Why Pelleas and Melisande?

3 Oct 2018

Richard Mills examines the influence of French symbolist poets on Debussy and how Pelleas and Melisande created a new musical language that changed the history of opera.

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Phillipa Safey (Repetiteur), Samuel Dundas (Golaud), Richard Mills (Conductor) and Siobhan Stagg (Melisande). Photo: Charlie Kinross

This year marks the centenary of Debussy’s death, so we were especially excited to collaborate with the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) on a project to celebrate the extraordinary heritage of this composer, his legacy to the 20th century, and to the music of the present day. Debussy broke away from the conventions of the 19th century and, despite his pèlerinages passionnés to Bayreuth, eventually rejected the Wagnerian apparatus and established his own approach to opera ‘post Wagner’, rather than as a disciple of Wagner.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of subliminal Wagnerian process in Pelléas et Mélisande – almost direct quotes from Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal and Die Walküre – but filtered through Debussy’s own musical personality to such an extent that they remain suggestions rather than outstanding signposts.

Debussy also appropriated the Wagnerian ‘stream of consciousness’ of Tristan und Isolde, the Ring operas and Parsifal; each singer is a solo entity, there are no ensembles – only the backstage chorus of sailors in Act I (iii) offers a commonality with operatic conventions of chorus and ensemble. The gestures of Pelléas et Mélisande are inseparable from the particular qualities of the French language: the text of the opera could be spoken as it exists, there are no repetitions, verse structures, etc. It is a prose text, albeit very subtle and full of poetic gestures and the sometimes curious non-sequiturs of symbolist poetry. Golaud asks Melisande, ‘how old are you’, and she replies, ‘I am beginning to feel cold’. The kind of causality that is found in the ‘well-made play’ is absent here. The composer wanted a short libretto with mobile scenes and no discussions between the characters whom he saw at the mercy of life and destiny.

This literary quality of the text reflects one of the major influences on Debussy’s evolution as an artist – the work of the symbolist poets, particularly Mallarmé. He attended Mallarmé’s ‘Tuesday evenings’, soirées where the symbolist aesthetic was explored and individuals offered up spontaneous improvisations for the group. Here is an example from the famous sonnet – untitled, but commonly referred to as le cygne – the swan – which is also a homonym for le signe – a sign: obviously a symbolist conceit.

Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui!

Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.

This is almost untranslatable, but might go this way, in a very literal sense:

The virgin, vivacity and the beautiful today
Will it be torn up by us with the blow of a drunken wing
This hard lake, forgotten, which haunts under the frost
The transparent glacier of flights not flown!

A swan of other times remembers that it is him
Magnificent, but who without hope frees himself
For not having sung the region where lives
When from sterile winter proceeds a splendid listlessness

Dear readers, we can argue over the details of this forever, however, the point that is important for an understanding of Debussy is this: there is not a word of this text (in both French and English) that is not commonplace. It’s the relationships, the juxtapositions of meaning and the devolved syntax that make the utterance unique and fascinating – and, some would say, pretentious and nonsensical – as Australia’s ‘Ern Malley’ hoax famously illustrated years later.

However, Debussy pursued the same disconnect in his harmony. All of his chords can be found in Wagner (and Massenet), it is his use of them as independent entities, relating to each other outside the traditions of classical tonality, which makes his music unique.

I hasten to add that this ‘free association’ is governed by a masterful sense of structure which operates on many levels, informed by an infallible dramatic sense. For example, the tuba has 28 notes in the entire opera, but all carefully associated with darkness. Every scene, every act and the whole opera are constructed around the ‘Golden Section’: the ratio a/b = (a+b)/a, the purest form of a rectangle that is found in classical architecture, eg the Parthenon in the Acropolis. All the harmony can be analysed around the way the composer partitions the 12 semitones of the octave around the interval of the augmented fourth (the first notes of ‘Maria’ in West Side Story).

But in all this incredible sophistication, there is a transcendent humanity. Debussy himself says that his intention was to have his characters sing naturally, not in an ‘arbitrary language made from superannuated traditions’. There is melody, but not the kind of emotional tune – something that the composer says can be purchased on the street for a couple of sous – rather a declamation which follows the tides of feeling and perception underscored by an orchestral fabric which continuously evolves and transforms with great subtlety, formal poise, colour and dramatic intention, and art conceals art at almost every turn.

Let the composer have the last word:

‘I don’t pretend to have discovered everything in Pelleas, but I have tried to clear a road that others may follow, an enlargement from personal discoveries which perhaps can free music drama from the heavy constraints which it has laboured under for some time.’


A fairly modest and understated summary of a work which not only changed the history of opera – but, indeed, of music itself.

Pelleas and Melisande was part of Victorian Opera's Season 2018.