Pelléas et Mélisande, op. 80

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email


            For most of the concert-going public, Fauré is associated with his well-known work, the graceful Requiem, and little else.  While he did contribute a modicum of symphonic works to the literature, they largely met with little success, and frankly, the composer’s bent was not directed to the orchestral medium.   Rather, he was hugely successful as France’s most respected composer of song, and made important contributions to chamber music, as well.  Consequently, the incidental music that he wrote for Maeterlinck’s play, Pelléas et Mélisande is about his only work that is commonly heard in orchestral concerts—but a fine one, it is.

            Like his friend and colleague, Saint-Saëns, Fauré lived a long and productive life, which spanned major changes in European musical style—from Berlioz to Shostakovich!  Born in rural France in modest circumstances, his early talent led to years of training as an organist and choir director, and this vocation he pursued for much of his early life.  During his student years, Saint-Saëns became one of his teachers, and that literally changed his life, opening up prospects that otherwise would probably have been unlikely.  The slightly older man served as an introduction to the “modern” music of the day—Liszt, Wagner, et al.  Not insignificantly, for the young Fauré’s education thitherto had primarily emphasized organ instruction, plainchant, and Renaissance choral music.  Of almost equal importance was Fauré’s entrée into Saint-Saëns’ circle of influential friends, representing the highest echelon of French artists and intellectuals.   Thereby—along with his distinction in winning numerous academic prizes--the door was opened for much of Fauré’s later successes.  Nevertheless, he had to earn a living, so he embarked upon a career as a church musician.  He served in various churches around France, spending his rare free time composing.  Orchestral music was obviously not his forte, and large-scale dramatic works offered little success for him, as well.  But, he slowly gained recognition for his works—primarily songs and compositions for piano.  His musical style extended the harmonic language of late Romanticism, and his graceful melodic style was a paragon of lyrical sophistication.  As the decades passed, his reputation as a composer soared, and he ultimately joined the faculty of the Conservatoire, going on to serve as the director—controversially pushing the notoriously conservative institution into modern times.  By the end of his life, he was hailed as one of France’s greatest musicians, and a critical player in the evolution of French music into twentieth-century musical style.

            While admittedly not a symphonic composer by nature, he did enjoy writing incidental music for plays—even telling Saint-Saëns that only that genre suited his “meager talents.”  The most successful attempt was, of course, the suite extracted from his music for Pelléas et Mélisande.   He spent much time in London during the 1890s, and received a commission there for music for a performance in English translation of the play.   He wrote it for small orchestra—a student did the actual orchestration, but later Fauré picked four episodes from the material, and orchestrated them for full orchestra, himself.  Interestingly, for a major composer of the time—and French, at that!—he evinced little interest in orchestration and the infinite subtleties of colors and color blends that are one of the glories of the symphonic orchestra.   He obviously preferred to let his rich harmonies and inimitable melodies speak untrammeled by the blandishments of the rich orchestral palette.

            The story of Pelléas and Mélisande is a typical love story from traditional literature in its predictable and inevitable tragedy.   Debussy achieved great success with his opera on the subject, and Sibelius, Schoenberg, and others were attracted to it, as well.  The first movement ("Prélude") of Fauré’s suite sets the general tone of the drama, with his smooth, sinuous, undulating textures suggestive of the many important references to water in this metaphor-laden play.  The rather surprising intrusion of the bucolic solo horn near the end is often explained as symbolic of a lover’s discovery of Mélisande in the forest.  The second movement ("Fileuse")—featuring a solo oboe--is a traditional “spinning song,” depicting Mélisande at the spinning wheel, perhaps dreaming of a lover (there are two).  The third movement ("Sicilienne") is cast in the traditional siciliano dotted rhythm, and although in a minor key, accompanies one of the rare happy moments of the doomed couple.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan