There is only one event in the whole opera. Yet the absence of plot is not replaced by any exploration into the characters’ interiority. The entire text is a montage of short conversations, mostly in pairs of characters. Yet nothing is ever really cumulatively said. And it seems much, if not most, is hardly even heard, let alone understood. In Opera as Drama, Joseph Kerman posits that Debussy’s music, though brilliantly executed, does nothing more than set mood. Maeterlinck’s play, full of its “[d]ark forests and vanishing ships,” were “exactly [the] effects that Debussy knew how to manage so wonderfully” (146). Put in a single sentence, “What Debussy does with external objects or scenes is capture the moods that they convey” (146). And this aspect of Debussy’s general strength or tendency as a composer—or, in the context of opera, his “dramatic method,” as Kerman extrapolates—“matches Maeterlinck’s; impressionism is primary” (146).
For Kerman, this primary, and indeed sole use of music as mood-setter supports the “pointlessness of action” that is on every level, the essence and thesis of the play (144). For the opera, uselessness of music as an agent or even an element that interacts with the drama in anyway is the same as the uselessness of action shown by the play. Thus, any operatic music that would “do” anything to signify beyond a general or vague mood-setting would be “doing” something out of the bounds of the project of its libretto. The dichotomy is between mood-music and active-music: no (active-)music means no action. To Kerman, the music in Pelléas, as mood-setter, does nothing but heighten the already existing effects of Maeterlinck’s play. There is no music of which to make additional meaning. Even Debussy himself was paraphrased, by an interviewer shortly before the premiere, as saying, “Only the character himself should explain his state of mind and not have recourse to a symphonic digression” (Weiss 262). He is referring to music that by the means of “development, that long-winded boring thing,” as he calls it, would attempt to engage in a “commentary” with the drama (Weiss 262).
And indeed the music of Pelléas does seem to “do” nothing. For music to “do” something, music’s components must be valued over dramatic concerns or care for the prosody of the next. In Pelléas, there really are no “melodies,” given to the voices, in the sense of a line with a clear start and end point that can be repeated or developed, regardless of the phrasings of the text. There is never a number, or even anything resembling a closed form for that matter. Scenes do not even have marked endpoints, (only the ends of acts do). They are woven into one another with orchestral interludes, full of melodic flashes, often in the winds, but never blossoming into a full-fledged melody. And the accents and rhythms of spoken French are rarely (but essentially and sparingly—this will be returned to) abandoned or broken for music’s sake. As Kerman says, “More purely, perhaps, than anyone else’s recitative, Debussy’s follows the cadence of the momentary word, as a great actor might be imagined to speak it, without any aspiration to purely musical coherence” (147). The music in this sense, “[does] the actor’s work,” “[fixing] the inflection at every point” (Kerman 147). Thus it seems that in Pelléas, “abstract” and “formed” music can only barely exist in the orchestra, not in the voice, which itself can only follow the orchestra; and even in the orchestra, the music there can only vaguely follow the demands of the drama, or really, the imagery—Debussy’s greatness as a composer anyway.
But only from a distance, (and Kerman never gets any closer to Debussy’s music than from a vague general description such as the one above), do these claims fully hold up. Admittedly, it is frustrating to talk about Debussy’s music in Pelléas, because thus far, no observation we have made about his music particularly has to do with opera, or Debussy’s opera music, so much as it has to do with Debussy’s music in general. If the point we are making is that Debussy’s music in Pelléas “avoids development, that long-winded boring thing,” then what, after all, was L’après-midi d’un faune all about? Even Kerman was unable to make his point about Pelléas’s music’s function as the setter of “mood,” this otherwise unformed piece of the stage’s scenery, without first invoking“La Mer, Jardins sous la pluie, La Cathédrale engloutie, Voiles, Brouillards and the rest,” to show Debussy’s pre-existing fashion or method— his “musical ear” and predisposition for mood painting (146). In a mirroring way, for comparison’s sake, it is rather like Verdi’s Requiem, which, simply put, sounds much more like an opera than a requiem mass. And thus it becomes unavoidable: we cannot just talk about the music of Pelléas, unless we acknowledge and talk first about the relevant aspects of Debussy’s music in general, before we re-map those elements back on to a context that includes a stage, an audience, and a drama (or at least a story).
