"The Debussy cult," says a London musical journal (1909) "is making great progress in this country. It has reached that interesting stage when many people who are really desperately bewildered, affect to perceive beauties and wonderful meanings that have probably entirely escaped the attention of the composer. But there is no mistaking the depth and width of the influence Debussy is exerting on the art. His music may be classed as nebulous, fragile, diaphanous, and so on, but one cannot resist the languor of the hazy atmosphere with which it envelops and mesmerises the listener. What one appears to miss is the attribute of strength and grip and clearness of purpose. It is nearly always veiled suggestion and an appeal to imaginativeness."
This quotation may serve as an interesting keynote to the notice of "Pélléas and Mélisande." The opera -- first produced in Paris in 1902 -- is in five Acts, and the libretto is adapted from the lyrical drama of Maurice Maeterlinck.
Goland, the brother of Pelléas, while hunting in the forest, comes upon a beautiful girl weeping by a well. This is Mélisande. Six months later, Goland writes to his brother announcing his marriage to Mélisande, and his approaching return to his grandfather, King Arkel. The pair arrive, and Mélisande meets Pélléas. The latter takes her to a certain fountain into which she accidentaily drops her betrothal ring. On her return she finds her husband lying injured on a couch. He is distressed by her loss of the ring, and sends her away in search of it. A love scene follows at Mélisandes chamber window, interrupted by Goland, who warns his brother not to rifle with her as she is in delicate health. His suspicions of Pélléas are aroused, and he sets his little son by a former marriage to act as spy. Goland begins to behave in a wild and incomprehensible fashion, twisting his wifes long hair round and round her body. She meets Pélléas once more by the fountain, where Goland finds them and slays his brother. The last Act is in Mélisandes bedchamber, where, after the birth of her child, she lies dying, protesting that her love for Pélléas was absolutely innocent.
It was long before musicians understood the extended scenes in Wagners later works, in which the ordinary airs and concerted pieces of classical opera did not figure. Many years elapsed before the public took interest in them, except portions like the Valkyrie Ride and the Siegfried March, which they could follow with tolerable ease. In "Pélléas and Mélisande" classical forms are also set aside; but, unlike those of Wagner, the scenes are very short. The opera has been sympathetically analysed by Mr. W. H. Daly, the author of an interesting brochure on this most modern of modern composers.
Briefly, it proceeds freely in an atmosphere of music which really facilitates its action, intensifying the effect of every significant point, translating into sound the vague, curious, permeating sentiment of the play. Nothing is sacrificed to musical effect, and yet in no opera is there a more vital union between drama and music; in no other opera is the music more truly and essentially the ultimate and complete expression of the dramatic text. It is, in short, a unique and fascinating work. Whether the general opera-going public will ever really enjoy it cannot be said. But as an experiment by a skillful and earnest composer it is always bound to excite interest.
M. Claude Debussy was born at St. Germain-en-Laye in 1862, and studied at the Paris Conservatoire where, like so many more of the French opera composers, he took the Prix de Rome. In early youth he was an ardent Wagnerite, but shook off the spell after a sojourn in Russia, where he came under the influence of such modern Russian composers as Moussorgski. Though he had written a good deal before that time, it was not until the production of "Pélléas and Mélisande" that his claims to attention were recognised. He died in 1918, and is now one of the men over whom the critics wrangle, as they used to wrangle over Wagner.