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Title: Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande - A Guide to the Opera with Musical Examples from the Score
Author: Gilman, Lawrence
Language: English
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[Illustration: _Claude Debussy (From the painting by Jacques Blanche)_]















"It is not an ill thing to cross at times the marches of silence and
see the phantoms of life and death in a new way. It is not an ill thing,
even if one meet only the fantasies of beauty."--FIONA MACLEOD.



With the production at Paris in the spring of 1902 of Claude Debussy's
_Pelléas et Mélisande_, based on the play of Maeterlinck, the history of
music turned a new and surprising page. "It is necessary," declared an
acute French critic, M. Jean Marnold, writing shortly after the event,
"to go back perhaps to _Tristan_ to find in the opera house an event so
important in certain respects for the evolution of musical art." The
assertion strikes one to-day, five years after, as, if anything,
over-cautious. _Pelléas et Mélisande_ exhibited not simply a new manner
of writing opera, but a new kind of music--a new way of evolving and
combining tones, a new order of harmonic, melodic and rhythmic
structure. The style of it was absolutely new and absolutely
distinctive: the thing had never been done before, save, in a lesser
degree, by Debussy himself in his then little known earlier work. Prior
to the appearance of _Pelléas et Mélisande_, he had put forth, without
appreciably disturbing the musical waters, all of the extraordinary and
individual music with which his fame is now associated, except the three
orchestral "sketches," _La Mer_ (composed in 1903-1905 and published in
the latter year), the piano pieces _Estampes_ (1903), and _Images,
Masques, l'Île joyeuse_ (1905), and a few songs. Certain audiences in
Paris had heard, nine years before, his setting of Rossetti's "Blessed
Damozel" (_La Demoiselle Élue_), a "lyric poem" for two solo voices,
female chorus, and orchestra; in the same year (1893) his string quartet
was played by Ysaÿe and his associates; in 1894 his _Prélude à
l'Après-midi d'un Faune_ was produced at a concert of the National
Society of Music; the first two Nocturnes for orchestra, _Nuages_ and
_Fêtes_, were played at a Lamoureux concert in 1900; the third,
_Sirènes_, was performed with the others in the following year. Yet it
was not until _Pelléas et Mélisande_ was produced at the Opéra-Comique
in April, 1902, that his work began seriously to be reckoned with
outside of the small and inquisitive public, in Paris and elsewhere,
that had known and valued--or execrated--it.

In this score Debussy went far beyond the point to which his methods had
previously led him. It was, for all who heard it or came to know it, a
revelation of the possibilities of tonal effect--this dim and wavering
and elusive music, with its infinitely subtle gradations, its gossamer
fineness of texture, its delicate sonorities, its strange and echoing
dissonances, its singular richness of mood, its shadowy beauty, its
exquisite and elaborate art--this music which drifted before the senses
like iridescent vapor, suffused with rich lights, pervasive,
imponderable, evanescent. It was music at once naïve and complex,
innocent and impassioned, fragile and sonorous. It spoke with an accent
unmistakably grave and sincere; yet it spoke without emphasis:
indirectly, flexibly, with fluid and unpredictable expression. It was
eloquent beyond denial, yet its reticence, its economy of gesture, were
extreme--were, indeed, the very negation of emphasis. Is it strange that
such music--hesitant, evasive, dream-filled, strangely ecstatic, with
its wistful and twilight loveliness, its blended subtlety and
simplicity--should have been as difficult to trace to any definite
source as it was, for the general, immensely astonishing and unexpected?
There was nothing like it to be found in Wagner, or in his more
conspicuous and triumphant successors--in, so to speak, the direct and
royal line. Richard Strauss was, clearly, not writing in that manner;
nor were the brother musicians of Debussy in his own France; nor, quite
as obviously, were the Russians. The immediate effect of its strangeness
and newness was, of course, to direct the attention of the larger world
of music, within Paris and without, to the artistic personality and the
previous attainments of the man who had surprisingly put forth such
incommensurable music.

Achille[1] Claude Debussy was born at St. Germain-en-Laye
(Seine-et-Oise), France, August 22, 1862. He was still a youth when he
entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied harmony under Lavignac,
composition under Guiraud, and piano playing with Marmontel. He was only
fourteen when he won the first medal for _solfège_, and fifteen when he
won the second pianoforte prize.

[1] He no longer uses the first of these given names.

In 1884, when he was in his twenty-second year, his cantata, _l'Enfant
prodigue_, won for him the _Prix de Rome_ by a majority of twenty-two
out of twenty-eight votes--it is said to have been the unanimous opinion
of the jury that the score was "one of the most interesting that had
been heard at the _Institut_ for years." While at the Villa Médicis he
composed, in 1887, his _Printemps_ for chorus and orchestra, and, in the
following year, his setting of Rossetti's "Blessed Damozel," of which
the authorities at the Conservatory saw fit to disapprove because of
certain liberties which Debussy even then was taking with established
and revered traditions. He performed his military service upon his
return from Rome; and there is a tradition told, as bearing upon his
love of recondite sonorities, to the effect that while at Évreux he
delighted in the harmonic clash caused by the simultaneous sounding of
the trumpet call for the extinguishing of lights and the sustained
vibrations of some neighboring convent bells. From this time forward his
output was persistent and moderately copious. To the year 1888 belong,
in addition to _La Demoiselle Élue_, the remarkably individual
"Ariettes,"[2] six settings for voice and piano of poems by Verlaine. To
1889-1890 belong the _Fantaisie_ for piano and orchestra and the
striking "Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire" (_Le Balcon_, _Harmonie du Soir_,
_Le Jet d'Eau_, _Recueillement_, _La Mort des Amants_). In 1891 came
some less significant piano pieces; but the following two years were
richly productive, for they brought forth the exquisite _Prélude à
l'Après-midi d'un Faune_ for orchestra, after the Éclogue of
Mallarmé--the first extended and inescapable manifestation of Debussy's
singular gifts--and the very personal but less important string quartet.
In 1893-1895 he was busied with _Pelléas et Mélisande_,[3] and with the
_Proses lyriques_, four songs--not of his best--to words of his own
(_De Rêve_, _De Grève_, _De Fleurs_, _De Soir_). The next four
years--1896-1899--saw the issue of the extremely characteristic and
uncompromising Nocturnes for orchestra (_Nuages_, _Fêtes_, _Sirènes_),
and the fascinating and subtle _Chansons de Bilitis_, after Pierre
Louys--songs in which, aptly observed his colleague Bruneau, "he mingled
an antique and almost evaporated perfume with penetrating modern odors."
The collection "Pour le Piano" (_Prélude_, _Sarabande_,
_Toccata_)--inventions of distinguished and original style--and some
less representative songs and piano pieces, completed his achievements
before the production of _Pelléas et Mélisande_ brought him fame and a
measure of relief from lean and pinching days. He has from time to time
made public appearances in Paris as a pianist in concerts of chamber
music; and he has even resorted--one wonders how desperately?--to the
writing of music criticism for various journals and reviews. "Artists,"
he has somewhat cynically observed, "struggle long enough to win their
place in the market; once the sale of their productions is assured, they
quickly go backward." There is as yet no sign that he himself is
fulfilling this prediction; for his most recent published
performance,[4] the superbly fantastic and imaginative _La
Mer_--completed three years after the production of _Pelléas_--is
charged to the brim with his peculiar and potent quality.

[2] A revised version of these songs was published fifteen years later,
in 1903, dedicated _à Miss Mary Garden, inoubliable Mélisande_.

[3] M. Debussy sends me the information that, although the music of
_Pelléas et Mélisande_ was begun as early as September, 1893, he was not
finally through with it until nine years later. In the spring of 1901
the last scene of the fourth act (the love-scene at the fountain in the
park, with its abrupt and tragic close) was rewritten, and in 1902,
after the first rehearsals at the Opéra-Comique, it was found necessary
to lengthen the orchestral interludes between the different tableaux in
order that the scene-shifters might have sufficient time to change the
settings. These extended interludes are included in the edition of the
score for piano and voices, with French and English text, published in

[4] The above is written in July, 1907.

What are the more prominent traits of the music of this man who is the
product of no school, who has no essential affinities with his
contemporaries, who has been accurately characterized as the "très
exceptionnel, très curieux, très solitaire M. Claude Debussy"? One is
struck, first of all, in savoring his art, by its extreme fluidity, its
vagueness of contour, its lack of obvious and definite outline. It is
cloudlike, evanescent, impalpable; it passes before the aural vision (so
to speak) like a floating and multicolored mist; it is shifting,
fugitive, intangible, atmospheric. Its beauty is not the beauty that
issues from clear and transparent designs, from a lucid and outspoken
style: it is a remote and inexplicable beauty, a beauty shot through
with mystery and strangeness, baffling, incalculable. It is unexpected
and subtle in accent, wayward and fantastic in rhythm. Harmonically it
obeys no known law--consonances, dissonances, are interfused, blended,
re-echoed, juxtaposed, without the smallest regard for the rules of
tonal relationship established by long tradition. It recognizes no
boundaries whatsoever between the different keys; there is constant flux
and change, and the same tonality is seldom maintained beyond a single
beat of the measure. There are key-signatures, but they strike one as
having been put in place as a mere yielding to what M. Debussy doubtless
regards indulgently as an amiable and harmless prejudice. His melodic
schemes suggest no known model--they conform to patterns which
intertwine and melt and are suddenly and surprisingly transformed; they
are without punctuation, uncadenced, irregular, unpredictable,
indescribably sensitive and supple. There is a marked indifference to
the possibilities of contrapuntal effect, a dependence upon a method
fundamentally homophonic rather than polyphonic--this music is a rich
and shimmering texture of blended chord-groups, rather than a pattern of
interlaced melodic strands. One cannot but note the manner in which it
abhors and shuns the easily achieved, the facile, the expected. Its
colors and designs are rare and far-sought and most heedfully contrived;
its eloquence is never unrestrained; and this hatred of the obvious is
as plainly sincere as it is passionate and uncompromising; it is not the
fastidiousness of a _précieux_, but of an extravagantly scrupulous and
austerely exacting artist.

