Moncrieff: 284-294; Sturrock: 207-214
by Dennis Abrams
Mme de Cambremer-Legrandin’s modern artistic tastes. Her disparagement of Poussin “In heaven’s name, after a painter like Monet, who is quite simply a genius, don’t go and mention an old hack without a vestige of talent, like Poussin. I don’t mind tell you frankly that I find him the deadliest bore.” Her preference for Monet over Manet, “Ah, the cathedrals!” The phases and evolution of her taste. Her defense of Pelleas et Melisande, “…it’s a little gem.” Her horror of sunsets, “they’re so romantic, so operatic.” Marcel informs her that Degas admires Poussin’s paintings, which causes her to reconsider her previous opinion “I must look at them again. My memory of them is a bit hazy.” Marcel tells the dowager Marquise how much he had heard of her flowers at Feterne, including the younger Mme de Cambremer in the conversation by telling her “It’s just like Pelleas…that scent of roses wafted up to the terraces. It’s so strong in the score that, as I suffer from hay-fever and rose-fever, it sets me sneezing every time I listen to that scene.” The younger Mme de Cambremer’s ranking of Pelleas over Parsifal. The elder Mme de Cambremer’s musical talent, her training by Chopin’s only surviving student, her love of Chopin, but “to play like Chopin was far from being a recommendation in the eyes of Legrandin’s sister, who despised nobody so much as the Polish composer.” Albertine’s lack of knowledge of Vermeer. Mme de Cambremer-Legrandin “considered herself ‘advanced,’ because, (in matters of art only) ‘one could never be far enough to the Left,’ she maintained not merely that music progressed, but that it progressed along a single straight line…” Changing artistic doctrines and changing artistic reputations (whether because those out of fashion did not deserve scorn, because praising someone out of fashion allows one to be original, or because their past work is seen as influence is seen on someone in fashion, or that master praises the artist himself). “Thus it was that the spirit of the times, following its habitual course which advances by digression, inclining first in one direction, then in the other, had brought into the limelight a number of works to which the need for justice or for renewal, or the taste of Debussy, or a whim of his, or some remark that he had perhaps never made, had added the works of Chopin.” The rehabilitation of the Nocturnes, unknown by Mme de Cambremer-Legrandin because of her time in the country and, because being an invalid, she was often confined to her room. Mme de Cambremer’s happiness that Marcel appreciates Chopin, Mme de Cambremer-Legrandin’s reconsideration on learning of Debussy’s praise, “…it was now quite certain that in future she would always listen to Chopin with respect and even pleasure.”
I loved loved loved this section — artistic reputations, Mme de Cambremer-Legrandin’s artistic snobbery, Mme de Cambremer’s honest love of Chopin, Proust discussing some of his favorite artists…
As for Pelleas et Melisande, it was one of Proust’s favorite works, one he heard by telephone on what was called the ‘theatro-phone’ which allowed him to have broadcast directly to his home live performances of Wagner’s Meistersinger from the Paris Opera, and Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande from the Opera-Comique. Cynthia Gamble described how it worked in her essay “From Belle Epoque to First World War.”
“A theatrophone network, operated by the ‘Compagnie du theatrophone’ with its main exchange in the rue Louis-le Grand, analogous to the telephone network, connected some Paris theatres, in particular the Opera, Opera-Comique and Le Theatre Francais, with individual subscribers’ homes. Powerful microphones and horn-shaped loudspeakers on the stage transmitted the performance via telephone lines. In London a similar device called an electrophone was used to transmit theatre performances to subscribers, but the service was not successful and was short-lived.”
Proust listened to the opera on February 21, 1911, and told Reynaldo Hahn (who didn’t like Debussy) that it made “an extremely agreeable impression.” As Jean-Yves Tadie says in his biography of Proust,
“As was his custom, Proust immersed himself in works that he had discovered: ‘I’m perpetually asking for Pelleas on the theatrophone, just as I used to go to the Concert Mayol. And all the rest of the time there’s not a word that does not come back to me. The parts I liked best are those in which there is music without words,” going on to say in a letter that “There are a few lines that are truly permeated with the freshness of the sea and the scent of roses carried to him on the breeze.”
