Pelléas and Mélisande (incidental music and orchestral suite)
[Op. 46] Pelléas och Mélisande (Pelléas and Mélisande). Music for Maurice Maeterlinck's play (Swedish translation by Bertel Gripenberg); overtures to each of the five acts and five other pieces. Completed in 1905; first performance at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki, 17th March 1905 (conducted by Jean Sibelius). (Arrangement: see orchestral works op. 46.)
Op. 46 Pelléas och Mélisande (Pelléas and Mélisande), suite. Based on the music for Maurice Maeterlinck's play of the same name. 1. Vid slottsporten (At the Castle Gate), 2. Mélisande, 2a. På stranden vid havet (At the Seashore), 3. En källa i parken (A Spring in the Park), 4. De trenne blinda systrar (Three Blind Sisters) , 5. Pastorale, 6. Mélisande vid sländan (Mélisande at the Spinning Wheel), 7. Mellanaktsmusik (Entr'acte), 8. Mélisandes död (The Death of Mélisande). Completed in 1905. Piano arrangement (without 2a) in 1905: arrangement of part 4 for song and piano (Les trois soeurs aveugles): see below.
Following a commission by the Swedish Theatre, Jean Sibelius wrote the music for Maurice Maeterlinck's play Pelléas and Mélisande in 1905. The play, which was performed for the first time in 1893, was a notable symbolist work.
Sibelius started working on the music as early as 1904. "Of course I couldn't resist composing for the theatre. An old bad habit of mine!" he confessed in a letter to Axel Carpelan.
Maeterlinck's play had its premiere in Finland on 17th March 1905. Sibelius conducted the music himself. The performance was one of the theatrical events of the year, and the theatre was full. The play was well received but Sibelius's music was not reviewed separately. Of course, the theatre critics were respectful towards the music. The play was performed 18 times during the spring of 1905. Sibelius conducted six performances himself.
The original incidental music included ten pieces. The first piece is the overture, which is perhaps the most sombre piece in the work. In the orchestral suite it is called "At the Castle Gate". The second piece is equally dark; in the orchestral suite it is simply called "Mélisande". A wistful cor anglais solo describes how Golaud finds Mélisande in the woods beside a spring. The third piece is called "At the Seashore" in the orchestral suite. The principal characters are standing on the seashore, watching a boat sail away. The fourth piece in the orchestral suite is "A Spring in the Park". A waltz melody opens the scene, in which the principal characters go to a spring in the park. Mélisande drops the ring that Golaud has given her. The fifth piece is called "Mélisande at the Spinning-Wheel" in the orchestral suite. The music uses dark tones to depict the spinning of the wheel. The sixth piece is "The Three Blind Sisters" in the orchestral suite. Mélisande's song is in the style of a ballad. The seventh piece is the "Pastorale" of the orchestral suite. Golaud and Pelléas discuss Mélisande's pregnancy. Sibelius moves the scene forward from below the earth into the light of day. The eighth piece is the elegant and vivacious Entr'acte of the orchestral suite. In the play the principal characters agree upon a secret encounter. The ninth piece is missing from the orchestral suite. In an episode lasting about three minutes we hear the overture to a scene in which King Arkel converses with Mélisande. Golaud strikes his wife and kills Pelléas. The pearl of the incidental music is the extraordinarily beautiful "Death of Mélisande". This piece is often played at concerts as an encore.
As we can see, almost all of the incidental music ended up in the orchestral suite, which was published in the same year. The song "The Three Blind Sisters" is instrumental in the orchestral version, and the ninth piece has been omitted. Sibelius made just a few minor improvements to the other pieces.
Pelléas and Mélisande probably surprised many people in the audience when Sibelius began to conduct the orchestral suite (or parts of the suite) in his concerts. Instead of violent outbursts the audience heard music that was dreamlike, muted and refined. Due to its lack of dramatic contrasts the work has not achieved huge popular success, but it is considered to be one of the high points of Sibelius's incidental music.