Since, for example, the opening measure of Pelléas sound like they could be inserted right into La mer and no one would raise an eyebrow, and we all know so closely the effect and ability of Debussy’s orchestra to paint mood, I believe that the only way to see further into how Debussy’s pre-existing composerly attributes interact with opera, is to look at text setting in Debussy—how he treats the voice. How this opera works must be dependant on what we can conclude about the way in which Debussy sets text, in the abstract, and the way we consequently perceive the voices, here, in opera that is, the characters, as agents and individuals. The place to look is Debussy’s songs, for a clearer look at the patterns of Debussy’s vocal lines. Indeed a leap must be made from verse to prose, in the text, from the smaller closed forms of song to the vast open non-form of Pelléas, and from the abstract or potentially inward to the dramatic stage, with its fourth wall. But Debussy’s approach to text-setting and prosody is really quite the same in these two worlds: a sentence is a sentence, and it should sound that way. And furthermore, we have already shown that Debussy did not have a new way of composing for the operatic genre—“Pelléas” Debussy is the same as “chanson” Debussy, just as “requiem mass” Verdi was the same as “Aida” Verdi.
I will look at a few aspects from Trios chansons de bilits, particularly la Chevelure, and Colloque sentimental from Fêtes galantes. But first, I will make, for contrast’s sake, a few comments about a Schubert song, Wanderers Nachtlied II. In the Schubert song, the voice and the piano are tied together in numerous ways. They are not intended to be perceived as separate entities or parts of the musical structure. For example, the first line of vocal melody is the same shape as the first bar of the piano introduction. There are but two notes in the whole vocal line (in bars three and four) that do not have a note in the piano at the same time to support it, and even both of these two notes are insignificant offbeat repeated pitches. No vocal moment is left stranded on its own without the piano attempting to create the same exact effect underneath. On beat three of bar three, beat three of bar four, the downbeat of bar six, the downbeat of bar seven, and so on, when the voice travels upwards, the whole of the piano part comes with. When there are two moving sixteenths in the voice—the only time there is more than one sixteenth note in a row, in bars six, seven, and eight—the piano part has composite continuous sixteenth notes to support. The two parts come to a full pause at the fermatas at the same time and with the same approaching dotted rhythm. And so on and so forth…
In the Debussy songs, however, the voice is deliberately on a different wave-length. Debussy’s voice struggles to fit its words into the outline, however structured an outline it is, that the piano part provides. The piano does not follow, but leads. In fact, in each of these Debussy songs, always after the piano has “set the mood,” the voice begins by establishing, nearly always in eighth notes, what the basic speed or rhythm of speech will be. From this basic speech-tempo of eighth notes, alterations into triplets or sixteenth notes are occasionally made to fit the phrase or sentence into the piano’s music. La flute de Pan is a perfect example of how the voice part is nearly never in sync with the piano. Not a single entrance of the voice, not a single new phrase, comes on a downbeat. Actually, only one, the first appearance of the voice, even comes in on a beat. The remaining entrances are after eight rests, sixteenth rests, or triplet eight rests. And the voice, save for a mere six quarter notes, all at the ends of phrases and with rests after them, sings smaller note values, passing by quickly, devoid of any melodic identity. These patterns are consistent throughout the songs, and indeed throughout Pelléas as well. And since the voice can never start a phrase, can never even be at the start of a phrase, the voice seems only to be able to squeeze its words out between the musical phrases of the accompaniment, usually structured formally in some coherent way.
But so far, it seems we have discovered little about Debussy’s treatment of the voice that we could not easily map onto and line up with Kerman’s argument. There are moments in these songs though, where it seems the voice can do more. The voice can become melodic, it can finally lead the piano in its own direction, and it can finally break the pure rhythms of spoken French, extending its syllables on longer pitches, in these rare moments. Saturation is small, basically limited, in the songs that make up Trios chansons de bilitis, to the middle of the whole cycle, the middle of la Chevelure.
Looking at pages two and three of the song, a few spots will begin to emerge—the word “poitrine” and the word “bouche”—where the voice allows itself to elongate a syllable. In Colloque sentimental, the word “indicible,” on page four, in this case especially, makes the piano fit all of its smaller notes into the word’s extended space now. We seem to be getting closer to a prioritizing of musical expression and a willingness to fracture the text, in these few moments. But these three words are at the ends of phrases. And it is always the last word that is extended in its penultimate syllable, in French, much stronger than the nearly throwaway final syllable in these words anyway. The result is a sort of half way gesture. The musical voice (as opposed to the linguistic voice) almost becomes dominant. The words almost fade away in importance. It almost seems like we could begin to have true melody in the vocal line. Certainly, in la Chevelure, the two moments help form the song. Poitrine and bouche build, one right after the other, linked by a number of hairpins and crescendos, to another type of almost-pure-music on the bottom of the third page that we can identity in Debussy’s text-setting.
