Fauré: Pelléas et Méllisande Suite

Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite has often been called neo-classical which is not quite accurate, because even in his most romantic or impressionist modern phases Fauré never forsook his ‘classical’ restraint and balance, thus invalidating the redundant ‘neo’. The highly evocative fatalistic tone and texture of the music somehow sound more consonant with Maeterlinck’s symbolism than other versions.

Nowhere is the sotto voce elegance of Fauré’s music more evident than in this suite, which evolved in a concert version from the original incidental music he wrote earlier for an English production of Maeterlinck’s play; the story of the play is well-known and has been outlined elsewhere.




Maeterlinck’s Play

The archetypical symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande has the unique distinction of having been the catalyst for a great many musical masterpieces by innovative composers since its first publication. Claude Debussy in fact started work on his opera even before the premiere of the play but did not publish it until later.

Maeterlinck’s refined sensibility and allusive ambiguity appealed not only to the avant-garde in Paris of the time but also to the classicist-romantic Fauré who, like Debussy, found the sparse dramatic props of Maeterlinck’s symbolism along with its subliminal expressiveness congenial to his own musical aesthetics.

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Incidental Music

Fauré’s incidental music was the first published musical version of Maeterlinck’s play. It was commissioned by the celebrated actress Mrs Patrick Campbell for the London premiere of the English version of the play in 1898 (the French original opened there three years earlier). However, Fauré was not the first choice of Mrs Campbell who had approached Debussy first but he declined for obvious reasons.

Fauré managed to compose the music and complete the orchestration, with the help of his pupil Charles Koechlin, in record time and have it ready for the opening. He also adapted and reused some of his existing works, ending up with a total of 19 numbers for the incidental music. Then in 1900, Fauré revised and re-orchestrated three of the longer pieces for a full symphony orchestra, to form the Suite Op 80. Later on he added “Melisande’s song” (Lento), plus the Sicilienne (from an earlier composition), and re-introduced the definitive Concert Suite.

Fauré thus had the unique distinction of offering music based on the same theme for both the theatre and the concert hall at the same time.


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The Suite Music

Against the sombre background of dark foreboding Fauré created a musical landscape of subdued eloquence, which complements Maeterlinck’s stark drama of so much left unsaid. The opening Prelude sets the mood of melancholy and nostalgia suggesting Mélisande, lost in the forest whose atmosphere is evoked by subtle changes in orchestral color and dynamics, interrupted by horn calls (suggesting bugle calls associated with Golaud) which soon fades away before the end.

The second movement La Fileuse (the spinner girl) weaves the hypnotic melodic counterpoint, imitating the softly circling wheel first on woodwinds then strings, suggesting Mélisande at her spinning wheel, at the beginning of act 3.

The next section Mélisande’s Song (“The King’s three Blind Sisters”) was added later, and is not always included in all concert arrangements, or included as an orchestral interlude only without the vocal part suggesting Mélisande singing from the tower window. The music can nonetheless be seen as providing a thematic basis for the Molto Adagio finale and justifies its inclusion for the sake of continuity.

Although an afterthought, the magical Sicllienne has now become an integral part of the suite. At first the sudden brightness might seem incongruous with the pervading gloom of the play, but from the perspective of the complementariness of Maeterlinck’s play and Fauré’s music it appears to be a natural extension of the exprressive ranges of both, and could not come from anywhere but the world of Pelléas et Mélisande. This ethereal music with its limpid texture and subtle harmony is one of the most popular and well-known pieces from the Suite, and was also published separately in a version for cello and piano.

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The last movement The Death of Mélisande started as a prelude to the last act of the play, with thematic references to earlier sections such as Mélisande’s Song and La Fileuse, mentioned above. In its classical balance and brevity, this movement is quintessential Fauré combining restrained melancholy and lamentation with consolation and poignant beauty.