Here, then, is as anomalous an aesthetic product as one could well
imagine. In a day when magnitude of plan and vividness of color,
rhetorical emphasis and dynamic brilliancy, are the ideals which
preëminently sway our tonal architects, emerges this reticent, half-lit,
delicately structured, subtly accented music; which is incorrigibly
unrhetorical; which never declaims or insists: an art alembicated,
static, severely restrained--for even when it is most harmonically
untrammeled, most rhythmically fantastic, one is aware of a quietly
inexorable logic, an uncompromising ideal of form, underlying its
seemingly unregulated processes. It is the product of a temperament
unique in music, though familiar enough in the modern expression of the
other arts. Debussy is of that clan who have uncompromisingly "turned
their longing after the wind and wave of the mind." He is, as I have
elsewhere written, of the order of those poets and dreamers who
persistently heed, and seek to continue in their art, not the echoes of
passional and adventurous experience, but the vibrations of the spirit
beneath. He is of the brotherhood of those mystical explorers, of
peculiarly modern temper, who are perhaps most essentially represented
in the plays and poetry and philosophies of Mr. Yeats and M.
Maeterlinck: those who dwell--it has before been said--"upon the
confines of a crepuscular world whose every phase is full of subtle
portent, and who are convinced (in the phrase of M. Maeterlinck himself)
'that there are in man many regions more fertile, more profound, and
more interesting than those of his reason or his intelligence.'" It is
an order of temperament for which the things of the marginal world of
the mind are of transcendent consequence--that world which is
perpetually haunted, for those mystics who are also the slaves of
beauty, by remote illusions and disquieting enchantments: where it is
not dreams, but the reflections of dreams, that obsess; where passion is
less the desire of life than of the shadow of life. It is a world of
images and refractions, of visions and presentiments, a world which
swims in dim and opalescent mists--where gestures are adored and every
footfall is charged with indescribable intimations; where, "even in the
swaying of a hand or the dropping of unbound hair, there is less
suggestion of individual action than of a divinity living within,
shaping an elaborate beauty in a dream for its own delight." It is, for
those who inhabit it, a world as exclusively preoccupying and authentic
as it is, for those who do not, incredible and inaccessible. The reports
of it, intense and gleaming as they may be, which are contained in the
art of such of its inhabitants as Debussy, are, admittedly, little
likely to conciliate the unbeliever. This is music which it is hopeless
to attempt to justify or promote. It persuades, or it does not; one is
attuned to it, or one is not. For those who do savor and value it, it is
reasonable only to attempt some such notation of its qualities as is
offered here.

Debussy's ancestry is not easily traced. Wagner, whom he has amused
himself by decrying in the course of his critical excursions, shaped
certain aspects of his style. In some of the early songs one realizes
quite clearly his indebtedness to the score of _Tristan_; yet in these
very songs--say the _Harmonie du Soir_ and _La Mort des Amants_
(composed in 1889-1890)--there are amazingly individual pages: pages
which even to-day sound ultra-modern. And when one recalls that at the
time these songs were written the score of _Parsifal_ had been off
Wagner's desk for only seven years, that Richard Strauss was putting
forth such tentative things as his _Don Juan_ and _Tod und Verklärung_,
that the "revolutionary" Max Reger was a boy of sixteen, and that
Debussy himself was not yet thirty, one is in a position forcibly to
realize the early growth and the genuineness of his independence.
Adolphe Jullien, the veteran French critic, discerns in his earlier
writing the influence of such Russians as Borodine, Rimsky-Korsakoff,
and Mussorgsky--a discovery which one finds some difficulty in
crediting. Later, Debussy was undoubtedly affected, in a slight degree,
by César Franck; and there were moments--happily infrequent--during what
one may call his middle period, when a whiff of the perfumed sentiment
of Massenet blew disturbingly across his usually sincere and poetic
pages. But for traces of Liszt, or Berlioz, or Brahms, one will search
fruitlessly. That he does not, to-day, touch hands at any point with his
brother musicians of the elder school in France--with such, for example,
as the excellent and brilliant and superbly unimaginative
Saint-Saëns--goes almost without saying. With Vincent d'Indy, a musician
of wholly antipodal qualities, he disputes the place of honor among the
elect of the "younger" school (whose members are not so young as they
are painted); and he is the worshiped idol of still younger Frenchmen
who envy, depreciate, and industriously imitate his fascinating and
dangerously luring art. He has traveled far on the path of his
particular destiny; not since Wagner has any modern music-maker
perfected a style so saturated with personality--there are far fewer
derivations in his art than in the art of Strauss, through whose scores
pace the ghosts of certain of the greater dead. All that Wagner could
teach him of the potency of dissonance, of structural freedom and
elasticity, of harmonic daring, Debussy eagerly learned and applied, as
a foundation, to his own intricately reasoned though spontaneous art;
yet Wagner would have gasped alike at the novelty and the exquisite art
of _Pelléas et Mélisande_, of the _Nocturnes_, even of the comparatively
early _Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un Faune_; for this is music of a kind
which may, indeed, have been dreamed of, but which certainly had never
found its way upon paper, before Debussy quietly recorded it in his

What is the secret principle of his method?--if one can call that a
"method" which is, in effect, nothing if not airily unmethodical, and
that principle "secret" which is neither recondite nor perplexing. It is
simply that Debussy, instead of depending upon the strictly limited
major and minor modes of the modern scale system, employs almost
continuously, as the structural basis of his music, the mediaeval church
modes, with their far greater latitude, freedom, and variety. It is, to
say the least, a novel procedure. Other modern composers before Debussy
had, of course, utilized the characteristic plain-song progressions to
secure, for special purposes, a particular and definite effect of color;
but no one had ever before deliberately adopted the Gregorian chant as a
substitute for the modern major and minor scales, with their deep-rooted
and ineradicable harmonic tendencies, their perpetual suggestion of
traditional cadences and resolutions. To forget the principles
underlying three centuries of harmonic practice and revert to the
methods of the mediaeval church composers, required an extraordinary
degree of imaginative intuition; purposely and consistently to employ
those methods as a foundation upon which to erect an harmonic structure
most richly and elastically contrived--to vitalize the antique modes
with the accumulated product of modern divination and
accomplishment--was little less than an inspiration. Debussy must
undoubtedly have realized that the familiar scales, which have so long
and so faithfully served the expressional needs of the modern composer,
tend now to give issue to musical forms that are beginning to seem
_clichée_: forms too rigidly patterned, too redolent of outworn
formulas--in short, too completely crystallized. Chopin, Liszt, Wagner,
and after them the modern Germans and their followers, found in a scale
of semitones a limited avenue of escape from the confinement of the
modern diatonic modes, and bequeathed to contemporary music an
inheritance of ungoverned chromaticism which still clogs its progress
and obstructs its independence. Debussy, through his appreciation of the
living value of the old church modes, has been enabled to shape for
himself a manner of utterance which derives from none of these
influences. It is anything but chromatic; indeed, one of its most
striking characteristics is its use of whole-tone progressions, a
natural result, of course, of its dependence upon the old modes. Other
contemporary Frenchmen have made occasional use of Gregorian effects;
but Debussy was the first to adopt them deliberately as the basis of a
settled manner of utterance, and he has employed them with increasing
consistency and devotion. His example has indubitably served to enrich
the expressional material at the disposal of the modern
music-maker--there cannot conceivably, in reason, be two opinions as to
that: he has acted upon a principle which is, beyond question,
liberating and stimulating. And the adaptability to his own peculiar
temperament of the wavering and fluid order of discourse which is
permitted by the flexibility and variety of the antique modes is
sufficiently obvious.

His resort to Gregorian principles is, it has been observed, far from
being a matter of recent history with him. Almost twenty years ago we
find him writing in the spirit of the old modes. Examine the opening
phrases of his song, _Harmonie du Soir_ (composed in 1889-1890), and
note the felicitous adaptation to modern use of the "authentic" mode
known as the Lydian, which corresponds to a C-major scale with F-sharp.
Observe the use of the same mode in the introductory measures, and
elsewhere, of his setting of Verlaine's _Il pleure dans mon coeur_
(1889), the second of the "Ariettes." Five years later, in _Pelléas et
Mélisande_, the trait is omnipresent--too extensive and obvious, indeed,
to require detailed indication. One might point out, at random, the
derivation from the seventh of the ecclesiastical modes (the Mixolydian)
of the phrase in the accompaniment to Arkël's words in the final scene,
"L'âme humaine aime à s'en aller seule;" or the relationship between the
opening measures of the orchestral introduction to the drama and the
first of the "authentic" modes, the Dorian; or between the same mode
(corresponding to the D-minor scale without accidentals) and Mélisande's
song at the tower window at the beginning of the third act.

       *       *       *       *       *

It remains only to be said, by way of conclusion to this brief survey,
that, for those who are disposed to open their sensibilities to the
appeal of this music, its high and haunting beauty must exert an
increasing sway over the heart and the imagination. It is making no
excessive or invidious claim for it to assert that, after one has truly
savored its quality, other music, transcendent though it may
demonstrably be, seems a little coarse-fibred, a little otiose, a
little--as Jules Laforgue might have said--_quotidienne_. But, however
it may come to be ranked, there are few, I think, who will not recognize
here an accent that is personal and unique, a peculiar ecstasy, a
pervading and influential magic.




Maurice Maeterlinck's _Pelléas et Mélisande_, published in 1892, stands
fifth in the chronological order of his dramatic works. It was preceded
by _La Princesse Maleine_ (1889); _L'Intruse_, _Les Aveugles_ (1890);
and _Les sept Princesses_ (1891). Since its appearance Maeterlinck has
published these plays: _Alladine et Palomides_; _Intérieur_; _La Mort de
Tintagiles: Trois petits drames pour Marionnettes_ (1894); _Aglavaine et
Selysette_ (1896); _Ariane et Barbe-Bleue_; _Soeur Béatrice_ (1901);
_Monna Vanna_ (1902); _Joyzelle_ (1903). _Pelléas et Mélisande_,
dedicated to Octave Mirbeau "in token of deep friendship, admiration,
and gratitude," was first performed at the Bouffes-Parisiens, Paris, on
May 17, 1893, with this cast: _Pelléas_, Mlle. Marie Aubry; _Mélisande_,
Mlle. Meuris; _Arkël_, Émile Raymond; _Golaud_, Lugné-Poë; _Geneviève_,
Mme. Camée; _Le petit Yniold_, Georgette Loyer.