Starting three bars after à 1o Tempo, the return to 6/4 time, Louys’ poem reads, “ ‘Et peu à peu, il m’a semblé, /tant nos membres étaient confondus, / que je devenais toi-même, / ou que tu entrais en moi comme mon songe.’ ” Each of these emphasized words is also at the end of a phrase, as before, with the exception of “moi,” which is at a natural place for a breath or short pause anyway. But unlike before, Debussy wants this section to rapidly push forward. After poitrine and bouche there was a return to piano, subito piano even, after the latter. But this is En pressant peu à peu et en augmentant, as the score indicates. So, Debussy manages to give us again, an almost music event. Each of the emphasized words above arrives on a longer note value than the surrounding ones, and they arrive, after repeated notes, on a jump upwards. In a sense, it is not a departure from good prosody, but a hyper-prosody, where the high points in the text are greatly exaggerated by the musical line. It is, like before, a way of building, in motion, but not arriving. It is on its way to becoming principally musical, because music here is interacting with the text in a vocally unnatural way. But since they are the natural places in the phrase for such deviations, it is only half-way unnatural. It feels as if it could just about break open and disregard the word, but it hasn’t fully yet. And as always, on the second bar of the next page, piano, suddenly after fortissimo, returns to pull us back into the familiar status-quo of Debussy text-setting and song.
All of these examples, as I have begun to hint at, occur at fortes, and indeed more specifically at and around crescendos and builds. (Poitrine is mezzo-forte, and in the middle of a crescendo, as the first occurrence three in that song, all discussed above, where pure-music begins to assert itself.) In fact, there are very few other moments besides the ones above in these songs are forte. (If we do find others, for example, at the double bar, the key change to four sharps, on the last page of Le tombeau des Naiades, we also find an extended word on a long note at the height of a crescendo with a quick return to piano afterwards.) These are not the fortes of arrival points, but brief moments, never quite fully unfastened. The energy level does not slowly return to a lower, pianostate, as it might after a climax in a Mahler symphony, for example. It almost instantaneously returns, as if the need for forward motion and the getting-out of the next line of text—words themselves—negate the existence of what explosive and nearly purely musical event just occurred. If we simply scan for dynamics in La chevelure, the song of these four with the most of these moments, as discussed, we will notice a number of hairpin crescendosas well as a written one, and a number of expressive markings such as En pressant, which have a similar effect. Diminuendos or decrescendo hairpins are almost nowhere to be found. Fortes are at the high points of phrases, while pianos are often subito, whether specifically marked as such or not. Colloque sentimental is equally striking its fulfillment of this pattern. There are only two mezzo-fortes and one forte in the piece, in the fifth bar of page three, the third bar of page four, and the tenth bar of page four. Each of these places has a full bar or two bar hairpin crescendo after the marked forte or mezzo-forte and a piano or pianissimo directly after the hairpin. Twice, a rolled chord on the piano downbeat literally slows the rush forward of the forte and causes a return, and the remaining time, subito and Retenu are actually marked. In conclusion, a pattern of Debussy’s way of setting text that we can extract from the songs is that the texture is continuously, or at least frequently, in a process of building. It is in motion, on its way to an arrival point that never occurs. It resembles “music” over “sung-speech” more and more as it builds, but never fully gets there. Now, finally, these examples, in these terms, begin to look like Pelléas, where the voice often soars for staggeringly brief moments.
What happens when these patterns are mapped onto the operatic stage? Maeterlinck’s practically unreal characters, who do not act, who can barely converse, who seem hardly to feel in this strange foggy world, do indeed remain as such, but they get closer to breaking out of those bounds. When their voices almost become music, they almost act. They come closer to feeling. They begin to express. Everything becomes more urgent, and especially so for us watching them almost break their pattern. But as in the songs, we are always moving towards action instead of acting. A few examples, now from the opera, of places where the voice begins to resemble melody, where the intervals of the voice break free of the relentless outlining of half-diminished chords and simple repeated notes, omnipresent in the vocal lines, where the note values begin to become longer and the prosody less cared for, and where indeed we have our rare moments of full forte quickly followed by subito piano, will help make clear what I am saying.
