Fauré – Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite

by Max Derrickson

Gabriel Fauré   (b Pamiers, Ariège, 12 May 1845; Paris, 4 Nov. 1924)

Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite
1. Prelude: Quasi Adagio
2. Fileuse: Andantino quasi Allegretto
3. Sicilienne: Allegro molto Moderato
4. La Mort de Mélisande: Molto Adagio

Amidst the immensely diverse musical styles in the dynamic close of the 19th century (recall Debussy, Richard Strauss, Grieg, Stravinsky and Schoenberg), Gabriel Fauré found his own unique and boldly expressive style, free of bombast, rich in harmony, and lyrically delicate yet profound.  Though his compositional brilliance was more suited to art songs and chamber music for most of his career, the Suite to Pelléas et Mélisande and several of his other larger works (such as the Requiem and Pavanne) stand as exquisite masterpieces.

In literary circles during this period, the iconoclastic Symbolist movement blossomed (inaugurated by Baudelaire a few decades earlier and so keenly represented by the poet Stéphane Mallarmé), and produced a host of works that Fauré was quite in tune with.  In reaction to the more reality-based, nature influenced Romanticism, Symbolism favored spirituality, imagination and dreams, striving to evoke “anywhere, out of this world.”  One of the most notorious plays of this era was Maurice Materlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and Fauré, whose style well suited the play’s timbre, was commissioned to write the incidental music for its English-version premiere inLondonin 1898.  Three years later, Fauré then composed the Suite, taking 4 of the original 19 movements for the play and creating one of his most memorable pieces.

The story of Pelléas and Mélisande is one of forbidden love, taking place in a quasi-mythical medieval place.  With Materlinck’s emphasis on mood and sensation over clear narrative, Fauré’s incidental music captures its muted atmosphere of desire, angst and of the mysticism of death.  The plot is fairly simple:   [. . .]

The Prelude, in its sweetness of flowing lines, introduces Mélisande, the inconsolable beauty (inconsolable for unknown reasons), and also sets the sweep of the whole work as a somber but epic tale.  Themes in the Prelude also hint at the poor maiden’s fate.  Fileuse (Spinner) then brings us to Mélisande’s tower in Golaud’s castle, where she daydreams of her love of Pelléas, her spinning wheel gently twirling along, while the oboe escapes with her soul into the purity of true love.  One of Fauré’s most beloved tunes   [. . .]