Drowning in Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande

Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande is an opera about the drowning of the soul. Characters speak casually while the forces of nature drag them to the bottom. The forest swallows the hunter, the ring symbolizing fidelity and stability drops into a bottomless well.  We are drawn to a dark cave and later to the deep vaults of the castle. Characters strive to see sunlight or even moonlight as the darkness swallows them. We hear the sea in the distance, the great water that swallows everything. Even Mélisande’s beautiful long hair descends from the balcony to drown and ensnare Pélleas in delirious, irresistible, and forbidden love.

Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck spoke of “static drama,” where ordinary, conversational dialogue hints at deeper meaning, but says little itself:  —Golaud: “I’m looking at your eyes. Don’t you ever close them?”—Mélisande: “Oh yes, I close them at night.” Fate is in total control. Characters are powerless, with little understanding of themselves or their situation. Maeterinck’s notion was that characters should be pushed and pulled as if they were marionettes.  (from his essay "The Tragic in Daily Life" (1896))

To translate Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama, Debussy conceived a new style of opera:

I imagine a kind of drama quite different from Wagner’s, in which music would begin where the words are powerless as an expressive force. Music is made for the inexpressible; I would like it to seem to emerge from the shadows and go back into them from time to time, and it should always be discreet.

Debussy mentions Wagner specifically and it’s no accident that Pélleas reflects a love/hate obsession with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Like Wagner’s work, it is set in a mythological Medieval past with forests and castles. It is a tale of doom brought on by forbidden love. There is a ring (!) and many other symbols that portend fate, fidelity, and passion. 

But Debussy takes the orchestra of Wagnerian opera one step further: where Wagner's orchestra is a magnificent mirror that amplifies characters conveying the depth of their feelings in song, Debussy's orchestra is the opera itself—it’s set, it’s plot, it’s stage, it’s emotions. Characters essentially just run commentary while the orchestra unfolds its magic. The melody lies in the orchestra, not with the singers. There are no arias or ensemble pieces—the “red meat” for opera lovers.  Mélisande never has a big vocal moment in the entire opera. Instead, the vocal style is parlando or recitative, with the shape and rhythm of speech. Vocal lines are not doubled in the orchestra and they are rarely motivic.

Debussy creates a through-composed work, without much repetition to hold your ear. The scenes are like frozen tableaux. The gloomy forest, the cave, the deep well, the vault of the castle—these are all symbols of internal psychological states. And these tableaux are loosely connected or set apart by orchestral interludes that are less transitions, and more the actual fabric of the opera itself.

Pelléas and Mélisande is possibly the quietist opera. It begins pianissimo and in a sense, works its way down from there. There are no grand proclamations by Wagnerian sopranos or tenors. The loud moment ending the third act accompanies a scene where little happens: Golaud lifts his son to spy through the window expecting to catch the illicit lovers. Instead his son sees Pélleas and Mélisande merely sitting silently in her room. But the nervous dynamic swelling of the orchestra confirms Golaud’s jealousy, and that it will consume both him and all around him. The violence of this music and the murder scene that eventually unfolds during the lovers’ ecstatic kiss and murder magnify so forcefully in our ears precisely because the rest of the opera is so soft.

But the ultimate “drowning” in Pelléas and Mélisande happens to us listeners. Debussy’s pianissimo first sensitizes us into a fragile sound world of infinite color. By degrees we are seduced, ensnared, and submerged in a self-contained unique sonic language. Rhythm transcends and defies simple pulse, harmony moves to different styles as if turning the cylinder of a kaleidoscope, and, above all, Debussy’s impressionistic orchestration that creates an aural canvas more colorful than any visual stage setting.

Good luck trying to tap your feet to this music. By alternating groupings of duple and triple, adding syncopation, and layering different rhythms on top of another, Debussy essentially erases the sense of strong pulse you feel in Beethoven or Dvorak. Instead, Debussy’s rhythm creates a richly textured, nebulous fog that allows his magical colors to emerge with great potency.

