Program Notes

Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande, Opus 80

BORN: May 12, 1845. Pamiers in the Department of Ariége, France
DIED: November 4, 1924. Paris

COMPOSED: This suite has a complicated history. In May and June 1898, Fauré wrote incidental music, for a production in London of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande. For that project, Fauré borrowed two pieces of his own: The Sicilienne that appears as the third movement of the present concert suite was written originally as a piece for cello and piano in 1893, probably as part of some incidental music for Moliére's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme; and a Fantasie for flute and piano written in 1898 was a competition piece for the Paris Conservatory. The orchestration of the London Pelléas music was done by Fauré's pupil Charles Koechlin. Soon after, Fauré made three sections of that music into a concert suite, orchestrating it himself, though leaning heavily on Koechlin's score. In 1909, Fauré added the 1893 Sicilienne

WORLD PREMIERE: December 1, 1912 (present four-movement suite). André Messager conducted the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in Paris

INSTRUMENTATION: Adding a 2nd oboe, a 2nd bassoon, and a 2nd pair of horns to Koechlin's original theater score, Fauré’s suite calls for 2 each of flutes, oboes, and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, harp, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 18 mins

The play Pelléas et Mélisande was first given in Paris in 1893. Maurice Maeterlinck, who was born in Ghent in 1862, had been a literary celebrity in Paris ever since the influential critic Octave Mirbeau declared his play La Princesse Maleine to be superior to Shakespeare. Claude Debussy was in the audience at that first performance of Pelléas, and he quickly moved to secure the musical rights. Neither composer nor poet imagined it would take until 1902 for the opera to be completed and staged, nor that they would be embroiled for years in rancorous quarrels. Maeterlinck saw the opera for the first time in 1920, two years after Debussy's death, and declared then that he had "understood his play for the first time."

The producers of the London Pélleas hoped to get Debussy to provide music, possibly by excerpting passages from his opera-in-progress. They had to ask him first in any case, since he had the musical rights, and no other scheme could proceed without his consent. He was having a hard time with the opera, and he declined to become involved. The next choice was Fauré, from whose music Debussy had learned so much, particularly in the matter of anti-gravitational harmony, and with whom he shared some literary tastes, notably a feeling for Verlaine.

Pelléas et Mélisande is about a grownup living in a world otherwise inhabited by the senile and the infantile, and being driven mad by them. He is Golaud, grandson of Arkel, the ancient and blind King of Allemonde. Lost in the woods, he meets Mélisande, an unaccountable, inarticulate young woman of noble birth, marries her, and brings her home. There, she and Golaud's young half-brother Pelléas fall--inarticulately--in love. Golaud sets his very young son, Yniold, to spy on Pelléas and Mélisande, and eventually Golaud kills Pelléas. Mélisande dies in childbirth, with her husband still frantic to learn the truth about her and Pelléas.

THE MUSIC  The Fauré suite consists of four numbers. The first of them is the Prelude to Act I, sweet-scented in harmony, full of surprising turns. Near the end we hear the sound of Golaud's distant hunting horn. In his quiet way, Fauré wonderfully achieves a suspenseful sense of "curtain about to go up."

Next comes La Fileuse, Mélisande at the spinning wheel. This is the Prelude to Act III.

Fauré used his Sicilienne, the quintessential Fauré melody and one of the most famous of flute solos, as the Prelude to Act II. This begins with the lovers at the well; Mélisande, playing, drops her wedding ring into its waters.

The last piece, La Mort de Mélisande, serves as the prelude to the last act. Fauré's use of the flute's ghostly low register is most imaginative, and the modal harmonies have a touchingly "removed" air.

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(May 2018)

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