High on Symbolism: Composers' Mania for Pelleas and Melisande

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
April 30, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — Literary movements are, in certain ways, like theoretical physics. They both operate mostly under the radar, undergoing subtle changes, describing rarified events too arcane for the likes of you and me to grasp or care about. But then, every once in awhile, a charismatic personality and a catchy equation (E=mc²) — or a thermonuclear device — demand our attention.

Similarly, though we might not know a Symbolist poet from a cymbal crash, subtle vibrations from such an underground, like that influential butterfly's wings in Beijing, create waves large enough to reach our ears, by way of the opera house, the concert hall, or (shameless plug) Classical MPR.

In the 1890's, just such a ferment was taking place in ferment's home: France. While almost no one was looking, the literary avant-garde switched from one way of reminding us how very puny indeed is human volition, to another. The messages remained the same. Only the messengers changed.

Naturalism had been beating us down for decades with a bleakness tailor-made for a post-Darwinian world. Stephen Crane's story "The Open Boat" is a fit representative of ten thousand cheery variations on the same theme. Big ocean, little boat. Do the math. Nature isn't malevolent but, as aware of our presence as we are of mosquitoes in winter, it won't do us any favors.

Now, though, in the work of some drugged out, dropout, proto-beat poets like Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stephan Mallarme (led spiritually by their early 19th century guru Charles Baudelaire), Naturalism itself was beaten down, supplanted by something called Symbolism.

No one really knew what Symbolism was, and that was how the Symbolists liked it. Providing the clueless with a road map really wouldn't have been Symbolist.

Symbolism was about mere suggestion, the indirect gesture, the dream-like vision. Like all things hip in all ages, you either got it or you didn't. And since dream-like visions tend to be exempt from adhering to rules of structure, linearity and sense, Symbolism was very easy not to get.

The upshot, still, was that we human beings contend, vainly, with forces too large for us even to perceive, much less overcome. But instead of cold Nature, Symbolism looked at human matrices, hierarchies, chance meetings, near misses, timing — and once the games began, documented all the emotional wreckage and deadly crimes of passion.

In drama, a Belgian named Maurice Maeterlinck composed a Symbolist manifesto for the stage. It premiered in Paris in May, 1893. In a misty ancient setting, a kingdom of shadows and memories called Allemonde, a fortyish prince named Golaud is out hunting the wild boar one day, as princes do, and gets lost. He comes across a frightened young woman by a spring. Melisande weeps, and recoils even from the touch of his hand. She, too, is a princess, though far from home and uncertain how she got there. Yet, in the wink of an eye, the two are married, before Melisande has met the man she's destined to love, Golaud's half-brother Pelleas. The cards are dealt with a few vague gestures (the plot-building materials: reverie and fog), and the love triangle guarantees a succession of jealousies, rhapsodies and, ultimately, tragedies.

Pelleas and Melisande fascinated composers. Maeterlinck and Symbolism were all the rage. Little wonder. Musical settings of literary texts usually involved the cutting of extraneous detail. Maeterlinck was kind enough to leave most everything out already. Symbolist tactics brought the phenomenal world, as described by words, and the visceral world, of which music was sovereign, closer than they'd ever been. Within a dozen years Gabriel Faure, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg and Jean Sibelius would each give music to Pelleas and Melisande.

Faure was the first. He wrote his incidental music for the first British production — at the request of the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell — in June of 1898, five years after the Paris premiere. He had six weeks to complete the work and recycled some existing material. The famous Sicilienne was originally a piece for cello and piano.

Before Claude Debussy had ever heard of Maurice Maeterlinck, he described his perfect opera librettist: "A poet who half speaks things. Two related dreams. No country, no date… characters who do not discuss, submitting to life, destiny, etc." Pelleas and Melisande was so completely the fulfillment of Debussy's dreams that he didn't change a word. He finished the score within two years, but delays born of the composer's doubts delayed the first performance at Paris' Opera-Comique until 1902.

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