"Take care," warns The Old Man in that most simply touching of
Maeterlinck's plays, _Intérieur_; "we do not know how far the soul
extends about men." It is a subtle and characteristic saying, and it
might have been used by the dramatist as a motto for his _Pelléas et
Mélisande_; for not only does it embody the central thought of this
poignant masque of passion and destiny, but it summarizes Maeterlinck's
attitude as a writer of drama. "In the theatre," he says in the
introduction to his translation of Ruysbroeck's _l'Ornement des Noces
Spirituelles_, "I wish to study ... man, not relatively to other people,
not in his relations to others or to himself; but, after sketching the
ordinary facts of passion, to look at his attitude in presence of
eternity and mystery, to attempt to unveil the eternal nature hidden
under the accidental characteristics of the lover, father, husband....
Is the thought an exact picture of that something which produced it? Is
it not rather a shadow of some struggle, similar to that of Jacob with
the Angel?" Art, he has said, "is a temporary mask, under which the
unknown without a face puzzles us. It is the substance of eternity,
introduced ...by a distillation of infinity. It is the honey of eternity,
taken from a flower of eternity." Everywhere, throughout his most deeply
characteristic work, he emphasizes this thought--he would have us
realize that we are the unconscious protagonists of an overshadowing,
vast, and august drama whose significance and _dénouement_ we do not and
cannot know, but of which mysterious intimations are constantly to be
perceived and felt. The characters in his plays live, as the old king,
Arkël, says in _Pelléas et Mélisande_, like persons "whispering about a
closed room," This drama--at once his most typical, moving, and
beautiful performance--swims in an atmosphere of portent and bodement;
here, as Pater noted in the work of a wholly different order of artist,
"the storm is always brooding;" here, too, "in a sudden tremor of an
aged voice, in the tacit observance of a day," we become "aware suddenly
of the great stream of human tears falling always through the shadows of
the world." Mystery and sorrow--these are its keynotes; separately or in
consonance, they are sounded from beginning to end of this strange and
muted tragedy. It is full of a quality of emotion, of beauty, which is
as "a touch from behind a curtain," issuing from a background vague and
illimitable. One is aware of vast and inscrutable forces, working in
silence and indirection, which somehow control and direct the shadowy
figures who move dimly, with grave and wistful pathos, through a no less
shadowy pageant of griefs and ecstasies and fatalities. They are little
more than the instruments of a mysterious will, these vague and
mist-enwrapped personages, who seem always to be unconscious actors in
some secret and hidden drama whose progress is concealed behind the
tangible drama of passionate and tragic circumstance in which they are
ostensibly taking part.

"Maeterlinck's man," says S.C. de Soissons in a penetrating study of the
Belgian's dramatic methods, "is a being whose sensuous life is only a
concrete symbol of his infinite transcendental side; and, further, is
only a link in an endless change of innumerable existences, a link that
remains in continual communication, in mutual union with all the other
links.... In Maeterlinck's dramas the whole of nature vibrates with man,
either warning him of coming catastrophes or taking on a mournful
attitude after they have happened. He considers man to be a great,
fathomless mystery, which one cannot determine precisely, at which one
can only glance, noting his involuntary and instinctive words,
exclamations and impressions. Maeterlinck consciously deprives nature of
her passive rôle of a soulless accessory, he animates her, orders her to
collaborate actively in the action of the drama, to speak mysteriously
beside man and to man, to forecast future incidents and catastrophes, in
a word, to participate in all the actions of that fragment of human life
which is called a drama." This "rhythmic correspondence," as Mr. James
Huneker calls it, between man and his environment, is nowhere more
effectively insisted upon by Maeterlinck than in _Pelléas et Mélisande_.
Note the incident at the conclusion of the first act, where the
departure of the ship and the gathering of the storm are commented upon
by the two lovers in a scene which is charged with an inescapable
atmosphere of foreboding; note the incident of the fugitive doves in the
scene at Mélisande's tower window; or the episodic passage near the end
of the third act, during the tense and painful scene of Golaud's
espionage: "Do you see those poor people down there trying to kindle a
little fire in the forest?--It has rained. And over there, do you see
the old gardener trying to lift that tree that the wind has blown down
across the road?--He cannot; the tree is too big ... too heavy; ... it
will lie where it fell." Note, further on (in the third scene of the
fourth act), just in advance of the culmination of the tragedy, the
strange and ominous scene wherein Little Yniold describes the passing of
the flock of sheep:

     "Why, there is no more sun.... They are coming, the little sheep.
     How many there are! They fear the dark! They crowd together! They
     cry! and they go quick! They are at the crossroads, and they know
     not which way to turn!... Now they are still.... Shepherd! why do
     they not speak any more?

     THE SHEPHERD (_who is out of sight_)
    "Because it is no longer the road to the fold.

    "Where are they going?--Shepherd! Shepherd!--where are they
     going?--Where are they going to sleep to-night? Oh! oh! it is too
     dark!--I am going to tell something to somebody."

Always the setting, the accessories, reflect and underscore the inner
movement of the drama, and always with arresting and intense effect.

It tempts one to extravagant praise, this heart-shaking and lovely
drama; this _vieille et triste légende de la forêt_, with its
indescribable glamour, its affecting sincerity, its restraint, its
exquisite and unflagging simplicity. The hesitant and melancholy
personages who invest its scenes--Mélisande, timid, naïve, child-like,
wistful, mercurial, infinitely pathetic; Pelléas, dream-filled, ardent,
yet honorable in his passion; old Arkël, wise, gentle, and resigned; the
tragic and brooding figure of Golaud; Little Yniold, artless and
pitiful, a figure impossible anywhere save in Maeterlinck; the grave and
simple diction, at times direct and homely in phrasing and imagery, at
times rapturous, subtle, and evasive; the haunting _mise-en-scène_: the
dim forest, the fountain in the park, the luminous and fragrant
nightfall, the occasional glimpses, sombre and threatening, of the sea,
the silent and gloomy castle,--all these unite to form a dramatic and
poetic and pictorial ensemble which completely fascinates and enchains
the mind. The result would have been as inconceivable before Maeterlinck
undertook the writing of drama as, to-day, it is inimitable and


Maeterlinck's play, as adapted by Debussy for musical setting, becomes a
"lyric drama in five acts and twelve tableaux." Certain portions have
been left out--as the scenes, at the beginning of Act I and Act V, in
which the servingwomen of the castle appear; the fourth scene of Act II,
in which Pelléas is persuaded by Arkël to postpone his journey to the
bedside of his dying friend Marcellus; the opening scene of Act III,
between Pelléas, Mélisande, and Yniold. Numerous passages that are
either not essential to the development of the action, or that do not
invite musical transmutation, have been curtailed or omitted, with the
result that the movement of the drama has been compressed and
accelerated throughout. In outlining very briefly the action of the
play (which should be read in the original by all who would know
Debussy's setting of it) I shall adhere to the slightly altered version
which forms the actual text of the opera.

The characters are these:

ARKËL, _King of Allemonde_
PELLÉAS & GOLAUD, _half-brothers, grandsons of_ ARKËL
MÉLISANDE, _an unknown princess; later the bride of_ GOLAUD
LITTLE YNIOLD, _Son of_ GOLAUD _by a former marriage_
_Servants, Beggars, etc._


The opening scene is in a forest, in an unknown land. It is autumn.
Golaud, gray-bearded, stern, a giant in stature ("I am made of iron and
blood," he says of himself), has been hunting a wild boar, and has been
led astray. His dogs have left him to follow a false scent. He is about
to retrace his steps, when he comes upon a young girl weeping by a
spring. She is very beautiful, and very timid. She would flee, but
Golaud reassures her. Her dress is that of a princess, though her
garments have been torn by the briars. Golaud questions her. Her name,
she says, is Mélisande; she was born "far away;" she has fled, and is
lost; but she will not tell her age, or whence she came, or what injury
has been done her, or who it is that has harmed or threatened
her--"Every one! every one!" she says. Her golden crown has fallen into
the water--"It is the crown he gave me," she cries; "it fell as I was
weeping." Golaud would recover it for her, but she will have no more of
it.... "I had rather die at once!" she protests. Golaud prevails upon
her to go with him--the night is coming on, and she cannot remain alone
in the forest. She refuses, at first, in terror, then reluctantly
consents. "Where are you going?" she asks. "I do not know.... I, too, am
lost," replies Golaud. They leave together.

The scene changes to a hall in the castle--the silent and forbidding
castle near the sea, surrounded by deep forests, where Golaud, with his
mother Geneviève and his little son Yniold (the child of his first wife,
now dead), lives with his aged father, Arkël, king of Allemonde. Here,
too, lives Golaud's young half-brother, Pelléas--for they are not sons
of the same father. Half a year has passed, and it is spring. Geneviève
reads to her father, the ancient Arkël, a letter sent by Golaud to
Pelléas. After recounting the circumstances of his meeting with
Mélisande, Golaud continues: "It is now six months since I married her,
and I know as little of her past as on the day we met. Meanwhile, dear
Pelléas, you whom I love more than a brother, ... make ready for our
return. I know that my mother will gladly pardon me; but I dread the
King, in spite of all his kindness. If, however, he will consent to
receive her as if she were his own daughter, light a lamp at the summit
of the tower overlooking the sea, upon the third night after you receive
this letter. I shall be able to see it from our vessel. If I see no
light, I shall pass on and shall return no more." They decide to receive
Golaud and his child-bride, although the marriage has prevented a union
which, for political reasons, Arkël had arranged for his grandson.

Again the scene changes. Mélisande and Geneviève are walking together in
the gardens, and they are joined by Pelléas. "We shall have a storm
to-night," he says, "yet it is so calm now.... One might embark
unwittingly and come back no more." They watch the departure of a great
ship that is leaving the port, the ship that brought Golaud and his
young wife. "Why does she sail to-night?... She may be wrecked," says
Mélisande.... "The night comes quickly," observes Pelléas. A silence
falls between them. "It is time to go in," says Geneviève. "Pelléas,
show the way to Mélisande. I must go 'tend to little Yniold," and she
leaves them alone. "Will you let me take your hand?" says Pelléas to
Mélisande. Her hands are full of flowers, she responds. He will hold her
arm, he says, for the road is steep. He tells her that he has had a
letter from his dying friend Marcellus, summoning him to his bedside,
and that he may perhaps go away on the morrow. "Oh! why do you go away?"
says Mélisande.


