Claude Debussy – Pelléas et Mélisande

THE first performance of Pelléas et Mélisande in Paris, on April 30th,1902, was a very notable event in the history of French music ; its importance can only be compared with that of the first performance of Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione, Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, and Gluck’s IIphigénie en Aulide ; and it may be looked upon as one of the three or four red-letter days in the calendar of our lyric stage.’

The success of Pelléas et Mélisande is due to many things. Some of them are trivial, such as fashion, which has certainly played its part here as it has in all other successes, though it is a relatively weak part ; some of them are more important, and arise from something innate in the spirit of French genius ; and there are also moral and æsthetic reasons for its success, and, in the widest sense, purely musical reasons.

In speaking of the moral reasons of the success of- Pelléas et Mélisande, I would like to draw your attention to a form of thought which is not confined to France, but which is common nowadays in a section of the more distinguished members of European society, and which has found expression in Pelléas et Mélisande. The atmosphere in which Maeterlinck’s drama moves makes one feel the melancholy resignation of the will to Fate. We are shown that nothing can change the order of events ; that, despite our proud illusions, we are not master of ourselves, but the servant of unknown and irresistible forces, which direct the whole tragicomedy of our lives. We are told that no man is responsible for what he likes and what he loves—that is if he knows what he likes and loves—and that he lives and dies without knowing why.

These fatalistic ideas, reflecting the lassitude of the intellectual aristocracy of Europe, have been wonderfully translated into music by Debussy; and when you feel the poetic and sensual charm of the music, the ideas become fascinating and intoxicating, and their spirit is very infectious. For there is in all music an hypnotic power which is able to reduce the mind to a state of voluptuous submission.

The cause of the artistic success of Pelléas et Mélisande is of a more specially French character, and marks a reaction that is at once legitimate, natural, and inevitable ; I would even say it is vital—a reaction of French genius against foreign art, and especially against Wagnerian art and its awkward representatives in France.

Is the Wagnerian drama perfectly adapted to German genius ? I do not think so ; but that is a question which I will leave German musicians to decide. For ourselves, we have the right to assert that the form of Wagnerian drama is antipathetic to the spirit of French people—to their artistic taste, to their ideas about the theatre, and to their musical feeling. This form may have forced itself upon us, and, by the right of victorious genius, may have strongly influenced the French mind, and may do so again ; but nothing will ever make it anything but a stranger in our land.

It is not necessary to dwell upon the differences of taste. The Wagnerian ideal is, before everything else, an ideal of power. Wagner’s passional and intellectual exaltation and his mystic sensualism are poured out like a fiery torrent, which sweeps away and burns all before it, taking no heed of barriers. Such an art cannot be bound by ordinary rules ; it has no need to fear bad taste—and I commend it. But it is easy to understand that other ideals exist, and that another art might be as expressive by its proprieties and niceties as by its richness and force. And this former art—our own—is not so much a reaction against Wagnerian art as a reaction against its caricatures in France and the consequent abuse of an ill-regulated power.

Genius has a right to be what it will—to trample underfoot, if it wishes, taste and morals and the whole of society. But when those who are not geniuses wish to do the same thing they only make themselves ridiculous and odious. There have been too many monkey Wagners in France. During the last ten or twenty years scarcely one French musician has escaped Wagner’s influence. One understands only too well the revolt of the French mind, in the name of naturalness and good taste, against exaggerations and extremes of passion, whether sincere or not. Pelléas et Mélisande came as a manifestation of this revolt. It is an uncompromising reaction against over-emphasis and excess, and against anything that oversteps the limits of the imagination. This distaste of exaggerated words and sentiments results in what is like a fear of showing the feelings at all, even when they are most deeply stirred. With Debussy the passions almost whisper ; and it is by the imperceptible vibrations of the melodic line that the love in the hearts of the unhappy couple is shown, by the timid ” Oh, why are you going ? “at the end of the first act, and the quiet ” I love you, too,” in the last scene but one. Think of the wild lamentations of the dying Ysolde, and then of the death of Mélisande, without cries and without words.

