On my desk- Faure: Suite from Pelleas et Melisande

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924)

Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande


Possibly no single literary work after Romeo and Juliet had such a prodigious impact on the world of music as Maeterlink’s symbolist drama, Pelléas and Mélisande. Within a few years of its publication in 1892 the play had inspired the creation of four genuine masterpieces by some of the leading composers of the time- Fauré, Debussy, Sibelius and Schoenberg, a tally challenged perhaps only by Goethe’s Faust.

Each of these composer’s response to the drama tells us something about them as men as well as musicians- Sibelius fascination with the natural world comes through in his eerie depiction of the sea and the park,  while Debussy found in it a text through which he could attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Tristan and Isolde and escape the shadow of Wagner, and Schoenberg saw in it a deeply compelling character study of Golaud as a true tragic hero- destroyed by jealousy and then overcome with remorse.

Fauré’s was the first of the four musical responses to the play, written in 1898, and in many ways his incidental music (composed for a production of the play at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London) is the most quintessentially French take on the drama. In Fauré’s incidental music, everything is expressed with sublime understatement and refinement. Where Schoenberg finds high drama and Sibelius finds dread and despair, Fauré evokes longing and mystery.

In converting the incidental music into a concert suite, Fauré excerpted the two longest dramatic scenes, Golaud’s discovery of Mélisande in the forest and the death of Mélisande, and the shorter, lighter scene of Mélisande at the spinning wheel. Amazingly, the most famous movement in the suite, the Siclienne, was originally written as part of unpublished incidental music for Le bourgeois gentilhomme , and  has no direct relation to the drama, even if it’s gentle mood seems of a piece with the rest of the suite.

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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