas to take care to light the lamp to indicate Arkel’s acceptance of Mélisandeas Golaud’s wife. But in this part, Debussy implicated a deeper meaning which indicates the relationship between Pelléas and Mélisande.[9]

In the interlude before the scene three, Mélisande’s motif is played. The background which is dark and in the mist expresses with the key of C major, but oppositely F# major is played when Genevieve and Mélisande try to find more light in the coast. When Pelléas supports Mélisandeby the arm on a steep path, a symbolic meaning appears. In the act cadences, the significant F# key expresses Mélisande’s hopes that Pelléas will not go away. Here, Debussy implicated their relationship again.[10]


[1] Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), page 176.

[2] Owen M. Lee, A Season of Opera: From Orpheus to Ariadne (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), page 167.

[3] Romain Rolland, Musicians of To-Day, Trans. Mary Blaiklock, 6th ed. (London:Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd., 1908),page235.

[4] Owen M. Lee, A Season of Opera: From Orpheus to Ariadne (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), page 160.

[5] David A. Grayson, The Genesis of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (Michigan : UMI Research Press, 1983), page 15-16.

[6] François Lesure, “Claude Debussy” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition.Ed. Stanley Sadie. (London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2001 ), page 98

[7] David A. Grayson, The Genesis of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (Michigan : UMI Research Press, 1983), page 59.

[8] Richard Langham Smith, “Pelléas et Mélisande,” New Grove Dictionary of Opera (London:Macmillan Publishers Ltd, 1992), pages 935-936.

[9] Richard Langham Smith, “Pelléas et Mélisande,” New Grove Dictionary of Opera (London:Macmillan Publishers Ltd, 1992), page 936.

[10] Ibid

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Interpretation of Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande" and the story behind it
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Full time Lecturer in Voice Myunghwa Jang (Author)Kim Bo Kyung (Author), 2012, Interpretation of Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande" and the story behind it, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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