From a scenic point of view, Pelléas et Mélisande is also quite opposed to the Bayreuth ideal. The vast proportions—almost immoderate proportions—of the Wagnerian drama, its compact structure and the intense concentration of, mind which from be-ginning to end holds these enormous works and their ideology together, and which is often displayed at the expense of the action and even the emotions, are as far removed as they can be from the French love of clear, logical, and temperate action. The little pictures of Pelléas et Mélisande, small and sharply cut, each marking without stress a new stage in the evolution of the drama, are built up in quite a different way from those of the Wagnerian theatre.

And, as if he wished to accentuate this antagonism, the author of Pelléas et Mélisande is now writing a Tristan, whose plot is taken from an old French poem, the text of which has been recently brought to light by M. Bédier. In its calm and lofty strain it is a wonderful contrast to Wagner’s savage and pedantic, though sublime poem.

But it is especially by the manner in which they conceive the respective relationships of poetry and music to opera that the two composers differ. With Wagner, music is the kernel of the opera, the glowing focus, the centre of attraction ; it absorbs every-thing, and it stands absolutely first. But that is not the French conception. The musical stage, as we conceive it in France (if not what we actually possess), should present such a combination of the arts as go to make an harmonious whole. We demand that an equal balance shall be kept between poetry and music ; and if their equilibrium must be a little upset, we should prefer that poetry was not the loser, as its utterance is more conscious and rational. That was Gluck’s aim ; and because he realised it so well he gained a reputation among the French public which nothing will destroy. Debussy’s strength lies in the methods by which he has approached this ideal of musical temperateness and disinterestedness, and in the way he has placed his genius as a composer at the service of the drama. He has never sought to dominate Maeterlinck’s poem, or to swallow it up in a torrent of music ; he has made it so much a part of himself that at the present time no Frenchman able to think of a passage in the play without Debussy’s music singing at the same time within him.

But apart from all these reasons that make the work important in the history of opera, there are purely musical reasons for its success, which are of deeper significance still.’ Pelléas et Mélisande has brought about a reform in the dramatic music of France. This reform is concerned with several things, and, first of all, with recitative.

In France we have never had–apart from a few attempts in opéra-comique—a recitative that exactly expressed our natural speech. Lully and Rameau took for their model the high-flown declamation of the tragedy stage of their time. And French opera for the past twenty years has chosen a more dangerous model still—the declamation of Wagner, with its vocal leaps and its resounding and heavy accentuation. Nothing could be more displeasing in French. All people of taste suffered from it, though they did not admit it. At this time, Antoine, Gémier, and Guitry were making theatrical declamation more natural, and this made the exaggerated declamation of the French opera appear more ridiculous and more archaic still. And so a reform in recitative was inevitable. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had foreseen it in the very direction in which Debussy’. has accomplished it. He showed in his Lettre sur la musique française that there was no connection between the inflections of French speech, ” whose accents are so harmonious and simple,” and ” the shrill and noisy intonations ” of the recitative of French opera. And he concluded by saying that the kind of recitative that would best suit us should ” wander between little intervals, and neither raise nor lower the voice very much ; and should have little sustained sound, no noise, and no cries of any description—nothing, indeed, that resembled singing, and little inequality in the duration or value of the notes, or in their intervals.” This is the very definition of Debussy’s recitative.

The symphonic fabric of Pelléas et Mélisande differs just as widely from Wagner’s dramas. With Wagner it is a living thing that springs from one great root, a system of interlaced phrases whose powerful growth puts out branches in every direction, like an oak. Or, to take another simile, it is like a painting, which though it has not been executed at a single sitting, yet gives us that impression ; and, in spite of the retouching and altering to which it has been subjected, still has the effect of a compact whole, of an indestructible amalgam, from which nothing can be detached. Debussy’s system, on the contrary, is, so to speak, a sort of classic impressionism—an impressionism that is refined, harmonious, and calm ; that moves along in musical pictures, each of which corresponds to a subtle and fleeting moment of the soul’s life ; and the painting is done by clever little strokes put in with a soft and delicate touch. This art is more allied to that of Moussorgski (though without any of his roughness) than that of Wagner, in spite of one or two reminiscences of Parsifal, which are only extraneous traits in the work. In Pelléas et Mélisande one finds no persistent leitmotifs running through the work, or themes which pretend to translate into music the life of characters and types ; but, instead, we have phrases that express changing feelings, that change with the feelings. More than that, Debussy’s harmony is not, as it was with Wagner and all the German school, a fettered harmony, tightly bound to the despotic laws of counterpoint ; it is, as Laloy has said, a harmony that is first of all harmonious, and has its origin and end in itself.