I will explain two examples, growing in clarity and magnitude as the opera goes in, mirroring the crescendos to nowhere on ever level of both the music and the play, from Act 1 Sc 1 and Act 3 Sc 1. In the former, two measures after rehearsal 11, we have the first tutti forte of the whole score. From four before rehearsal 11, beginning in the English horn, then passed to the violins, then to the oboe, we have been hearing short melodies passed around, building to this forte. Only after the orchestra has effectively shown Golaud how to sing, how to melodize, culminating finally in a momentary full bloom in the strings at two after rehearsal 11 on the downbeat on the pitches C# D# and back to C#, can Golaud imitate these same exact pitches a single beat later: ne pleurez pas ainsi. Though the prosody is kept true, the high point of the line, though on an offbeat, is on the weaker rez in pleurez. The voice is first and foremost imitating the single winds’ and strings’ melodies here, before it is speaking its words. But his beckoning—“Come, you must not weep like this”—goes unanswered. It is Golaud himself who in the very next bar abandons melody, before the orchestra does, reverting back to the repeated notes, moving in the ubiquitous recitative-like minor thirds, and sixteenth notes, the norm for speech in this scene, instead of the slower more sung eights of the bar before. Along with the abandonment of music in the very next bar, Golaud abandons his warm sung beckoning, quickly asking distantly, “D’où venez-vous?” (“Where is your home”) instead.
The language of the opera is in its early stages of revealing itself in this opening scene; and if we look towards the middle of the opera, Act 3 Sc 1, we can find a more developed occurrence of our pattern. The section in consideration begins nine before rehearsal 14, at en animant, and goes through four after rehearsal 14. Pelléas says “Look, Look. My two hands are not enough to hold it all; some of it even reaches the branch of the willow. In my hands it comes alive as if it were a bird, and it loves me, it loves me more than you!” (64). He is utterly close to finally directly expressing his love to Mélisande. He seems billowing with emotion, finally, with phrases such as “comes alive” and “not enough to hold it all.” And thus his voice achieves a surprising feat and effect. And the section’s start, the violas and clarinets state a melody: starting on the fifth degree of an A Dorian tonality, they climb to the ninth, and then a triplet brings us back to tonic on the third and second scale degrees. Pelléasbegins the same melody in the next bar, yet starting on the first scale degree, in a way, resolving the violas and clarinet’s statement. On the third beat, in the triplet, instead of returning to the starting point of the phrase as the violas did, he actually develops the melody, taking it up to the seventh degree of the scale. The orchestra remains stuck repeating this melody as it was first stated. As it is literally repeated over and over, again in the violas, then in the cellos and English horn, and then oboes and the French horns added after that, it starts to simply become “color in time.” This “melody” repeated and shifted around the orchestra is actually more like a painted color the takes one bar to render. The voice meanwhile, has taken the ascending stepwise pattern and begun to use the idea however it pleases, ending in the longest melodic note values of the score here (five before rehearsal 14). And once the voice has established itself in this way, when it begins to wander at Ils vivent or most strikingly at Et ils m’aiment (where the insignificant and first syllable Et is given a long dotted quarter note), it no longer seems like wandering but melodizing—the dominant and primary music in the soundscape. The voice, in this passage, is defining the harmony with the orchestra, arriving on the first beats of the measures, no longer reacting to downbeats that have new harmonies. It goes without saying that this all takes place over a crescendo, the largest in the vicinity, arriving at più forte. But ultimately, Pelléas inevitably retreats when he says, “[Your hair] loves me more than you!”, distancing himself from Mélisande and from anything more significant than a playful game with her hair. At this line, four after rehearsal 14, Pelléas gets his last reach at a melody and returns to piano, back to where we started.
As we’ve just seen, where in the play, we have no action, in the opera, we have incomplete action. Or as Kerman might say, only a great actor could give us this sense of “nearly action”—the verge of doing—but the music does it without hesitation. Music adds this element to the libretto. Though never fulfilled, never complete, we have a start, a beginning, a semblance, of knowing what acting could be in this story. It is simply never materialized.