If you love the harmonies of Afternoon of a Faun or La Mer, then Pelléas and Mélisande provides an ultimate feast. Those seductive chords with piled thirds that so inspired jazz artists—7th, 9th, 11th, 13th chords—work their sensual magic. In the first scene of Act III, for instance, where Pelléas becomes enraptured with Mélisande’s hair, a descending scale of dominant 7th chords accompanies her hair tumbling from the balcony onto Pelléas. Then an aural perfume of ascending minor 9th chords accompanies Pelléas’s murmurs of rapture.  These rich harmonies form but one of three different harmonic worlds in Debussy’s palette. The second world is the pentatonic (5 note) scale so much a part of folk and ethnic music. Debussy was famously influenced by Indonesian gamelan and other ethnic music during the World Exhibition in Paris. The music of Pelléas and Mélisande actually begins with a pentatonic sound world in its opening measures. It connotes not an ethnic quality, but a suggestion of a Medieval mythological past which becomes an important musical element of the opera.  Debussy’s third harmonic world is that of the whole tone scale and the augmented chords it produces. This was his “modern” invention, one that would increasingly occupy his compositional process after Pelléas. The whole tone scale divides the octave into 6 equally spaced pitches so that all the notes sound equal, not leading to or arriving at any place in particular. This is an artificial scale in the sense it does not appear naturally in world cultures. But for Debussy, it is a magic carpet that not only produces new sounds, but transports his music from one harmonic language to another. In a real sense, Debussy uses the whole tone scale the same way classical composers used pivot chords. The pivot chord is a chord that smoothly moves from one key to another, say C major to G major. For Debussy, the whole tone fabric lets him pivot between his simpler folk sound world and his rich Romantic harmony sound world.

Focused listening can be a challenge when rhythms avoid strong beats and harmonies encompass three different languages! Add to the mixture that Debussy avoids set musical forms, but instead continually moves forward with his ideas. A listener can’t rely on sections repeating and returning.  So how does the ear follow? Debussy does provide one important breadcrumb. When he presents a new idea, he invariably repeats it directly before moving on. In other words, the music proceeds in couplets, and if you can identify these couplets, it helps to hold them in memory. Another help is getting to recognize the Debussy’s pattern of shifting between the three harmonic sound worlds. Once you can distinguish them from each other, they become familiar aural identity markers in the opera.

The very opening of Pelléas and Mélisande provides an excellent example of both processes. The first sounds are a pentatonic motive that repeats followed by a whole tone motive that itself repeats. Then comes a measure “break” with only the timpani softly rolling. Then the process repeats—the pentatonic motive twice and the whole tone motive twice. The whole tone world shifts to the warmer “Romantic harmony” world with new tunes (again, just short motives) played by the oboe, clarinet, flute, and finally a soft but lush conclusion in the strings. Then a measure of whole tone, a shift back to the pentatonic motive, and back to whole tone where Golaud begins talking about being lost in the forest. For us, it’s a forest of harmonic worlds!  But to hear these shifts is analogous to hearing the change of keys in older symphonic music. And that connection leads to a deeper sensitivity and recognition of rhythmic and melodic ideas that do recur and grow through the opera, not with the obsession and development of Haydn or Beethoven, but with an organic progression that absolutely creates identity and cohesion for what otherwise would seem a random and profuse musical outpouring.

The “fairy dust” for Debussy’s rhythm and harmony is, of course, his unique feathery orchestration, a deliberate translation of the impressionistic colors of artists like Monet. Melodic arabesques thread through the different woodwinds, constantly shifting color. Strings play lightly over the fingerboard, or shimmer with their bows quivering quietly at the tips. In carefully chosen moments, brass instruments add to the shimmer, or play mutedly in others. At other times, the harp splashes into the texture or plucks to create a delicate intimacy. Percussion adds exotic touches with the cymbal, glockenspiel, triangle, and bell. In short, every page of the score is a discovery of new orchestral effects and combinations.

If you’re gonna drown, this is the way to go! But you’ll likely find you want to drown multiple times. Like the Wagner operas Debussy is trying to oppose, Pélleas gets deeper under your skin the more you listen. And when you wake from the dream, you’ll likely carry in your ear (forever) the last 11 measures of the opera, where high strings, muted trumpets, plucked cellos, and the most delicate falling harp arpeggiosblend into the most luminous music you can imagine to embody the dream of Mélisande’s impossibly beautiful hair.