As Debussy’s art only attempts to give the impression of the moment, without troubling itself with what may come after, it is free from care, and takes its fill in the enjoyment of the moment. In the garden of harmonies it selects the most beautiful flowers ; for sincerity of expression takes a second place with it, and its first idea is to please. In this again it interprets the æsthetic sensualism of the French race, which seeks pleasure in art, and does not willingly admit ugliness, even when it seems to be justified by the needs of the drama and of truth. Mozart shared the same thought : Music,” he said, ” even in the most terrible situations, ought never to offend the ear ; it should charm it even there ; and, in short, always remain music.”

As for Debussy’s harmonic language, his originality does not consist, as some of his foolish admirers have said, in the invention of new chords, but in the new use he makes of them. A man is not a great artist because he makes use of unresolved sevenths and ninths, consecutive major thirds and ninths, and harmonic progressions based on a scale of whole tones ; one is only an artist when one makes them say something. And it is not on account of the peculiarities of Debussy’s style—of which one may find isolated examples in great composers before him, in Chopin, Liszt, Chabrier, and Richard Strauss—but because with Debussy these peculiarities are an expression of his personality, and because Pelléas et Mélisande, ” the land of ninths,” has a poetic atmosphere which is. like no other musical drama ever written.

Lastly, the orchestration is purposely restrained, light, and divided, for Debussy has a fine disdain for those orgies of sound to which Wagner’s art has accustomed us ; it is as sober and polished as a fine classic phrase of the latter part of the seventeenth century. Ne quid nimis (” Nothing superfluous”) is the artist’s motto. Instead of amalgamating the timbres to get a massive effect, he disengages their separate personalities, as it were, and delicately blends them without changing their individual nature. Like the impressionist painters of to-day, he paints with primary colours, but with a delicate moderation that rejects anything harsh as if it were something unseemly.

I have given more than enough reasons to account for the success of Pelléas et Mélisande and the place that its admirers give it in the history of opera. There is every reason to believe that the composer has not been as acutely conscious of his musicodramatic reform as his disciples have been. The reform with him has a more instinctive character ; and that is what gives it its strength. It responds to an unconscious yet profound need of the French spirit. I would even venture to say that the historical importance of Debussy’s work is greater than its artistic value. His personality is not without faults, and the gravest are perhaps negative faults—the absence of certain qualities, and even of the strong and extravagant faults which made the heroes of the art world, like Beethoven and Wagner. His voluptuous nature is at once changeable and precise ; and his dreams are as clear and delicate as the art of a poet of the Pleiades in the sixteenth century, or of a Japanese painter. But among all his gifts he has a quality which I have not found so evident in any other musician—except perhaps Mozart ; and this quality is a genius for good taste. Debussy has it in excess, so that he almost sacrifices the other elements of art to it, until the passionate force of his music, even its very life, seems to be impoverished. But one must not deceive oneself ; that impoverishment is only apparent, and in all his work there are evidences that his passion is only veiled. It is only the trembling of the melodic line, or the orchestration which, like a shadow passing before the eyes, tells us of the drama that is being played in the hearts of his characters. This lofty shame of emotion is something as rare in opera as a Racine tragedy is in poetry—they are works of the same order, and both of them perfect flowers of the French spirit. Anyone who lives in foreign parts and is curious to know what France is like and understand her genius should study Pelléas et Mélisande as they would study Racine’s Bérénice.

Not that Debussy’s art entirely represents French genius any more than Racine’s does ; for there is quite another side to it which is not represented there ; and that side is heroic action, the intoxication of reason and laughter, the passion for light, the France of Rabelais, Molière, Diderot, and in music, we will say—for want of better names—the France of Berlioz and Bizet. To tell the truth, that is the France I prefer. But Heaven preserve me from ignoring the other ! It is the balance between these two Frances that makes French genius. In our contemporary music, Pelléas et Mélisande is at one end of the pole of our art and Carmen is at the other. The one is all on the surface, all life, with no shadows, and no underneath. The other is below the surface, bathed in twilight, and enveloped in silence. And this double ideal is the alternation between the gentle sunlight and the faint mist that veils the soft, luminous sky of the Isle of France.