A Debussy Rarity on Symphony @ 7: Pelleas and Melisande Suite

Pelleas and Melisande. Painting by Edmund Blair Leighton(Photo: Wikipedia)
Pelleas and Melisande. Painting by Edmund Blair Leighton(Photo: Wikipedia)

This evening on Symphony @ 7, we’ll have something not heard all that often from French composer Claude Debussy — the Pelleas et Melisande Symphony.  It’s an arrangement of music from the 1902 opera made into a half-hour orchestral suite by Marius Constant.

Although Debussy had already written other works that we hear often today, such as the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun for orchestra from 1894, his only opera helped establish him in Paris as an important composer.  His famous symphonic suite La mer was still several years away (1905).

The story of Debussy’s opera was adapted from the Symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck.  The mysterious tale of the ill-fated lovers inspired a number of composers near the beginning of the 20th Century to write music based on it, including Gabriel Faure, Arnold Schoenberg, and Jean Sibelius.

The deliberate pacing and harmonically shifting music helps create a dreamlike, half-lit world in which obvious forward-moving dramatic elements are at times slowed to a snail’s pace.  It’s an intentional overturning of conventional operatic expectations.  It’s been noted that Debussy’s opera share’s some of these elements with Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, which also unfolds in a very deliberate manner and contains long passages of slow but mesmerizing orchestral music.

Join me this evening on Symphony @ 7 for a rare musical treat from Claude Debussy.  To get a feel for this evocative and mysterious music, here’s Act 1 from the opera:

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