Faure: “Pelleas et Melisande” Suite
It isn’t especially surprising that Maeterlinck’s surrealist play Pelleas et Melisande (1892–93) is remembered, at least by music loveres, mostly in terms of Debussy’s extraordinary opera; that is a historic meeting of genius. Other composers, however, also tried their hands at Pelleas et Melisande music. Schoenberg wrote a symphonic poem after Maeterlinck’s drama, and Sibelius and Faure each wrote incidental music or productions of the play. Faure’s Pelleas et Melisande was the first of them all.
Faure composed his incidental music for the 1898 production in London, where he often traveled to visit good friends. (Debussy had declined the commission.) In the rush to be done on time, he enlisted the help of his former student, Charles Koechlin (1867–1950), to orchestrate the eight movements of his piano score for small theatre orchestra. Later Faure himself extracted three movements from the incidental music to fashion a suite for full orchestra. As the Pelleas et Melisande suite achieved popularity in concert performances, he added a fourth movement, his Sicilienne for cello and piano, opus 78, likewise orchestrated by Koechlin. The published editions of 1909 and thereafter include that movement.
The Pelleas et Melisande Suite is an attractive example of Faure’s style in that the miniatures are so similar to his vocal music -songs, that is, without words. In the Spinning Song, for example, the oboe is the (primary) singer, as is the flute in the Sicilienne. The melodies of both clearly suggest utterances of the human voice.
The prelude music introduces the scene in which we find Melisande lost by a fountain in the forest, seized by yearning she cannot explain. In the distance is heard the horn call of Golaud, who will discover her there. The Spinning Song came before the famous love scene in the third act where Melisande at the window of her apartment and Pelleas below first acknowledge their passion -to each other and to themselves. Listen for the rapid spinning figure in the upper string, pianissimo, and for the conversational interplay of soprano and tenor melodies, particularly when the second theme wells up from solo clarinet and horn. The jealous Golaud kills his half-brother Pelleas and (it transpires) mortally wounds Melisande at the end of act IV. Her dead march came as the last entr’acte and also during the scene at her bedside. The thematic contours are derived from the tenor melody of the Spinning Song, so closely associated with rapturous yet forbidden love.