The second act begins at an old and abandoned fountain in the park--the
"Fountain of the Blind," so called because it once possessed miraculous
healing powers. Pelléas and Mélisande enter together. It is a stifling
day, and they seek the cool tranquillity of the fountain and the shadow
of the overarching trees--"One can hear the water sleep," says Pelléas.
Their talk is dangerously intimate. Mélisande dips her hand in the cool
water, and plays with her wedding-ring as she lies stretched along the
edge of the marble basin. She throws the ring in the air and it falls
into the deep water. Mélisande displays agitation: "What shall we say if
Golaud asks where it is?" "The truth, the truth," replies Pelléas.

The scene changes to an apartment in the castle. Golaud lies upon a bed,
with Mélisande bending over him. He has been wounded while hunting.
Mélisande is compassionate, perhaps remorseful. She too, she confesses,
is ill, unhappy, though she will not tell Golaud what it is that ails
her. Her husband discovers the absence of her wedding-ring, and harshly,
suspiciously, asks where it is. Mélisande, confused and terrified,
dissembles, and answers that she must have lost it in a grotto by the
seashore, when she went there in the morning to pick shells for little
Yniold. She is sure it is there. Golaud bids her go at once and search
for it. She fears to go alone, and he suggests that she ask Pelléas to
accompany her.

The next scene discovers Mélisande with Pelléas in the grotto. They are
deeply agitated. It is very dark, but Pelléas describes to her the look
of the place, for, he tells her, she must be able to answer Golaud if he
should question her. The moon breaks through the clouds and illumines
brightly the interior, revealing three old and white-haired beggars
asleep against a ledge of rock. Mélisande is uneasy, and would go. They
depart in silence.


The opening scene of the third act shows the exterior of one of the
towers of the castle, with a winding staircase passing beneath a window
at which sits Mélisande, combing her unbound hair, and singing in the
starlit darkness--"like a beautiful strange bird," says Pelléas, who
enters by the winding stair. He entreats her to lean further forward out
of the window, that he may come closer, that he may touch her hand; for,
he says, he is leaving on the morrow. She leans further out, telling him
that he may take her hand if he will promise not to leave on the next
day. Suddenly her long tresses fall over her head and stream about
Pelléas. He is enraptured. "I have never seen such hair as yours,
Mélisande! See! see! Though it comes from so high, it floods me to the
heart!... And it is sweet, sweet as though it fell from heaven!... I can
no longer see the sky through your locks.... My two hands can no longer
hold them.... They are alive like birds in my hands. And they love me,
they love me more than you do!" Mélisande begs to be released, Pelléas
kisses the enveloping tresses.... "Do you hear my kisses?--They mount
along your hair." Doves come from the tower--Mélisande's doves--and fly
about them. They are frightened, and are flying away. "They will be
lost in the dark!" laments Mélisande. Golaud enters by the winding
stair, and surprises them. Mélisande is entrapped by her hair, which is
caught in the branches of a tree. "What are you doing here?" asks
Golaud. They are confused, and stammer inarticulately. "Mélisande, do
not lean so far out of the window," cautions her husband. "Do you not
know how late it is? It is almost midnight. Do not play so in the
darkness. You are a pair of children!" He laughs nervously. "What

He and Pelléas go out, and the scene shifts to the vaults in the depths
under the castle,--dank, unwholesome depths, that exhale an odor of
death, where the darkness is "like poisoned slime." Golaud leads his
brother through the vaults, which Pelléas had seen only once, long ago.
"Here is the stagnant water of which I spoke; do you smell the
death-odor?--That is what I wanted you to perceive," insinuates Golaud.
"Let us go to the edge of this overhanging rock, and do you lean over a
little. You will feel it in your face.... Lean over; have no fear; ... I
will hold you ... give me ... no, no, not your hand, it might slip....
Your arm, your arm! Do you see down into the abyss, Pelléas?" "Yes, I
think I can see to the bottom of the abyss," rejoins Pelléas. "Is it the
light that trembles so?" He straightens up, turns, and looks at Golaud.
"Yes, it is the lantern," answers Mélisande's husband, his voice
shaking. "See--I moved it to throw light on the walls." "I stifle
here.... Let us go!" exclaims Pelléas. They leave in silence.

The succeeding scene shows them on a terrace at the exit of the vaults.
Golaud warns Pelléas. "About Mélisande: I overheard what passed and what
was said last night. I realize that it was but child's play; but it must
not be repeated.... She is very delicate, and it is necessary to be more
than usually careful, as she is perhaps with child, and the least
emotion might cause serious results. It is not the first time I have
noticed that there might be something between you.... You are older than
she; it will suffice to have said this to you. Avoid her as much as
possible, though not too pointedly."

The next scene passes before the castle. Golaud and his little son
Yniold, the innocent playfellow of Mélisande and Pelléas, are together.
Golaud questions him. "You are always with mama.... See, we are just
under mama's window now. She may be saying her prayers at this
moment.... Tell me, Yniold, she is often with your uncle Pelléas, is she
not?" The child's naïve answers inflame his jealousy, confirm his
suspicions, though they baffle him. "Do they never tell you to go and
play somewhere else?" he asks. "No, papa, they are afraid when I am not
with them.... They always weep in the dark.... That makes one weep,
too.... She is pale, papa." "Ah! ah!... patience, my God, patience!"
cries the anguished Golaud.... "They kiss each other sometimes?" he
queries. "Yes ... yes; ... once ... when it rained." "They kissed each
other?--But how, how did they kiss?" "So, papa, so!" laughs the boy, and
then cries out as he is pricked by his father's beard. "Oh, your
beard!... It pricks! It is getting all gray, papa; and your hair,
too--all gray, all gray!" Suddenly the window under which they are
sitting is illuminated, and the light falls upon them. "Oh, mama has lit
her lamp!" exclaims Yniold. "Yes," observes Golaud; "it begins to grow
light." Yniold wishes to go, but Golaud restrains him. "Let us stay here
in the shadow a little longer.... One cannot tell, yet.... I think
Pelléas is mad!" he exclaims violently. He lifts Yniold up to the
window, cautioning him to make no noise, and asks him what he sees. The
child reports that Mélisande is there, and that his uncle Pelléas is
there, too. "What are they doing? Are they near each other?" "They are
looking at the light." "They do not say anything?" "No, papa, they do
not close their eyes.... Oh! oh!... I am terribly afraid!" "Why, what
are you afraid of?--look! look!" demands Golaud. "Oh, oh! I am going to
cry, papa!--let me down! let me down!" insists Yniold, in nameless


Mélisande and Pelléas meet in an apartment in the castle. Pelléas is
about to leave, to travel, he tells her, now that his father is
recovering; but before he goes he must see her alone--he must speak to
her that night. He asks that she meet him in the park, at the "Fountain
of the Blind." It will be the last night, he says, and she will see him
no more. Mélisande consents to meet him, but she will not hear of his
going away. "I shall see you always; I shall look upon you always," she
tells him. "You will look in vain," says Pelléas; "I shall try to go
very far away." They separate. Arkël enters. He tells Mélisande that he
has pitied her since she came to the castle: "I observed you. You were
listless--but with the strange, astray look of one who, in the sunlight,
in a beautiful garden, awaits ever a great misfortune.--I cannot
explain.--But I was sad to see you thus. Come here; why do you stay
there mute and with downcast eyes?--I have kissed you but once hitherto,
the day of your coming; and yet the old need sometimes to touch with
their lips a woman's forehead or the cheek of a child, that they may
still keep their faith in the freshness of life and avert for a moment
the menaces of death. Are you afraid of my old lips? How I have pitied
you these months!" She tells him that she has not been unhappy. But
perhaps, he says, she is of those who are unhappy without knowing it.
Golaud enters, ferocious and distraught. He has blood on his forehead.
It is nothing, he says--he has passed through a thicket of thorns.
Mélisande would wipe his brow. He repulses her fiercely. "I will not
have you touch me, do you understand?" he cries. "I came to get my
sword." "It is here, on the prie-Dieu," says Mélisande, and she brings
it to him. "Why do you tremble so?" he says to her. "I am not going to
kill you.--You hope to see something in my eyes without my seeing
anything in yours? Do you suppose I may know something?" He turns to
Arkël. "Do you see those great eyes?--it is as if they gloried in their
power." "I see," responds Arkël, "only a great innocence." "A great
innocence!" cries Golaud wildly. "They are more than innocent!... They
are purer than the eyes of a lamb.--They might teach God lessons in
innocence! A great innocence! Listen! I am so near them that I can feel
the freshness of their lashes when they close--and yet I am less far
from the great secrets of the other world than from the smallest secret
of those eyes!--A great innocence?--More than innocence! One would say
that the angels of heaven celebrated there an unceasing baptism. I know
those eyes! I have seen them at their work! Close them! close them! or I
shall close them forever!--You need not put your right hand to your
throat so; I am saying a very simple thing--I have no concealed meaning.
If I had, why should I not speak it? Ah!--do not attempt to
flee!--Here!--Give me that hand!--Ah! your hands are too hot!--Away! the
touch of your flesh disgusts me!--Here!--You shall not escape me now!"
He seizes her by the hair. "Down on your knees! On your knees before
me!--Ah! your long hair is of some use at last!" He throws her from side
to side, holding her by her hair. "Right, left!--Left, right!--Absalom!
Absalom!--Forward! now back! To the ground! to the ground! Ha! ha! you
see, I laugh already like an imbecile!" Arkël, running up, seeks to
restrain him. Golaud affects a sudden and disdainful calmness. "You are
free to act as you please," he says.--"It is of no consequence to me.--I
am too old to care; and, besides, I am not a spy. I shall await my
chance; and then.... Oh! then!... I shall simply act as custom demands."
"What is the matter?--Is he drunk?" asks Arkël. "No, no!" cries
Mélisande, weeping. "He hates me--and I am so wretched! so wretched!"

"If I were God," ruminates the aged king, "how infinitely I should pity
the hearts of men!"

The scene changes once more to the fountain in the park. Yniold is
discovered seeking to move a great rock behind which his golden ball has
rolled. Night is coming on. The distant bleating of sheep is heard.
Yniold looks over the edge of the terrace and sees the flock crowding
along the road. Suddenly they cease their crying. Yniold calls to the
shepherd. "Why do they not speak any more?" "Because," answers the
shepherd, who is concealed from sight, "it is no longer the road to the
fold." "Where are they going to sleep to-night?" cries the child. There
is no answer, and he departs, exclaiming that he must find somebody to
speak to.[5] Pelléas enters, to keep his tryst with Mélisande. "It is
the last time," he meditates. "It must all be ended. I have been playing
like a child with what I did not understand. I have played, dreaming
about the snares of fate. By what have I been suddenly awakened? Who has
aroused me all at once? I shall depart, crying out for joy and woe like
a blind man fleeing from his burning house. I shall tell her I am going.
My father is out of danger; and I can no longer lie to myself.--It is
late; she is not coming.

