Pelleas und Melisande

Among the leading composers who were inspired to write music based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande, Arnold Schoenberg was the only one to have composed his music purely for the concert hall with no direct bearing on any staged action. Also Schoenberg rejected the French form of the title for his own work, and published his tone poem as Pelleas und Melisande omitting the two accents.

Schoenberg was introduced to Maeterlinck’s play by Richard Strauss who recommended the material to him as a basis for an opera. Even though he was unaware of Debussy’s projected opera, Schoenberg did not write an opera, but a vast and complexly programmatic Symphonic Poem instead. In hindsight however he later regretted his decision, as he was sure his opera would have been very different from Debussy’s.

Nonetheless this tone poem, completed in 1903, marked an epochal artistic advancement for Schoenberg, inevitably drawing comparison with Richard Strauss and his tone poems, in particular Ein Heldenleben. Schoenberg was however uncompromising in composing his consciously modern music, as a result his tone poem never achieved the popularity of the lushly romantic Strauss piece.

Hostility and Aversion

Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande was an early work, in fact his first large scale orchestral piece and still in the late-romantic idiom which should have appealed to an average music lover. Unfortunately the audience as well as many critics could not follow the program of this ‘programmatic symphonic poem’ and additionally found the daring harmony rather jarring.

Schoenberg once claimed that his Symphonic Poem (or, tone poem) was completely inspired by Maeterlinck’s drama and apart from a few omissions and changes had faithfully mirrored every detail of action and moods of the play. While the Outline of the Play is easy to follow from the libretto of Debussy’s opera, or from the sub-headings in the incidental music by Fauré and Sibelius, it is hardly obvious from Schoenberg’s seemingly abstract long tone poem. Hence the difficulty for its acceptance among the audience and critics alike.

The critics were quite hostile to the tone poem from the very beginning calling it an aimless formless meandering mess, and the befuddled audience finding the relentlessly long single-movement work “too modern” and its harsh chromaticism too noisome for their taste. This antipathy continued for a while, with some critic attacking it as the “longest wrong note in music!”

100 Essential Recordings

Making Sense of the Music

In an attempt to circumvent these difficulties Schoenberg’s disciple Alban Berg insisted that the apparently disjointed tone poem has a coherent structure of four seamlessly inter-connected sections modelled on the classical sonata form. To prove his premise Berg published an analysis of the score showing the distinct sections as the four movements of a symphony, not unlike in many tone poems of Richard Strauss.

Like Wagner and also Debussy, Schoenberg used leitmotifs to associate with characters or situations, thus identifying the entr’actes and other transitional moments. Alban Berg’s guide makes it easier to follow these salient points of the tone poem in correlation with the Outline of the Play. and make sense of Schoenberg’s music, although the degree of clarification will depend on the individual listener.

The opening is a slow introduction followed by an exposition like a sonata form movement depicting the mysterious forest leading to a ‘fate’ motif when a brief interlude with horns and orchestra signals Golaud’s approach. A sudden agitation portrays the first encounter with Melisande whose theme, a tender melody on oboe, English horn and strings, recurs throughout the work. Pelleas is depicted by a lively motif on woodwinds and strings. The passionately touching ‘awakening of love’ theme normally associated with Melisande is unmistakable in its many resurgences until the very end. So does the ‘ring’ motif.

Buy 3 Classical Albums, Get 4th Free

The episode featuring Melisande’s playfulness at the “blind man’s well” where she accidentally drops her wedding ring is manifestly obvious in the scherzo-like second section, which also recalls Golaud’s mysterious fall from his horse. Darker orchestral colors later signal transition to the menacing mood portraying the brothers’ descent to the castle vault. This is followed by another lighter romantic interlude featuring Melisande letting her hair down from the tower window covering the ecstatic Pelleas.

The poignant Adagio, a counterpoint of passionately intense love and tragic foreboding of death, is the centerpiece of the tone poem. Schoenberg himself said …”may be, as often happens in music, more space is dedicated to the love scenes..”, or more appropriately, of ‘love-death’, as in Tristan und Isolde, except here Melisande’s death comes later, in the last section.

The subdued finale is dark in mood, with occasional bursts of brightness interspacing the gloom, signifying the dying Melisande’s remembrance of happier times past. Despite Golaud’s insistent demand to know the ‘truth’ about the ‘forbidden love’ Melisande is too weak to oblige, and dies. The half-blind old king Arkel is the most clear-sighted person in the room and has the last words of wisdom. The music, like the play, fades away in an air of resignation and repose.

Appreciation and Recognition

It took some time before the critics and the concert audience could understand and appreciate schoenberg and his music, even his early ‘tonal’ works like Pelleas und Melisande, and the preceding Verklärte Nacht which, despite its complexity and advanced harmonics, was more popular and better known than the tone poem which after all had a storyline, however obscurant that may be. It perhaps betrays an ingrained prejudice in most listeners’ mind against anything remotely new, modern or abstract.

The slow instatement of Schoenberg has continued even after his atonal and twelve-tone phases, in spite of the opposition of the prejudiced diehards. Nowadays it is not that uncommon to find concert listings or radio programs featuring many Schoenberg works more difficult, discordant or advanced compared to his early tone poem, which would have been unthinkable not long ago. 

Alibris: Books, Music, & Movies