Listening to ‘Pelléas’ to commemorate Debussy’s 150th birthday (2012/08/22)

“Je suis un homme comme les autres” (Golaud)

Claude Debussy

22 August 2012 marks the 150th birthday of composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and on this day I’m going to listen – as I did so many times in my distant past – from start to finish to his opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Among the many great works of the french composer, Pelléas et Mélisande ranks as his greatest achievement. Whereas for many classical music lovers the summit of western classical music is represented by either Bach’s Matthew Passion or Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for me (and for many others) it’s Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy started working on Pelléas et Melisande, his only completed opera, in September 1893 and almost ten years later, on 30 April 1902, this milestone in the history of western classical music premiered at the Opéra Comique in Paris.

Soprano Mary Garden, who sang in 1902 the first Mélisande at the world premiere in Paris

Pelléas et Mélisande is commonly regarded as the work that marks the onset of twentieth century modern music. The opera is based on a play by famous Belgian symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949). Maeterlinck turned out to be the ideal librettist for the opera Debussy had in mind to write. When once asked (before he started working on ‘Pelléas’) what poet would suit his needs, Debussy replied: “One who only hints at what is to be said. That ideal would be two associated dreams. No place, nor time. No big scene. (..) No discussion or arguments between the characters whom I see at the mercy of life or destiny.” *

Some of my stuff

The symbolist and dreamy character of Maeterlinck’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ also proved to be the ideal vehicle for Debussy to juxtapose with the ideals of naturalism, for which he felt little sympathy. Debussy: “The drama of Pelléas – which, despite its atmosphere of dreams, contains much more humanity than so-called real-life documents – seemed to suit my intention admirably. It has an evocative language whose sensitivity could find its extension in music and in orchestral setting.” *

I borrow from Wikipedia to share in a nutshell a few other important notions about Debussy’s operatic masterpiece:
“Pelléas reveals Debussy’s deeply ambivalent attitude to the works of the German composer Richard Wagner” and according to musicologist Donald Grout “it is customary, and in the main correct, to regard Pelléas et Mélisande as a monument to French operatic reaction to Wagner.”

My piano score of the opera

Wikipedia continues: “Debussy strove to avoid excessive Wagnerian influence on Pelléas from the start, nevertheless he took several features from Wagner, including the use of leitmotifs and the continuous use of the orchestra. But Debussy’s musical writing is completely different from Wagner. In Grout’s words, “In most places the music is no more than an iridescent veil covering the text.”

One of my favourite recordings: Ansermet-L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande-Spoorenberg-London-Mau­rane

“The emphasis is on quietness, subtlety and allowing the words of the libretto to be heard; there are only four fortissimos in the entire score. Debussy’s use of declamation is un-Wagnerian as he felt Wagnerian melody was unsuited to the French language. Instead, he stays close to the rhythms of natural speech. Like Tristan the subject of Pelléas is a love triangle set in a vaguely Medieval world. Unlike the protagonists of Tristan, the characters rarely seem to understand or be able to articulate their own feelings. The deliberate vagueness of the story is paralleled by the elusiveness of Debussy’s music.” So far Wikipedia.

Pelléas et Mélisande is Debussy’s unparalleled masterpiece and it’s really a great joy for me to listen on the composer’s special anniversary to my most favourite ‘Pelléas’-recording, from which I embedded a segment right above here and of which I share here right below a picture. My way of celebrating the 150th birthday of the french master couldn’t be more rewarding! 🙂

The recording that’s most dear to me… a stunning achievement

* Source:
Nichols, Roger & Richard Langham Smith (1989) Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


‘Ave Maria’ (Caccini) by wonderful mezzo soprano Elisabeth Kulman

In the first minutes of January 1st, in the new year 2011 – right after the fireworks – I watched a programme on tv-channel ARTE – titled ‘Christmas in Vienna’ – and stumbled upon a beautiful singer with a most wonderful voice, a mezzo soprano from Austria that got me hooked. Her name: Elisabeth Kulman. From now on I’m her fan. On YouTube there’s quite a number of videos dedicated to her, check them out. And here’s from the Christmas in Vienna-programme her honest and touching rendition of Caccini’s ‘Ave Maria’.


Richard Strauss and ‘Daphne’ – in search of detachment


On Saturday I had a great night at the opera, here in Amsterdam. I witnessed a marvellous performance of Richard Strauss’ opera ‘Daphne’. Ingo Metzmacher seemed at ease with the complicated score and was conducting the Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra and The Netherlands Opera Choir in a flawless fashion. The vocal soloists thrived on this and they all performed very well.

A video I made for YouTube, with some marvellous music from Daphne

The opera is based on Greek mythology: the young girl Daphne refuses to submit to the mores of (a decaying) society, rejects them and finally transforms into a tree. ‘Daphne’ was premiered in Dresden in october 1938, in the midst of Germany’s nazi-regime (1933-1945). Strauss’ non-political escapism to Greek mythology in this period obviously reveals a desire for complete detachment from the Nazi-controlled society and from the ground where he was standing at the time. Paradoxically however, the attempt to avoid in Daphne any reference to actual matters in Nazi-Germany seems to be clearly the outcome of the current affairs in those days and therefore Daphne in a way strongly reflects them, a thought that is convincingly revealed in German director Peter Konwitschny’s interpretation of the opera.
By the end of the nineteen-thirties, a politically naive Richard Strauss was somehow -like Daphne- trapped in a tragic situation, caught in a similar dilemma. Which side do you choose under difficult circumstances in a morally decaying society? Do you adapt and play the game that you’re supposed to play, or do you refuse and quit it?
Strauss had been famous and respected in Germany and abroad for many decades and was already an aged man – almost 70 – when Hitler came to power in 1933. Under Hitler’s reign Strauss became President of the Reichsmusikkammer for two years (1933-1935), he composed the Olympic Hymn for the Olympics in Berlin in 1936 and he conducted opera’s in front of Nazi-bigwigs. There’s no doubt Strauss disliked the nazi’s, but he never openly declared himself against them or thought about leaving Germany. He always claimed to have stayed politically neutral in his role as President of the Reichsmusikkammer and that he was merely trying to protect culture and music as best as he could, but how naive can you be? On the other hand, he clearly resisted the ‘cultural barbarism’ of the nazi-regime, he tried to protect Jewish musicians and his Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig and -on a more personal level at home- he tried to protect and save his own Jewish family members from the crushing murder machine of the Nazi police-state. Anyhow, I think the controversial Strauss is to pity for his wavering attitude towards the nazi-regime.
For Daphne there seems to be a perfect escape from her dilemma, at the end of the opera she transforms into a tree. Strauss wrote gorgeous and moving music for this scene and the way it was staged here in Amsterdam was brilliant. I think deep in his heart Strauss might have wished for himself an escape like his Daphne, resulting in complete detachment. In this regard it’s no wonder that after the first succesful performances of Daphne Strauss declared in 1939 that he now liked to stay with the ‘Old Greeks’ for the rest of his life.