[5] Although this scene was set to music by Debussy, and appears in both
the orchestral and piano scores, it is omitted from the performances at
the Opéra-Comique.

--It would be better to go away without seeing her again.--But I must
look well at her this time.--There are some things that I no longer
recall.--It seems at times as though I had not seen her for a hundred
years.--And I have not yet looked deep into her gaze. There remains
nothing to me if I go away thus. And all those memories!--it is as if I
were to carry away a little water in a muslin bag.--I must see her one
last time, see to the bottom of her heart.--I must tell her all that I
have never told her." Mélisande enters. Their greeting is simple.
Pelléas bids her come under the shade of the linden. She wishes to
remain where it is lighter; she wishes to stay where she may be seen.
Golaud, she says, is sleeping. It is late. In an hour the great gates of
the castle will be closed. Pelléas tells her that it is perhaps the last
time he shall see her, that he must go away forever. She asks him why it
is that he is always saying that. "Must I tell you what you know
already?" rejoins Pelléas. "You know not what I am going to tell you?"
"Why, no; I know nothing," says Mélisande. "You know not why I must go?
You know not that it is because [he kisses her abruptly] I love you?" "I
love you too," says Mélisande simply, in a low voice. "You love me? you
love me too?" cries Pelléas. "Since when have you loved me?" "Since I
saw you first," she answers. "Oh, how you say that!" cries Pelléas.
"Your voice seems to have blown across the sea in spring!... You say it
so frankly--like an angel questioned.--Your voice! your voice! It is
cooler and more frank than the water is!--It is like pure water on my
lips!--Give me, give me your hands!--Oh, how small your hands are!--I
did not know you were so beautiful! I have never before seen anything so
beautiful!--I was filled with unrest; I sought everywhere; yet I found
not beauty.--And now I have found you!--I do not believe there can be
upon the earth a woman more beautiful!" Their love-scene is harshly
interrupted. "What is that noise?" asks Pelléas. "They are closing the
gates!--We cannot return now. Do you hear the bolts?--Listen!--the great
chains!--It is too late!" "So much the better!" cries Mélisande, in
passionate abandonment. "Do you say that?" exclaims her lover. "See, it
is no longer we who will it so! Come, come!" They embrace. "Listen! my
heart is almost strangling me! Ah! how beautiful it is in the shadows!"
"There is some one behind us!" whispers Mélisande. Pelléas has heard
nothing. "I hear only your heart in the darkness." "I heard the
crackling of dead leaves," insists Mélisande. "A-a-h! he is behind a
tree!" she whispers. "Who?" "Golaud!--he has his sword!" "And I have
none!" cries Pelléas. "He does not know we have seen him," he cautions.
"Do not stir; do not turn your head.--He will remain there so long as he
thinks we do not know he is watching us.--He is still motionless.--Go,
go at once this way. I will wait for him--I will hold him back." "No,
no, no!" cries Mélisande.

"Go! go! he has seen everything!--He will kill us!"

"All the better! all the better!"

"He is coming!--Your mouth! your mouth!"

"Yes! Yes! Yes!"

They kiss desperately.

"Oh, oh! All the stars are falling!" cries Pelléas.

"Upon me also!"

"Again! Again!--Give! give!"

"All! all! all!"

Golaud rushes upon them with drawn sword and kills Pelléas, who falls
beside the fountain. Mélisande flees in terror, crying out as she goes,
"Oh! oh! I have no courage! I have no courage!"

Golaud pursues her in silence through the forest.


The last act opens in an apartment in the castle. Mélisande is stretched
unconscious upon a bed. Golaud, Arkël, and the physician stand in a
corner of the room. Some days earlier Mélisande and her husband had
been found stretched out senseless before the castle gate, Golaud having
still in his side the sword with which he had sought to kill himself.
Mélisande had been wounded,--"a tiny little wound that would not kill a
pigeon;" yet her life is despaired of; and on her death-bed she has been
delivered of a child--"a puny little girl such as a beggar might be
ashamed to own--a little waxen thing that came before its time, that can
be kept alive only by being wrapped in wool." The room is very silent.
"It seems to me that we keep too still in her room," says Arkël; "it is
not a good sign; look how she sleeps--how slowly.--It is as if her soul
were forever chilled." Golaud laments that he has killed her without
cause. "They had kissed like little children--and I--I did it in spite
of myself!" Mélisande wakes. She wishes to have the window open, that
she may see the sunset. She has never felt better, she says, in answer
to Arkël's questioning. She asks if she is alone in the room. Her
husband is present, answers Arkël. "If you are afraid, he will go away.
He is very unhappy." "Golaud is here?" she says; "why does he not come
to me?" Golaud staggers to the bed. He begs the others to withdraw for a
moment, as he must speak with her alone. When they have left him, his
torturing suspicions, suspicions that will not down, find voice. He
entreats her to tell him the truth. "The truth must be spoken to one
about to die." Did she love Pelléas? he asks in agony. "Why, yes, I
loved him--where is he?" The answer maddens him. "Do you not understand?
Will you not understand? It seems to me--it seems to me--well, then, it
is this: I ask you if you loved him with a guilty love? Were you--were
you both guilty?" "No, no; we were not guilty," she replies; "why do you
ask me that?" Arkël and the physician appear at the door. "You may come
in," says Golaud despairingly; "it is useless, I shall never know! I
shall die here like a blind man!" "You will kill her," warns Arkël. "Is
it you, grandfather?" questions Mélisande; "is it true that winter is
already coming?--it is cold, and there are no more leaves." "Are you
cold? Shall I close the windows?" asks Golaud. "No, no, not till the sun
has sunk into the sea--it sets slowly." Arkël asks her if she wishes to
see her child. "What child?" she inquires. Arkël tells her that she is a
mother. The child is brought, and put into her arms. Mélisande can
scarcely lift her arms to take her. "She does not laugh, she is little,"
says Mélisande; "she, too, will weep--I pity her." Gradually the room
has filled with the women-servants of the castle, who range themselves
in silence along the walls and wait. "She is going to sleep," observes
Arkël; "her eyes are full of tears. It is her soul, now, that weeps. Why
does she stretch her arms out so?--what does she wish?" "Toward her
child, without doubt," answers the physician. "It is the struggle of
motherhood against...." "At this moment?--At once?" cries Golaud, in a
renewed outburst of anguish.... "Oh, oh! I must speak to her! Mélisande!
Mélisande!--leave me alone with her!" "Trouble her not," gravely
interposes Arkël. "Do not speak to her again.--You know not what the
soul is.--We must speak in low tones now. She must no longer be
disturbed. The human soul is very silent. The human soul likes to depart
alone. It suffers so timidly! But the sadness, Golaud, the sadness of
all we see!" At this moment the servants fall suddenly on their knees at
the back of the room. Arkël turns suddenly: "What is the matter?" The
physician approaches the bed and examines the body of Mélisande. "They
are right," he says. There is a silence.

"I saw nothing. Are you sure?" questions Arkël.

"Yes, yes."

"I heard nothing. So quickly! so quickly! She goes without a word!"

Golaud sobs aloud.

"Do not remain here," says Arkël. "She must have silence now. Come;
come. It is terrible, but it is not your fault. It was a little being,
so quiet, so timid, and so silent. It was a poor little mysterious being
like everyone. She lies there as though she were the elder sister of her
baby. Come; the child should not stay here in this room. She must live,
now, in her place. It is the poor little one's turn."




Debussy's _Pelléas et Mélisande, drame lyrique en 5 actes et 12
tableaux_, was performed for the first time on any stage at the
Opéra-Comique, Paris, April 30, 1902. Its first performance outside of
Paris was at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, January 9, 1907; its
second was at Frankfort, April 19, 1907. Its third will be the coming
production at the Manhattan Opera House, New York. The original Paris
cast was as follows: _Pelléas_, M. Jean Périer; _Mélisande_, Miss Mary
Garden; _Arkël_, M. Vieuille; _Golaud_, M. Dufrane; _Geneviève_, Mlle.
Gerville-Réache; _Le petit Yniold_, M. Blondin; _Un Médicin_, M. Viguié.
M. André Messager was the conductor. The work was admirably mounted
under the supervision of the Director of the Opéra-Comique, M. Albert

The fortunes of the opera have not been altogether happy. It has been
said that Debussy conceived the idea of writing music for Maeterlinck's
play soon after its first performance at the Bouffes-Parisiens in 1893;
that, although it was necessary to secure the dramatist's consent to its
adaptation, he did not solicit Maeterlinck's permission until he had
thought out his musical scheme to a considerable degree of elaboration;
and that Maeterlinck (being of that complacent majority of literary men
who neither care for nor are intelligently curious concerning musical
art) was immensely surprised to learn that his play had suggested a
tonal setting. There was much correspondence between composer and
dramatist before Maeterlinck finally heard the music of Debussy at a
rehearsal at the Opéra-Comique: so, at least, runs the legend. Just when
or precisely how the famous and probably inevitable rupture occurred
between them, tradition does not make altogether clear. Maeterlinck is
alleged to have become incensed on account of certain excisions made by
Debussy in fitting the text of the play to music; then, it appears,
there was a quarrel over the choice of a singer for the performance, and
Maeterlinck published a letter of protest in which he declared that "the
_Pelléas_ of the Opéra-Comique" was "a piece which had become entirely
foreign" to him, and that, as he was "deprived of all control over it,"
he could only hope "that its fall would be prompt and noisy." The matter
is important only as contributing to the history of Debussy's work, and
would scarcely reward detailed examination or discussion.

One would have said, in advance of the event, that Debussy, of all
composers, living or dead, was best fitted to write music for
Maeterlinck's beautiful and perturbing play. He was not only best
fitted, he was ideally fitted; in listening to this music one catches
oneself imagining that it and the drama issued from the same brain. It
is impossible to conceive of the play wedded to any other music, and it
is difficult, indeed, after knowing the work in its lyric form, to think
of it apart from its tonal commentary. For Debussy has caught and
re-uttered, with almost incredible similitude, the precise poetic accent
of the dramatist. He has found poignant and absolute analogies for its
veiled and obsessing loveliness, its ineffable sadness, the strange and
fate-burdened atmosphere in which it is steeped--these things have here
attained a new voice and tangibility.

