Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

“Music in  opera is far too predominant. Too much singing, and the musical settings are too cumbersome…” So wrote Claude Debussy (1862-1918) about opera to his friend Ernest Guiraud. Under his critical pseudonym, “Monsieur Cloche”, he characterized Camille Saint-Saëns’s1 popular opera Les barbares as “seeking for effect” with music that was “absurd.” He even compared the Théâtre National de l'Opéra to a train station or a Turkish bath: “Strange noises are produced there; the people who paid for it call it music.”

Debussy’s ideal opera was, “two associated dreams, no time, no place. No big scene…” (also to Guiraud). He very much wanted to write one but finding the right libretto was a problem. He started several to no avail until the need for money led him to take on Rodrigue et Chimène, based on an old-fashioned libretto about El Cid. He nearly completed it, but working with such a text was maddening, and he gave up.2

It was not until he encountered Maurice Maeterlinck’s spare Symbolist plays that he found what he was looking for—specifically, Pelléas et Mélisande. He had already written two works based on French Symbolism—Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Mallarmé) and Fêtes galantes (Verlaine)—so he was in familiar territory. In Pelléas, he found a “dream-like atmosphere [with] more humanity than those so-called ‘real-life documents’…there is an evocative language whose sensitivity could be extended into music and into the orchestral backcloth.” Maeterlinck’s prose text made it relatively easy for Debussy to apply it directly into the opera’s libretto and compose a vocal line, enhanced by repeated notes,3 that resembles speech. The result is an opera with no standard arias, duets, choruses, etc. and few great dynamic contrasts or fortissimos. Drama is often created with silences and contrast provided by the few dominant-tonic cadences in the score. (Whole-tone scales lack leading tones, so such cadences are rarer than usual.) Instrumental colors are more important than melody, and broad, whole-tone harmonies plus Medieval modes create an exotic, dreamy, wandering atmosphere. One major problem was overcoming the Wagnerian influence the young Debussy had garnered at Bayreuth where he saw Parsifal, Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde. 4 He even tore up one section of Pelléas that suggested Parsifal, but the influence of Wagner (including Parsifal) remains in the flow of the orchestra, some of the chromatic harmony, the use of leitmotifs in attaching orchestral themes to three main characters, and the overall effect of “a tone poem with voices.” Even so, Pelléas et Mélisande (1898) is in many ways the quintessential French opera.

Pelléas begins with Prince Golaud finding Mélisande lost in a forest. He marries her and brings her home to the castle of Arkel, King of Allemonde. Golaud becomes suspicious of goings on between Mélisande and his brother, Pelléas. After his suspicions turn into madness in Act III, he becomes obsessed with catching them together. Pelléas senses the danger and meets Mélisande in a cave, ostensibly for the “last time,” but instead, they confess their love. Golaud overhears them and kills Pélleas, and the opera ends with the mad Golaud demanding a confession of infidelity from Mélisande, who is dying in childbirth.

Debussy was averse to creating a suite from Pelléas. He later relented, and there are available suites by Erich Leinsdorf, Marius Constant, and Alain Altinoglu, plus older ones by Pierre Monteux and John Barbirolli. The Altinoglu arrangement, performed on this concert, relies on the prelude, orchestral interludes, and accompanying material, but does not assign vocal lines to instruments. Its elements follow the story: “Golaud discovering Mélisande in the forest; Mélisande playing with her wedding ring and dropping it in the pool; the love scene between Pelléas and Mélisande; Golaud killing Pelléas; Mélisande’s death,” and the opera’s ending (Marco Borggreve’s notes to a Cleveland Orchestra performance).

Debussy’s efforts with opera did not end with Pelléas. An admirer of Edgar Allen Poe, he planned a double bill based on Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher and The Devil in the Belfry. There were other attempts, but cancer defeated all of them.5

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony, as well as trombonist and orchestra manager of Lowell House Opera, Commonwealth Opera, and MetroWest Opera. He is a regular reviewer forAmerican Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback Magazine. His fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

1 Saint-Saëns was critical of Debussy and Pelléas.

2 He produced a nearly completed vocal score. Rodrigue et Chimène was “completed” by Richard Langham Smith and Edison Denisov and orchestrated by Denisov. It is not “Debussy,” but it is worth seeking out.

3 Those repetitions annoyed Richard Strauss.

4 Debussy was critical of French operas influenced by Wagner such as Emmanuel Chabrier’s Gwendoline and Ernest Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus. Similar operas are Alberic Magnard’s Guercoeur and Berenice. All are worth discovering, as is Les Barbares.

5 I know of two “completions” of Usher: by Juan Allende-Blin and by Robert Orledge, who also constructed a cheeky Belfry from Debussy’s spare sketches.

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