And for those of you who don’t know the opera, some additional information:
Pelléas et Mélisande (opera)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Pelléas et Mélisande (Pelléas and Mélisande) is an opera in five acts with music by Claude Debussy. It was first performed at the Opéra-Comique, Paris on 30 April 1902. The French libretto was adapted from the Symbolist play of the same name by Maurice Maeterlinck. It was the only opera Debussy completed and is a landmark in 20th-century music.
The plot concerns a love triangle. Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. He marries her and brings her back to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. Here Mélisande becomes increasingly attached to Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas, arousing Golaud’s jealousy. Golaud goes to excessive lengths to find out the truth about Pelléas and Mélisande’s relationship, even forcing his own child, Yniold, to spy on the couple. Pelléas decides to leave the castle but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time and the two finally confess their love for one another. Golaud, who has been eavesdropping, rushes out and kills Pelléas. Mélisande dies shortly after, having given birth to a daughter, with Golaud still begging her to tell him “the truth”.
Composing the opera
Debussy’s ideal of opera
Looking back in 1902, Debussy explained the protracted genesis of his only finished opera: “For a long time I had been striving to write music for the theatre, but the form in which I wanted it to be was so unusual that after several attempts I had given up on the idea.”  There were many false starts before Pelléas et Mélisande. In the 1880s the young composer had toyed with several opera projects (Diane au Bois, Axël) before accepting a libretto on the theme of El Cid, entitled Rodrigue et Chimène, from the poet and Wagner aficionado Catulle Mendès. At this point, Debussy too was a devotee of Wagner’s music, but – eager to please his father – he was probably more swayed by Mendès’ promise of a performance at the Paris Opéra and the money and reputation this would bring. Mendès’ libretto, with its conventional plot, offered rather less encouragement to his creative abilities. In the words of Victor Lederer, “Desperate to sink his teeth into a project of substance, the young composer accepted the type of old-fashioned libretto he dreaded, filled with howlers and lusty choruses of soldiers calling for wine.” Debussy’s letters and conversations with friends reveal his increasing frustration with Mendès libretto and the composer’s enthusiasm for the Wagnerian aesthetic was also waning. In a letter of January, 1892, he wrote, “My life is hardship and misery thanks to this opera. Everything about it is wrong for me.” And to Paul Dukas, he confessed that Rodrigue was “totally at odds with all that I dream about, demanding a type of music that is alien to me.”
Debussy was already formulating a new conception of opera. In a letter to Ernest Guiraud in 1890 he wrote: “The ideal would be two associated dreams. No time, no place. No big scene […] Music in opera is far too predominant. Too much singing and the musical settings are too cumbersome […] My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes. No discussion or arguments between the characters whom I see at the mercy of life or destiny.” It was only when Debussy discovered the new Symbolist plays of Maurice Maeterlinck that he found a form of drama which answered his ideal requirements for a libretto.
Finding the right libretto
Maeterlinck’s plays were tremendously popular with the avant-garde in the Paris of the 1890s. They were anti-naturalistic in content and style, forsaking external drama for a symbolic expression of the inner life of the characters. Debussy had seen a production of Maeterlinck’s first play La princesse Maleine and, in 1891, he applied for permission to set it but Maeterlinck had already promised it to Vincent d’Indy.
Debussy’s interest shifted to Pelléas et Mélisande, which he had read some time between its publication in May 1892 and its first performance at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens on 17 May 1893, a staging the composer attended. Pelléás was a work which held a fascination for many other musicians of the time: both Gabriel Fauré and Jean Sibelius composed incidental music for the play and Arnold Schoenberg was to write a tone poem on the theme. Debussy, however, found in it the ideal opera libretto for which he had been searching. In a 1902 article, “Pourquoi j’ai écrit Pelléas”, Debussy explained the appeal of the work:
“The drama of Pelléas which, despite its dream-like atmosphere, contains far more humanity than those so-called ‘real-life documents’, seemed to suit my intentions admirably. In it there is an evocative language whose sensitivity could be extended into music and into the orchestral backcloth.”
