Sibelius: Pelléas Mélisande

Jean Sibelius composed the incidental music for Maurice Materlinck’s symbolist play Pelléas and Mélisande, during 1904-05, following a commission from the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki. He also conducted this music at the Finnish premiere of the play in 1905. The premiere was a resounding success, however the music was not given its due prominence.

Whether or not spurred by this apparent critical indifference, Sibelius afterwards rearranged the ten sections of the incidental music into a slightly modified and truncated version for nine movements and published it later on the same year as his Orchestral Suite Op 46

From Incidental Music to Orchestral Suite

Of all the musical masterpieces inspired by and based on Maeterlinck’s play, this Suite by Sibelius is probably the most popular and accessible to the general public. Fauré’s own suite has always appealed to the purists as being the most elegant and classical; Debussy’s groundbreaking opera may be the most acclaimed and publicized, and venerated ‘modern’ work; while Schoenberg’s daringly chromatic tone poem proved seemingly too advanced, incomprehensible and difficult for its wider acceptance even today.

Although Sibelius’s music has always been appealing and popular per se, the popularity of this suite was also helped by Television and related popular media. Sibelius became almost a household name in Britain during the sixties when the opening movement At the castle Gate from the Pelléas and Mélisande suite was featured regularly as the theme music for the longest-running - indeed still running! - Astronomy programme “The Sky at Night” on BBC TV.

Sibelius’s music was both the opening and closing themes of “The Sky at Night”, which helped in spreading his popularity. Televiewers in Britain and abroad were impressed and intrigued by the music which featured the classic preformance by Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Sibelius: Symphony No 7, Pelleas & Melisande, Etc / Beecham

Even people uninterested in classical music slowly became converts, or at least a little more responsive to it; this not only popularized Sibelius but helped the cause of classical music too!.

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The Play and the Suite

In some respects Sibelius has created a distinctly symbolist atmosphere in the Pelléas and Mélisande suite more pronounced than in any of his other works, and the subdued style is atypical of Sibelius, although he scored this for a ‘small’ orchestra.

Also in retaining most of the sections from the Incidental Music in the suite, Sibelius often seemed to be more faithful to Maeterlinck’s play than other composers involved. For instance, unlike Debussy in his opera, Sibelius does not fast forward to the Forest scene, but begins the suite at the very beginning of the play, namely, At the castle Gate, which turned out to have been a lucky decision on his part. 

After the opening scene, the suite follows the Outline of the Play closely, continuing with the next scene Mélisande which segues into the section marked At the Seashore (this by the way was excluded from a Piano arrangement of the suite that Sibelius published later.)

A waltz melody opens the next episode A spring in the Park characterized by deep sonorities of the strings. Mélisande playfully drops her wedding ring , and at precisely the same moment Golaud is mysteriously unhorsed. The fifth movement, titled The Three Blind Sisters ( or often as “The King’s Three Blind Daughters” ) is characterized by a cor anglais solo answered by the full orchestra. Next comes the Pastorale scored for woodwind and strings with the subtlety and texture of chamber music. The seventh movement Mélisande at the Spinning Wheel , or La Fileuse, weaves a hypnotic whirring sound world. Next comes the elgant and vivacious Entr’acte depicting the last tryst of the lovers

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The suite then skips the ninth section of the play, (depicting King Arkel with Mélisande who is then abused by Golaud, who later in the scene strikes Pelléas and kills him), and leads to the hauntingly beautiful and sad finale The Death of Mélisande which needs no further explication.

The Music and the Legacy

The fallout from the enthusiasm for Sibelius and his music has often led to a certain disdain among music snobs who always look down on any music, especilly contemporary classical music, which has had a considerable popular appeal, calling it ‘classical pop’ or ‘easy listening’ stuff. This might in most cases stem from jealousy or malice, and Sibelius did not escape it.

It is probably true that Sibelius’s style was less complicated and his music more euphonic than that of his many contemporaries, and the sound of Sibelius did not evolve much over time; probably that was the main reason why his music was so attractive and popular. But, being easy and accessible need not demerit any work of art. And so the legacy of Sibelius lives on.

Comparing, for example, this suite with the Schoenberg tone poem based on the same subject and dating from the same time, the contrast in style and harmony becomes starkly and audibly obvious. Yet how many average music lovers know of Schoenberg or his advanced tone poem?

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