It is no question that the bulk of the “music” in Pelléas is in the orchestra. The more interesting question is whether there is any in the voice, where it is, what its function is. Indeed Kerman is right in saying that the play’s attempt to prove the purposeless of action is supported overall by a musical language that correspondingly detracts its own ability to interact with the text, choosing to “set mood” instead. But something else happens too, which Kerman hardly addresses, in the rare moments such as the ones I have addressed above. These moments strangely (even ironically) add realism to a hazy, singular, and bizarre world. As Debussy’s interviewer says, “He becomes lyrical only when it is necessary. M. Debussy repudiates non-stop lyricism, because we are not lyrical in life, only at certain decisive moments” (Weiss 263). Debussy said in a letter to a lecturer on his opera, “I have tried to prove that when people sing they can remain human and natural” (Weiss 264). It is like the world of Tolstoy, where something nearly ecstatic and nearly epic is made out of the every-day. Eloquent, strange, expressive moments, through various brilliant (and often revolutionary) literary devices, break through Tolstoy’s texture of otherwise stark depictions of reality. Because those “lyrical” moments are reality—rarely, but they are. And the moments also add drama, even if in these small quantities of densely packed bursts, to a play categorically opposed to drama. The subtle and difficult aspect of the play that Kerman identifies—to convince an audience of the “purposeless of action”—is actually performed by the music, actually acted by music that nearly arrives, indeed nearly acts—voices that nearly heighten to a level where the power of the voice itself seems it can do—but it never fully does.
In this sense, Debussy’s music does something that the play tries to do, but it does it even better. Kerman argued that music’s only function in Pelléas is to elevate the pre-existing features of Maeterlinck’s play. Impressionism and mood is the stuff of the play, and it is clearly the stuff of the music, too. But even more significantly, the music of Pelléas brilliantly heightens the sensation of watching someone who should act not act—watching someone almost act. It keeps us on the edge of our seats waiting for something to happen that never will. We can be passionately engaged with a drama in which only one thing happens for two and a half hours, because, especially with Debussy’s music, it seems at every moment that something is about to happen. It is about to become music, and it never does. The moment it arrives, it pulls back.
In tragedy, the heroes come close to great success, but they have great falls, discovering their simple humanity in the process. They become like one of us, yet end up stripped of their humanity at the same time, so that we can, in some sense, attain a certain pleasure from watching the tragic stripping process that we will never actually have to undergo. But here, conversely, Pelléas and Mélisande come achingly close to being realized as people: lives filled with events, expression, real moments, and sensible conversation. They are nearly complete people, instead of tragically merely human. In a tragic hero’s fall, though we can oftentimes pinpoint the cause of the fall, we do not usually sense that, in their place, we would have found a way to avoid the fall, even if the hero’s fall was brought about by himself. Here, however, we know what we would have done in Pelléas and Mélisande’s place; they do not. We can project ourselves onto these characters and say for them: “act!” And know that we could, if it were we whose lives were at stake . Music pushes the characters one step closer than the play does to that action. The pain of the character’s inaction is greater. The pleasure of knowing we could in their place, is greater. This space between what we see and know is possible to do, and what the characters know and do, allows us to fill out the actions of Pelléas and Mélisande. It allows us to project onto the absence and become a part of the make-believe drama. Finally, the effect an actionless drama, where only one thing ever happens, can fully become realized.
In Act 4 Sc 4, on page 332 of the score, at the height of the “action” of the whole opera, the climax, Pelléas finally states his love for Mélisande. He squeamishly and quickly spurts out Je t’aime after a great burst from the orchestra. Once revealed, the remainder of the scene, until Golaud looms at rehearsal 54, is filled with crescendos to fortes, quick bursts, followed by pianos, themselves usually immediately followed by crescendosagain. We, the audience, as people off this strange impressionistic stage, know what it would look like if instead of the orchestra dropping out for Je t’aime, if Pelléas’ voice remained at forte. What if these bursts were not bursts but they sustained and lasted and lived. That knowledge of ours, that continual and unrelenting possibility in our experience, is empowering for us. That the longer sustaining of these brief moments remains a possibility and not a reality on stage is essential in keeping our experience of the uncanny world of this stage so immediate, and indeed so peculiarly real.
Debussy, Claude, and Maurice Maeterlinck. Pelléas & Mélisande. Trans. Hugh Macdonald. Ed. Nicholas John. Vol. 9. London: J. Calder, 1982. Print. English National Opera Guide.
Debussy, Claude. “Colloque Sentimental.” Songs, 1880-1904. Ed. Rita Benton. New York: Dover Publications, 1981. 159-64. Print.
Debussy, Claude. Pelléas et Mélisande. Paris: Durand & Fils, 1902. Print.
Debussy, Claude. “Trois Chansons De Bilitis.” Songs, 1880-1904. Ed. Rita Benton. New York: Dover Publications, 1981. 130-41. Print.
Kerman, Joseph. Opera as Drama. New ed. Berkeley: University of California, 1988. Print.
Schubert, Franz. “Wanderers Nachtlied, D.768.” Franz Schubert: Lieder. Ed. Max Friedlaender. Vol. 1. Leipzig: Edition Peters. 229. Print.
Weiss, Piero. Opera: A History in Documents. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.