In calling this a "revolutionary" score one is being simply and baldly
literal. To realize the justness of the epithet, one has only to
speculate upon what Wagner would have said, or what Richard Strauss may
think, of an opera (let us adhere, for convenience, to an accommodating
if inaccurate term) written for the voices, from beginning to end, in a
kind of recitative which is virtually a chant; an opera in which there
is no vocal melody whatsoever, and comparatively little symphonie
development of themes in the orchestra; in which an enigmatic and wholly
eccentric system of harmony is exploited; in which there are scarcely
more than a dozen _fortissimo_ passages in the course of five acts; in
which, for the greater part of the time, the orchestra employed is the
orchestra of Mozart,--surely, this is something new in modern
musico-dramatic art; surely, it requires some courage, or an
indifference amounting to courage, to write thus in a day when the
plangent and complex orchestra of the _Ring_ is considered inadequate,
and the 113 instrumentalists of _Salome_, like the trumpeters of an
elder time, are storming the operatic ramparts of two continents.

The radicalism of the music was fully appreciated at the time of the
first performances in Paris. To the dissenters, Debussy's musical
personages were mere "stammering phantoms," and he was regaled with the
age-worn charge of having "ignored melody altogether." Debussy has
defended his methods with point and directness. "I have been
reproached," he says, "because in my score the melodic phrase is always
in the orchestra, never in the voice. I tried, with all my strength and
all my sincerity, to identify my music with the poetical essence of the
drama. Before all things, I respected the characters, the lives of my
personages; I wished them to express themselves independently of me, of
themselves. I let them sing in me. I tried to listen to them and to
interpret them faithfully. I wished--intended, in fact--that the action
should never be arrested; that it should be continuous, uninterrupted. I
wished to dispense with parasitic musical phrases. When listening to a
work, the spectator is wont to experience two kinds of emotions which
are quite distinct: the musical emotion, on the one hand; the emotion of
the character [in the drama], on the other; generally they are felt
successively. I have tried to blend these two emotions, and make them
simultaneous. Melody is, if I may say so, almost anti-lyric, and
powerless to express the constant change of emotion or life. Melody is
suitable only for the song (_chanson_), which confirms a fixed
sentiment. I have never been willing that my music should hinder,
through technical exigencies, the changes of sentiment and passion felt
by my characters. It is effaced as soon as it is necessary that these
should have perfect liberty in their gestures as in their cries, in
their joy as in their sorrow." However much one may hesitate to
subscribe to Debussy's generalities, the final justification for his
procedure is in the fact that it is ideally suited to its especial
purpose,--the tonal utterance of Maeterlinck's rhymeless, metreless,
and broken phrases. To have set them in the sustained arioso style of
_Tristan und Isolde_ would have been as impossible as it would have been
inept. As it is, the writing for the voices in _Pelléas_ never, as one
might reasonably suppose, becomes monotonous. The achievement--an
astonishing _tour de force_, at the least--is as artistically successful
as it is unprecedented in modern music.

In his treatment of the orchestra, Debussy makes a scarcely less
resolute departure from tradition. There is little symphonic development
in the Wagnerian sense. His orchestra reflects the emotional
implications of the text and action with absolute and scrupulous
fidelity, but suggestively rather than with detailed emphasis. The drama
is far less heavily underscored than with Wagner; the note of passion or
of conflict or of tragedy is never forced. His personages love and
desire, exult and hate and die, with a surprising economy of vehemence
and insistence. Yet, unrhetorical as the music is, it is never pallid;
and in such truly climacteric moments as that of Golaud's agonized
outbreak in the scene with Mélisande, in the fourth act, and the
ecstatic culmination of the final love-scene, the music supports the
dramatic and emotional crisis with superb competency and vigor.

He follows Wagner to the extent of using the inescapable device of
representative themes, though he has, with his usual airy inconsistency,
characterized the Wagnerian _Leitmotiv_ system as "rather coarse." It is
true, however, that his typical phrases are employed far more sparingly
and subtly than modern precedent would have led one to expect. They are
seldom set in sharp and vividly dramatic contrast, as with Wagner; nor
are they polyphonically deployed. Often they are mere sound-wraiths,
intended to denote moods and nuances of emotion so impalpable and
evanescent, so vague and interior, that it is more than a little
difficult to mark their precise significance. Often they are mere
fragments of themes, mere patches of harmonic color, evasive and
intangible, designed almost wholly to translate phases of that psychic
penumbra in which the characters and the action of the drama are
enwrapped. They have a common kinship in their dim and muted loveliness,
their grave reticence, the deep and immitigable sadness with which, even
at their most rapturous, they are penetrated. This is a score rich in
beauty and strangeness, yet the music has often a deceptive naïveté, a
naïveté that is so extreme that it reveals itself, finally, as the
quintessence of subtlety and reticence--in which respect, again, we are
reminded of its perfect, its well-nigh uncanny, correspondence with the
quality of Maeterlinck's drama.

As it has been remarked, Debussy's orchestra is here, with few
exceptions, the orchestra of Mozart's day. On page after page he writes
for strings alone, or for strings with wood-wind and horns. He uses the
full modern orchestra only upon the rarest occasions, and then more
often for color than for volume. He has an especial affection for the
strings, particularly in the lower registers; and he is exceedingly fond
of subdividing and muting them. It is rare to find him using the
wood-wind choir alone, or the wood and brass without the strings. His
orchestra contains the usual modern equipment--3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2
clarinets, an English horn, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3
trombones, bass tuba, kettledrums, glockenspiel, cymbals, 2 harps, and
strings; yet one may count on but little more than the fingers of both
hands the pages in which this apparatus is employed in its full
strength. And in spite of this curious and unpopular reticence, we
listen here, as M. Bruneau has observed, to "a magic orchestra"--an
orchestra of indescribable richness, delicacy, and suppleness--an
orchestra that melts and shimmers with opalescent hues--an orchestra
that has substance without density, sonority without blatancy,
refinement without thinness.

The music, as a whole, is as insinuating as it is unparalleled. Many
passages are of an hypnotic and abiding fascination. There is something
necromantic in the art which can so swiftly and so surely cast an
ineluctable spell upon the heart and the imagination: such a spell as is
cast in the scene at the _Fontaine des Aveugles_, in the second act; or
when, from the window in the castle tower, Mélisande's unbound hair
falls and envelops Pelléas--an unforgettable page; or when the lovers
meet for the last time at the Fountain of the Blind; or in the scene of
Mélisande's death--one of the most pathetic and affecting pages in all
music. One must wonder at the elasticity and richness of the harmonic
texture--which, while it is incurably "irregular," is never crude or
inchoate; at the distinction of the melodic line; at the rhythmical
variety; at the masterly and individual orchestration. No faculty of
trained perception is required justly to value the excellences of
Debussy's score. There is great beauty, great eloquence, in this music.
It has sincerity, dignity, and reserve, yet it is both deeply
impassioned and enamoringly tender; and it is as absolutely personal, as
underived, as was _Tristan_ forty years ago.


The score of _Pelléas et Mélisande_ ill brooks the short and ruthless
method of the thematic annotator. As I have pointed out in the foregoing
pages, its themes are often so indeterminate, so shadowy and elusive, as
to rebuke the analyst who would disengage and expose them. Many of them
are simply harmonic hues and half-lights, melodic shreds and fragments,
whose substance is as impalpable as mist and whose outlines waver and
fade almost before they are perceived. Few of them are clearly and
definitely articulated; for the most part they are, as I have called
them, mere "sound-wraiths," intentionally suggestive rather than
definitive, evocative rather than descriptive. If one ventures to
exhibit and to name them, one does so rather for the purpose of drawing
attention to their beauty, their singularity, and their delicate
potency, than with any thought of imposing an arbitrary character upon
them or of insisting upon what seems to be their essential
meaning--which is often altogether too recondite for positive
identification. I shall not, therefore, attempt to dissect the music
measure by measure, but shall endeavor rather to survey it "in the
large," to offer simply a general indication of its more significant
features. Nor shall I offer any further justification or apology for
the titles which I have adopted for the various representative themes
than to say that they have seemed to me to be sufficiently supported by
their association with the moods and events of the drama. It is, of
course, entirely possible that apter designations might be found for
them; I offer those that I have chosen more as an invitation to the
sympathetic and the inquisitive than from any desire to impose my own
interpretation upon unwilling, dissenting, or indifferent minds.


A brief orchestral prelude, less than twenty measures in length,
introduces the opening scene of the first act. Divided and muted
'cellos, double-basses, and bassoons intone, _pp_, a solemn and brooding
theme[6] designed to evoke the thought of the forest, which, sombre,
mysterious, and oppressive, forms the background against which the
events of the drama are projected (page 1, measure 1):[7]

[6] Its curious progressions, based on the Dorian mode of the
plain-chant (corresponding to a scale of D-minor without accidentals), I
have alluded to in a previous chapter.

[7] These indications refer to the arrangement of the score for voices
and piano, with French and English text, published by A. Durand & Fils
of Paris in 1907. I have indicated in each case, in addition to the
page, the measure in which the example begins.

I. THE FOREST [Illustration: Très modéré]

This is immediately followed by one of the most important themes in the
opera, that which seems to typify the veiled and overshadowing destiny
which is very close to the central thought of Maeterlinck's play.
Strangely harmonized, this _Fate_ theme (it is in the second measure
that its kernel is contained, and it is this portion of it that is most
frequently repeated) is sounded, _pp, très modéré_, by oboes, English
horn, and clarinets (page 1, measure 5):



These two themes are repeated, with altered harmonization; then follows
one of the two principal themes of the score--that of _Mélisande_, sung,
_doux et expressif_, by the oboe over tremolos in the divided strings
(page 1, measure 14):


[Illustration: _p doux et expressif_]

It is followed by a derivative theme which, in the drama, suggests the
naïveté of Mélisande's personality (page 1, measure 1):


Flute, oboe and clarinet repeat it over a counterpoint formed by the
_Fate_ theme (2 horns), and the curtain opens to the accompaniment of
the _Forest_ motive. This latter theme, with the motive of _Fate_,
underscores the earlier portions of the dialogue between Golaud and
Mélisande. At Golaud's words: "Oh! you are beautiful!" we hear (page 7,
measure 1) an ardent phrase in the strings expressive of his awakened
passion for the distressful little princess:


[Illustration: Animée]

This theme is sounded again, with peculiarly penetrating effect, in the
divided strings, as Golaud entreats Mélisande not "to weep so" (page 9,
measure 4), and, later in the scene (page 19, measure 1), when he tells
her that she must not stay in the forest alone after nightfall, and
urges her to go with him. As he informs her that he is "Prince Golaud,
grandson of Arkël, the aged king of Allemonde," we hear, on the bassoons
and horns, his own motive (page 14, measure 8):


[Illustration: Très soutenu]

"You look like a mere child," he says, and the _Mélisande_ theme is
given out, _doux et calme_, by the divided strings (page 18, measure 2).
As the two go out together, the motive of _Fate_ is quietly intoned by
the horns (page 22, measure 3).

