Schönberg’s tone poem Pelleas und Melisande is based on the French play Pelléas et Mélisande by Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949). Staged productions of Maeterlink’s sensual drama about forbidden love were highly acclaimed and inspired many composers to write original music. In fact, Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924) and Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) wrote incidental music for the French and Finnish productions, respectively. Schönberg was also fascinated with Materlinck’s drama when, in 1902, Richard Strauss (1864–1949) suggested Schönberg writing an opera based on the play. Neither composer knew that the French composer Claude Debussy (1862–1918) was already in the process of creating his own Maeterlinck opera, which subsequently became quite popular. Schönberg eventually discarded the idea of writing an opera and settled on composing a tone poem, completing it in Vienna the following year. The 1905 premiere of Schönberg’s ambitious orchestral work Pelleas und Melisande met with considerable criticism from the Viennese audience and critics. However, when the composer conducted the same piece in Prague, Amsterdam, and Saint Petersburg in 1912, people felt much more comfortable with the music and praised the composer’s achievement.
Many listeners identify the name Schönberg with his “atonal” or twelve-tone music developed in the 1920s. However, Pelleas und Melisande is one of the composer’s earlier pieces written in a Romantic style, reminiscent of late nineteenth-century master composers like Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler.
The whole tone poem is written in four continuous sections. The first section begins with the slow introduction illustrating the scene “In the Forest,” where Golaud meets a beautiful girl named Melisande. Over the dense harmony coming from a deep bass register, the clarinet plays the “Fate” theme. Then the oboe and English horn present the Melisande theme. Signaled by the soft sound of the French horn, the first violin and cello present the Golaud theme. Following a brief transition, the trumpet plays the theme of Pelleas, a vigor and noble youth. The closing section represents Melisande’s awakening to love.
The second section, the “Fountain Scene,” is a scherzo. This section expresses the joyous Melisande playing with her wedding ring that she accidentally drops into the well. At the moment Golaud, riding in the forest, falls from his horse. This section also depicts the scene in which Pelleas and Melisande converse in the castle and become acquainted with each other. The sinister sounding trombone glissandi expresses Golaud’s increasing jealousy towards them.
The slow third section represents the love scene and farewell of Pelleas and Melisande. As they embrace for the last moment before parting, Golaud springs from his hiding and kills Pelleas with his sword.
The fourth and final section portrays “The Death of Melisande.” As her death approaches, Golaud asks for her forgiveness and asks her about her relationship with Pelleas. Sadly, Melisande’s only concern at this moment is for her newborn infant. Everything remains unclear to the very end.