Debussy abandoned work on Rodrigue and Chimène and, in August 1893, he approached Maeterlinck for permission to set Pelléas via his friend, the poet Henri de Régnier. Maeterlinck was happy to grant it. Régnier claimed Debussy had already started work on the music but the evidence suggests that he did not begin composing the score until September. In November, Debussy made a trip to Belgium, playing excerpts from his work in progress to the famous violinist Eugène Ysaÿe in Brussels, before visiting Maeterlinck at his home in Ghent. Debussy described the playwright as being initially as shy as a “girl meeting an eligible young man”, but the two soon warmed to each other and Maeterlinck authorised Debussy to make whatever cuts in the play he wanted. He also admitted to the composer that he knew nothing about music.
Debussy began work on Pelléas in September 1893. He decided to remove four scenes from the play (Act I Scene 1, Act II Scene 4, Act III Scene 1, Act V Scene 1 ), significantly reducing the role of the serving-women to one silent appearance in the last act. He also cut back on the elaborate descriptions of which Maeterlinck was fond. Debussy’s method of composition was fairly systematic, with him working on only one act at a time but not necessarily in chronological order. The first scene that he wrote was Act 4 Scene 4, the climactic love scene between Pelléas and Mélisande.
Debussy finished the short score of the opera (without detailed orchestration) on 17 August 1895. He did not go on to produce the full score needed for rehearsals until the Opéra-Comique accepted the work in 1898. At this point he added the full orchestration, finished the vocal score, and made several revisions. It is this version that went into rehearsals in January 1902.
Putting Pelléas on stage
Finding a venue
Debussy spent years trying to find a suitable venue for the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande, realising he would have difficulties getting such an innovative work staged. As he confided to his friend Camille Mauclair in 1895: “It is no slight work. I should like to find a place for it, but you know I am badly received everywhere.” He also told Mauclair that he had contemplated asking the wealthy aesthete Robert de Montesquiou to have it performed at his Pavillon des Muses, but nothing came of this.
The composer and conductor André Messager was a great admirer of Debussy’s music and had heard him play extracts from the opera. When Messager became chief conductor of the Opéra-Comique theatre in 1898, his enthusiastic recommendations prompted Albert Carré, the head of the opera house, to visit Debussy and hear the work played on the piano at two sessions, in May 1898 and April 1901. On the strength of this, Carré accepted the work for the Opéra-Comique and on 3 May 1901 gave Debussy a written promise to perform the opera the following season.
Trouble with Maeterlinck
Debussy had promised the role of Mélisande to Maeterlinck’s companion Georgette Leblanc and had even rehearsed the part with her privately. But Albert Carré became keen on a new Scottish singer, Mary Garden, who had captivated the Parisian public when she had taken over the lead role in Gustave Charpentier‘s Louise shortly after its premiere in 1900. Debussy was at first reluctant to comply with Carré but when he heard Garden sing he was so impressed that he later recalled: “That was the gentle voice that I had heard in my inmost being, with its hesitantly tender and captivating charm, such that I had barely dared to hope for.”
Maeterlinck first learnt about the change of singer when an announcement appeared in Le ménestrel newspaper on 29 December 1901. He was furious and tried to take legal action to prevent the opera from going ahead. When this failed, he threatened Debussy with physical violence, telling Leblanc he was going to “give Debussy a drubbing to teach him what was what” and Madame Debussy had to dissuade him from attacking her husband with a cane. On 14 April, Le Figaro published a letter from Maeterlinck in which he completely dissociated himself from the production, complaining about the cuts that had been made in the libretto (although he had originally sanctioned them) and describing “the Pelléas in question” as “a work that is strange and hostile to me […] I can only wish for its immediate and decided failure.” Maeterlinck finally saw the opera in 1920, two years after Debussy’s death. He later confessed: “In this affair I was entirely wrong and he was a thousand times right.”