An interlude of some fifty measures, in which the _Forest, Fate_, and
_Mélisande_ themes are exploited, introduces the second scene of the
act. To an accompaniment of long-sustained chords varied by recurrences
of the _Mélisande_ theme, Geneviève reads to the venerable Arkël
Golaud's letter to his brother. The entrance of Pelléas is accompanied
by the theme which characterizes him throughout--the second of the two
motives (that of Mélisande being the other) which most conspicuously
dominate the score. It is announced (page 33, measure 10) by three
flutes and a clarinet, over a viola accompaniment:


[Illustration: Animez un peu]

The scene closes with a variant of this, and there is an interlude in
which the orchestra weaves a commentary out of the themes of _Fate_ and
_Golaud's Love_.

As the third scene opens (before the castle), the _Mélisande_ theme is
sung, _mélancolique et doux_, by the oboe against a murmuring
accompaniment of the strings. Together with the _Pelléas_ theme, it
accompanies the opening portion of the scene. A suggestive use is made
of a fragment of the _Fate_ theme at Mélisande's words, after Pelléas
prophesies the approach of a storm: "And yet it is so calm now!" (page
44, measure 5). Just before the voices of the departing sailors are
heard, the curious student will note a characteristic passage in the
orchestra (page 45, measure 1)--a sequence of descending "ninth-chords"
built on a downward scale of whole tones. The _Fate_ theme, combined
with that of _Mélisande_, colors the rest of the scene to the end. The
conclusion of the act is striking: two flutes outline a variant of the
_Mélisande_ motive; a horn sounds the first three notes of the second
measure of the _Fate_ theme, and four horns and flute sustain, _pp_, an
unresolved suspension--C#-F#-A#-D#-G#.


[Illustration: _presque plus rien_]


The _Pelléas_ theme, sung by two flutes, opens the brief introduction to
the second act. It is repeated, interwoven with harp arpeggios.
Immediately preceding the entrance of Pelléas and Mélisande a muted
horn, two flutes, two oboes, and harp sound a chord of singularly liquid
quality--one of those fragmentary effects in the invention of which
Debussy is so curiously happy. It is the motive of _The Fountain_.[8]

[8] I quote it in the completer and more beautiful form in which it
appears on page 57, measures 1-3.


[Illustration: Modéré]

It is repeated, with still more magical effect (scored for divided
violins and violas, two muted horns, and harp), as Mélisande remarks
upon the clearness of the water, while the violins and violas weave
about it a shimmering figure in sixteenth-notes with which its
appearances are usually associated. As Pelléas warns Mélisande to take
care, while she leans above the water along the marble edge of the
basin, the clarinet, over a string accompaniment, announces an
impassioned phrase (page 62, measure 3)--the theme of _Awakening


[Illustration: En animant]

As Pelléas questions Mélisande about the ring with which she is
playing,--her wedding-ring,--and when it falls into the water while she
is tossing it in the air, we hear persistently the theme of _Fate_,
which, with the _Golaud_ theme (portentously sounded, _pp_, by horns and
bassoons), closes the scene. There is an interlude in which the
_Golaud_, _Mélisande_, and _Fate_ themes are heard.

The rhythm of the latter theme mutters ominously in the bass as the
second scene is disclosed. When _Golaud_, lying wounded on his bed,
describes to Mélisande how, "at the stroke of noon," his horse "swerved
suddenly, with no apparent cause," and threw him, as he was hunting in
the forest ("could he have seen something extraordinary?"), the oboe
recalls the theme of _Awakening Desire_, which was first heard as
Mélisande and Pelléas sat together by the fountain in the forest during
the heat of midday. The rhythm of the _Fate_ motive is hinted by
violas, 'cellos, and horns as Golaud, in answer to Mélisande's
compassionate questioning, observes that he is "made of iron and blood."
Mélisande weeps, and the oboe sounds a plaintive variant of her motive
(page 82, measure 2); the strings repeat it as she complains that she is
ill. Nothing has happened, no one has harmed her, she answers, in
response to Golaud's questionings: "It is no one. You do not understand
me. It is something stronger than I," she says; and we hear the
_Pelléas_ theme, dulcetly harmonized, in the strings. When, later,
Golaud mentions his brother's name inquiringly, and she replies that she
thinks he dislikes her, although he speaks to her sometimes, we hear,
very softly, the theme of _Awakening Desire_. As their talk progresses
to its climax, there is a recurrence of the _Fate_ theme; then, as
Golaud, upon discovering the loss of her wedding-ring, harshly tells her
that he "would rather have lost everything than that," the trombones and
tuba declaim (page 99, measure 5) a threatening and sinister phrase
which will later be more definitely associated with the thought of
Golaud's vengeful purpose:


[Illustration: Anime, un peu retenu]

This is repeated still more vehemently three measures further on, and
there is a return of the _Fate_ motive as Mélisande, at the bidding of
Golaud, goes forth to seek the missing ring. An interlude, in which are
blended the variant of the _Mélisande_ theme, which denotes her
grieving, and the shimmering figure in sixteenth-notes heard during the
dialogue at the fountain, leads into the scene before the grotto.

As Pelléas and Mélisande stand in the darkness of the cavern we hear
again (page 110, measure 2) the variant of the _Fate_ motive which
marked the close of the preceding scene; then, as a sudden shaft of
moonlight illuminates the grotto, it is expanded and transmuted into a
gleaming flood of orchestral and harmonic color (two flutes, oboe, two
harps _glissando_, string tremolos, cymbals _pp_). While they talk of
the beggars sleeping in a corner of the cave, an oboe and flute trace a
tenuous and melancholy phrase (_doux et triste_) which continues almost
to the end of the scene; it leads into a quiet coda formed out of the
theme of _Fate_.


After several bars of preluding by flute, harp, violas, and 'cellos
(harmonics), on an arpeggio figure, _ppp_, flutes and oboe present (page
115, measure 6) a theme which, in an ampler version, dominates the
entire scene. Its complete form, in which I conceive it to be suggestive
of the magic of night, is as follows (page 118, measure 2):


[Illustration: Modéré sans lenteur]

It continues in the orchestra until, as Pelléas urges Mélisande to lean
further out of the window that he may see her hair unbound, a new theme
enters, seeming to characterize the ardor of Pelléas' mood (page 120,
measure 3[9]):

[9] I quote it as it appears in its maturer form on page 125 (measure


[Illustration: Animez toujours]

As Mélisande leans further and further out of her window, these two
themes (_Night_ and _Ardor_) grow increasingly insistent. They are
interrupted at Pelléas' words, "I see only the branches of the willow
drooping over the wall," by a rich passage for divided violins, violas,
and 'cellos (page 124, measure 3), and by a brief phrase to which
attention should be drawn because of its essentially Debussy-like
quality--the progression in the first measure of page 125 (scored for
violins and violas). Then suddenly Mélisande's unloosed hair streams
down from the open window and envelops Pelléas, and we hear (a famous
passage) in the strings alone, _ff_, a precipitate descending series of
seventh-chords built on the familiar whole-tone scale which Debussy
finds so impelling (page 127, measure 1).


[Illustration: Animez toujours]

Then begins (page 128, measure 1) a delectable episode. Over a murmurous
accompanying figure given out by violas, 'cellos, harp, and horn, a
clarinet sings a variant of the _Mélisande_ theme. The harmonic changes
are kaleidoscopic, the orchestral color of prismatic variety. The lovely
rhapsody over his belovèd's


[Illustration: Moins vite et passionnément contenu]

tresses which Maeterlinck puts into the mouth of Pelléas is exquisitely
enforced by the music. There is ravishing tenderness and beauty here,
and an intensity of expression as penetrating as it is restrained. As
Mélisande's doves come from the tower and fly about the heads of the
lovers, we hear, tremolo in the strings, a variation of her motive.
Golaud enters by the winding stair, and the threatening phrase quoted as
Ex. XI is heard sombrely in the horns, bassoons, violas, and
'cellos--its derivation from Golaud's own theme (see Ex. VI) is here
apparent. The latter motive sounds, _p_, as he warns Mélisande that she
will fall from the window if she leans so far out. It is followed by the
_Fate_ theme as he departs, laughing nervously. A short interlude is
evolved from the _Mélisande_ theme (the _Pelléas_ motive forming a
counterpoint), and the _Fate_ and _Vengeance_ motives--the latter
outlined, over a roll of the timpani and a sustained chord in the horns
and wood-wind, by a muted trumpet, _pp_.

No new thematic matter is presented during the two succeeding scenes (in
the vaults under the castle and, afterward, on the terrace), nor are
there significant reminiscences of themes already brought forward. The
music of the vault scene forms a pointed commentary on the implications
of the action and dialogue--in character it is dark-hued, forbidding,
sinister. As Golaud and Pelléas emerge from the vaults, much use is made
in the orchestra of a jubilant figure in triplets (first given out
_fortissimo_ by flutes and oboes, over an undulating accompaniment, on
page 152, measure 1) which seems to express a certain irresponsible
exuberance on the part of Pelléas; it accompanies his light-hearted
remarks about the odor of the flowers, the sheen of the water, and the
invigorating air, as they come out upon the sunlit terrace. As the scene
changes again, a very short interlude introduces a new theme--that of
Little Yniold, Golaud's son, whom he is to use as the innocent tool of
his suspicions. This motive, which occurs repeatedly during the ensuing
scene, is one of the less important, but most typical and haunting ones,
in the entire score. It is first presented (page 158, measure 4) by the
oboe, _doux et expressif_:


[Illustration: _p doux et expressif_]

It is heard again as an accompaniment to Yniold's naïve answers to
Golaud's interrogations (page 160); when he cries out that his father,
in his agitation, has hurt him (page 164); and, in a particularly
touching form, on page 165, measure 4, when Golaud promises that he will
give him a present on the morrow if Yniold will tell him what he knows
concerning Mélisande and Pelléas. We hear the _Pelléas_ theme in the
strings and wood-wind (page 172, measure 7) when Yniold says that they
"weep always in the dark," and that "that makes one weep also," and
again when he tells of having seen them kiss one day--"when it rained."
Thereafter it is heard repeatedly in varying forms to the end of the
scene, at times underlying a persistent triplet-figure which has the
effect of an inverted pedal-point. A tumultuous and agitated _crescendo_
passage brings the act to a portentous close.


