Fauré’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” Suite
Notes by TŌN cellist Amelia Smerz
Gabriel Fauré composed his incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande during the height of a small golden age for the play. While Fauré’s 1898 contribution came first, Debussy composed his opera of the same name in 1902, Schoenberg his tone poem in 1903, and Sibelius his incidental music in 1905. The play revolves around the ill-fated relationships of Mélisande as she finds herself in a marriage to Golaud, yet falls in love with his brother, Pelléas. Golaud’s suspicion and jealousy build, culminating in his discovery of the two lovers together and his subsequent murder of Pelléus and wounding of Mélisande.
A Poetic Purity
Fauré’s score was commissioned by Mrs. Patrick Cambell, the lead actress in the English adaptation of the play. While she originally extended the offer to Debussy, whose work on the operatic version prevented him from writing incidental music for the play, Fauré’s musical voice would fulfill Mrs. Campbell’s desires for the project, as she wrote that “he had grasped with most tender inspiration the poetic purity that pervades and envelops M. Maeterlinck’s lovely play.” In fact, for the 14 subsequent years of the play’s performance by Mrs. Campbell’s group, she never departed from Fauré’s incidental music.
Fauré would later arrange this well-loved incidental music into a suite, ensuring its performance appeal outside of the theater. The Prélude introduces themes meant to represent the introverted Mélisande and her future husband Golaud as seen through her eyes. The Fileuse (Spinning Song) movement depicts Mélisande at her spinning wheel, with the strings providing an imitative spinning theme over which an oboe melody sings. The Sicilienne, added after the disappointing premiere of the original three-movement suite, depicts the peak of Pelléus and Mélisande’s relationship, albeit in the sorrowful key of G minor. The La Mort de Mélisande (The Death of Mélisande) movement conveys the tragic lamentations of the heroine’s death, as her theme from the prelude returns with ghostly punctuations of solo flute and clarinets. Additionally, as with our performance today, some include Fauré’s orchestral arrangement of Mélisande’s song “The King’s Three Blind Daughters” as a middle movement, which adds a brief yet lamenting and haunting color to the suite.