Fauré: Pelléas et Mélisande

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Pelléas et Mélisande, Op.80
4.Mort de Mélisande
Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande has been a source of inspiration for a number of composers: in the wake of Debussy’s opera, Schoenberg, Sibelius and Cyril Scott all composed works on the subject. Before any of these eminent modernists turned their attentions to the subject, however, Gabriel Fauré’s score composed for the first performance of the play in English in London in 1898 gained the distinction of being the first music inspired by the drama to be heard in public.

Fauré was overworked at the time and so entrusted his pupil Charles Koechlin with the orchestration of the music. Fauré himself subsequently revised three movements for a larger orchestra in 1901, and the addition in 1909 of the famous Sicilienne completed the four movement suite that we hear tonight.

The circumstances of the work may seem unlikely, but Fauré made several attempts to establish himself in London. However, he never managed to impress the English as much as did his titled contemporary Dr Edvard Grieg. Indeed, the reception of his music was decidedly lukewarm: “It is scarcely satisfactory, being wanting alike in charm and in dramatic power… its continued absence of tangible form, not to speak of its actual ugliness at many points, is such as to disturb rather than assist the illusion of the scene,” wrote the Times.

Such sniffy judgements were not uncommon for a composer who was and often still is dismissed as a purveyor of lightweight salon songs. But this is to misunderstand how his music works. Those looking for lurid expressions of breast-beating despair in the death of Mélisande, for instance, will be disappointed. Fauré’s music eschews melodrama, and prefers to make its point in more undemonstrative, subtly shaded ways. Its exquisitely attractive surface should not blind the listener to its great subtlety and originality, an art that conceals itself. Often seen as a marginal figure of the late nineteenth century, Fauré really deserves to take his place as a farsighted figure of the early twentieth century, whose influence, through such composers as his contemporary Satie and his favourite pupil Ravel, has persisted through a significant strand of the past century; rarely if ever drawing attention to itself, but there nevertheless.

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