Rehearsals for Pelléas et Mélisande began on 13 January 1902 and went on for 15 weeks; Debussy was present for 69 of the sessions. Mélisande was not the only role which caused casting problems: the child who was to play Yniold was not chosen until 5 March. In the event, the boy (Blondin) proved incapable of singing the part competently and Yniold’s main scene (Act IV Scene 3) was cut and only reinstated in later performances when the role was given to a woman. The rehearsals also showed that the stage machinery of the Opéra-Comique was unable to cope with the rapid set changes the libretto demanded and Debussy had to compose orchestral interludes to cover them. Many of the orchestra and cast were hostile to Debussy’s innovative work and, in the words of Roger Nichols, “may not have taken altogether kindly to the composer’s injunction, reported by Mary Garden, to ‘forget, please, that you are singers’.” The dress rehearsal took place on the afternoon of Monday, 28 April and was a rowdy affair. Someone (in Mary Garden’s view, Maurice Maeterlinck) distributed a salacious parody of the libretto to the audience, who also laughed at Garden’s Scottish accent (she allegedly pronounced courage as curages, meaning “the dirt that gets stuck in drains”). The censor, Henri Roujon, asked Debussy to make a number of cuts before the premiere, including a mention of the word “bed”. Debussy agreed but kept the libretto unaltered in the published score.
Pelléas et Mélisande received its first performance at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 30 April 1902 with André Messager conducting and set designs in the Pre-Raphaelite style by Lucien Jusseaume and Eugène Ronsin. The premiere received a warmer reception than the dress rehearsal because the Opéra-Comique’s regular subscribers who found the work so objectionable were counterbalanced by a group of Debussy aficionados. Messager described the reaction: “[It was] certainly not a triumph, but no longer the disaster of two days before…From the second performance onwards, the public remained calm and above all curious to hear this work everyone was talking about…The little group of admirers, Conservatoire pupils and students for the most part, grew day by day…”
Critical reaction was mixed. Some accused the music of being “sickly and practically lifeless” and of sounding “like the noise of a squeaky door or a piece of furniture being moved about, or a child crying in the distance.” Camille Saint-Saëns, a relentless opponent of Debussy’s music, claimed he had abandoned his customary summer holidays so he could stay in Paris and “say nasty things about Pelléas.” But others — especially the younger generation of composers, students and aesthetes — were highly enthusiastic. Debussy’s friend Paul Dukas lauded the opera, Romain Rolland described it as “one of the three or four outstanding achievements in French musical history” and Vincent d’Indy produced an extensive review which compared the work to Wagner and early 17th-century Italian opera. D’Indy found Pelléas moving too: “The composer has in fact simply felt and expressed the human feelings and human sufferings in human terms, despite the outward appearance the characters present of living in a dream.” The opera won a “cult following” among young aesthetes and the writer Jean Lorrain satirised the “Pelléastres” who aped the costumes and hairstyles of Mary Garden and the rest of the cast.
Later performance history
The initial run lasted for 14 performances, making a profit for the Opéra-Comique. It became a staple part in the repertory of the theatre, reaching its hundredth performance there on 25 January 1913. In 1908, Maggie Teyte took over the role of Mélisande from Mary Garden. She described Debussy’s reaction on learning her nationality: “Une autre anglaise — Mon Dieu” (“Another Englishwoman — my God”). Teyte also wrote about the composer’s perfectionist character and his relations with the cast:
As a teacher he was pedantic — that’s the only word. Really pedantic […] There was a core of anger and bitterness in him — I often think he was rather like Golaud in Pelléas and yet he wasn’t. He was — it’s in all his music — a very sensual man. No one seemed to like him. Jean Périer, who played Pelléas to my Mélisande, went white with anger if you mentioned the name of Debussy…
Debussy’s perfectionism — plus his dislike of the attendant publicity — was one of the reasons why he rarely attended performances of Pelléas et Mélisande. However, he did supervise the first foreign production of the opera, which appeared at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels on 9 January 1907. This was followed by foreign premieres in Frankfurt on 19 April of the same year, New York at the Manhattan Opera House on 19 February 1908, and at La Scala, Milan with Arturo Toscanini conducting on 2 April 1908. It first appeared in the United Kingdom at Covent Garden Theatre on 21 May 1909.
Moncrieff: Page 294 “‘Good heavens,’ Mme de Cambremer-Legrandin exclaimed to me…” through Page 307 “…few of all those sublime creatures who speak of the things that are not to be mentioned.”
Sturrock: Page 214 “‘Heavens,’ Mme de Cambremer-Legrandin said to me…” through Page 223 “…all those sublime creatures who talk about the very things that should not be said.”