A variant of the _Pelléas_ theme, with the opening notes of the _Fate_
motive as an under voice, begins the short prelude to the fourth act;
there is a hint of the _Yniold_ theme, and the first two notes of the
_Pelléas_ motive introduce the first scene. The interview between
Mélisande and her lover, in which they arrange their tryst at the
fountain in the park, is treated with restraint; an expressive phrase
sung by the 'cellos (page 194, measure 11) may be noted at the point
where Pelléas informs Mélisande that she will look in vain for his
return after he has gone. The _Mélisande_ theme, in a new form, opens
the moving scene between Mélisande and Arkël in which he tells her of
his compassionate observation of her since first she came to the castle.
During his speech and her replies we hear her motive and that of _Fate_
(page 205), the latter theme announcing the entrance of Golaud,
distraught, blood-bespattered, seeking, he says, his sword. The music of
the ensuing scene does not call for extended description--rather for the
single comment that in it Debussy has proved once for all his power of
forceful, direct, and tangible dramatic utterance: the music here, to
apply to it Golaud's phrase in the play, is compact of "blood and
iron"--as well it needed to be for the accentuation of this perturbing
and violent episode. The _Fate_ motive courses ominously through its
earlier portions. We hear, too, what I have called the "second"
_Mélisande_ theme--that which seems to denote her naïveté (see Ex. IV),
and a strange variant of the first _Mélisande_ theme (page 212, measure
4). At the climax of the scene, when Golaud seizes his wife by her long
hair and flings her from side to side, the music is as brutal, as
"virile," as the most exigent could reasonably demand. Later, as he
hints at his purpose,--"I shall await my chance,"--the trombones, tubas,
and double-basses _pizzicato_ mutter, _pp_, the motive of _Vengeance_.
The orchestral interlude is long and elaborate. We hear a variant of the
_Fate_ theme, which reaches a climax in a _fortissimo_ outburst of the
full orchestra. The theme in this form is developed at length; there is
a reminiscence of the _Mélisande_ theme, and the music, by a gradual
_diminuendo_, passes into the third scene of the act--in the park,
before the Fountain of the Blind. At the beginning occurs the incident
of the passing flock of sheep observed by Yniold. This scene need not
detain us long, since it is musically as well as dramatically episodic.
There are no new themes, and no significant recurrences of familiar
ones, though the music is rich in suggestive and imaginative details; as
I have previously noted, it is omitted in the performances at the

Pelléas enters, and there is an impassioned declaration of his theme,
scored, _f_, for wood-wind, horns, and strings, as he observes that he
is about to depart, "crying out for joy and woe like a blind man fleeing
from his burning house." There is a return of the _Mélisande_ theme; and
then, as she herself enters, and Pelléas urges her not to stay at the
edge of the moonlight, but to come with him into the shadow of the
linden, there enters a theme of great beauty and tenderness, announced,
_mystérieusement_, by horns and 'cellos (page 236, measure 6). I may
call it, for want of a better name, the motive of _The Shadows_, since
it appears only in association with the thought of sheltering darkness
and concealment:


[Illustration: Modéré]

We hear the _Fate_ motive when Mélisande warns Pelléas that it is late,
that they must take care, as the gates of the castle will soon be closed
for the night. There is a gracious variant of this motive as Mélisande
tells how she caught her gown on the nails of the gate as she left the
castle, and so was delayed. Then comes a reminiscence of the _Fountain_
theme (the authentic wonder of which is that it is not a theme at all,
but merely a single chord introduced by a grace-note; yet the vividness
of its effect is indisputable), suggested, _pp_, by horns and harp, at
Mélisande's words: "We have been here before." As Pelléas asks her if
she knows why he has bidden her to meet him, strings and horn give out,
_pp et très expressif_, a lovely phrase derived from the _Pelléas_ theme
(page 242, measure 1). Their mutual


[Illustration: Modéré]

confessions of love, so simply uttered in the text, are entirely
unaccompanied by the orchestra; but as Pelléas exclaims: "The ice is
melted with glowing fire!" four solo 'cellos, with sustained harmonics
in the violins and violas, sound, _pianissimo_, a ravishing series of
"ninth-chords" (page 244, measure 6)--a sheer Debussy-esque effect, for
the relation between the chords is as absolutely anarchistic as it is
deeply beautiful. "Your voice seems to have


[Illustration: Lent]


blown across the sea in spring," says Pelléas, and a horn, accompanied
by violins in six parts, announces the motive of _Ecstasy_ (page 245,
measure 7):


[Illustration: Modéré]

The 'cellos intone the _Mélisande_ theme as Pelléas tells her that he
has never seen anyone so beautiful as she; the theme of _Ecstasy_
follows in the strings, horns, and wood-wind, _forte_; the theme of
_The Shadows_ returns as Pelléas again invites her into the darkness
beneath the trees; there is a dolorous hint of the _Mélisande_ theme as
she says that she is happy, yet sad. And then the amorous and caressing
quality of the music is sharply altered. There is a harsh and sinister
muttering in the double-basses as Pelléas, startled by a distant sound,
cries that they are closing the gates of the castle, and that they are
shut out. The _Golaud_ motive is recalled with sombre force in the
strings as the rattle of the great chains is heard. "All the better! All
the better!" cries Mélisande; and, as they embrace in sudden
abandonment, we hear, introduced by an exquisite interplay of
tonalities, the motive of _Rapture_, announced, _pp_, by divided strings
and flutes (page 258, measure 12):


[Illustration: Modéré]

As Mélisande whispers suddenly to Pelléas that there is some one behind
them, a menacing version of the _Vengeance_ theme is played, _pp_, by
the basses, trombones, and timpani. This theme and that of _Rapture_
hasten the music toward its culminating point of intensity. The
_Pelléas_ theme is given out by the 'cellos, the _Mélisande_ theme (this
is not indicated in the piano version) by the violins, and as the lovers
embrace desperately, a _crescendo_ leads to a _fortissimo_ proclamation,
by all the orchestral forces, of a greatly broadened version of the
motive of _Ecstasy_. As Golaud rushes upon them and strikes down
Pelléas, the _Fate_ theme is declaimed by four horns in unison over
string tremolos; and, as he turns and silently pursues the fleeing
Mélisande through the forest, his _Vengeance_ theme brings the act, by a
rapid _crescendo_, to a crashing close.


The last act opens with a dolorous phrase derived from the variant of
the _Mélisande_ theme noted on page 82 of the piano score. It is played
by the violas, with harp accompaniment. The violins repeat it, and two
flutes announce a new theme (page 268, measure 5), the motive of


[Illustration: Lent et triste]

As Golaud bends with Arkël over the unconscious figure of Mélisande
where she lies stretched upon her bed, muted horns and 'cellos play a
gentle variant of the _Fate_ theme, followed by the _Mélisande_ motive
as Golaud exclaims that they had but "kissed like little children." The
theme of _Pity_ accompanies Mélisande's awakening, and a new motive is
heard as she responds, to Arkël's question: "I have never been better."
This new theme (page 274, measure 4), of extraordinary poignancy, is
given out by an oboe supported by two flutes, and its expression is
marked _triste et très doucement expressif_. I shall call it the motive
of _Sorrow_, for it seems like the comment of the music upon the
transporting and utter sadness of the play's dénouement. It voices a
gentle and passive commiseration, rather than a profound and shaking


[Illustration: Lent et triste]

A third new theme, also of searching pathos, occurs in the strings, _p,
très doux_, as Mélisande quietly greets her husband (page 279, measure
1), and later, when she says that she forgives him (page 282, measure
1). It may be called the motive of _Mélisande's Gentleness_:


[Illustration: _très doux_]

As Golaud's still unvanquished doubts and suspicions torture him into
harsh interrogations, and he asks her if she loved Pelléas "with a
forbidden love," an oboe and two flutes recall, _p et doux_, the
_Rapture_ motive. Later, in succession, we hear (on a solo violin over
flute and clarinets) the _Pelléas_ theme (page 289, measure 2), the
motive of _Gentleness_, for the last time (page 290, measure 3), and
the _Mélisande_ theme (pages 290-292). As Mélisande recognizes Arkël,
and asks if it be true "that the winter is coming," a solo violin, solo
'cello, and two clarinets play an affecting phrase (page 294, measure
5). She tells Arkël that she does not wish the windows closed until the
sun has sunk into the sea, and the orchestra accompanies her in a
passage of curiously delicate sonority (page 295, measure 6).

The final scene of the act is treated with surpassing reticence,
dignity, and simplicity, yet with piercing intensity of expression.
Nothing could be at the same time more sparing of means and more
exquisitely eloquent in result than Debussy's setting of the scene of
Mélisande's death--it is music which dims the eyes and subdues the
spirit. The _pianissimo_-repeated chords in the divided strings which
accentuate Arkël's warning words (page 304, measure 8); the blended
tones of the harp and the distant bell at the moment of dissolution
(page 306, measure 11); Arkël's simple requiem over the body of the
little princess, with the grave and tender orchestral commentary woven
out of familiarly poignant themes (pages 308-309); the murmurous coda,
with its muted trumpet singing a gentle dirge under an accompaniment of
two flutes (page 310, measure 7),--these things are easy to


[Illustration: Très lent]

value, but they may not easily be praised with adequacy.

Concerning felicities of structural and technical detail in the work as
a whole, this has not been the place to speak; but if curious
appreciators, or others who are merely curious, should perhaps be
induced, by what has been written here, to explore for themselves
Debussy's beautiful and in many ways incomparable score, the purpose of
this study will have been achieved.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande - A Guide to the Opera with Musical Examples from the Score" ***

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