Arnold Schoenberg

Pelleas und Melisande, symphonic poem, Op. 5

    Description by Blair Johnston

    Only three years separate the first sketches of Arnold Schoenberg's only symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5 from the string sextet Verklärte Nacht of 1899; yet in some ways the distance traveled during this brief span is greater than that traveled by many composers during an entire lifetime. While the musical roots of Pelleas are, by and large, the same as those of the sextet -- the most immediate being debts to the underlying "Leitmotiv" techniques of Wagner and the surface-level luxuriousness of Richard Strauss' own tone-poems -- the contrapuntal web that Schoenberg weaves in Pelleas is so dense and of such chromatic complexity that the music is transfigured into something wholly new. To be sure, Pelleas is not an entirely successful score: the manner in which tonal and hyper-chromatic idioms interact throughout the score is perhaps not as fluid and natural as it had been in Verklärte Nacht, and the piece sometimes runs the risk of collapsing under its own weight. But during the early twentieth century, Schoenberg's musical language was developing at so rapid a pace that he could scarcely keep up with himself, and it is entirely understandable that, in his effort to give birth to such a remarkably new style of musical expression, he would overstretch himself a bit; before the decade was out, the path to which Pelleas clearly points had been followed, with consequences that would shape an entire century of music.

    In 1902, Debussy's opera based on Materlinck's Pelleas and Melisande was hot off the press; Schoenberg, however, had no knowledge whatsoever of the French composer's effort, and proceeded to plan his own opera after the play. He rapidly discarded this plan in favor of a purely instrumental study of the work, feeling that his emerging style would be better served if the music were allowed to shape its own course in a way that a strictly text-derived work could never do. The rich scoring of Pelleas reflects the same late Romantic tendency towards inflation that marks the nearly contemporaneous scoring of Gurrelieder: 17 woodwind players, 18 brass, more than a half dozen percussionists, and a reinforced contingent of strings and harps are all on call. Pelleas und Melisande is cast as a single large body of music, in which the four traditional symphonic movements are still vaguely discernable, but which puts more stress on the myriad structural and expressive possibilities that result from juxtaposing several levels of motivic detail than on the well-worn shadows of "arbitrary" formal outlines.

    And so, after the sober, chromatic melody that begins the narrative, we are offered a tragic theme representing the beautiful Melisande and an energetic, soaring Pelleas theme. Like Verklärte Nacht, Pelleas draws a large-scale D minor tonality; on the local scale, however, it is even more chromatically far-flung. From time to time, more conventionally "Romantic" passages crop up, such as the love scene that appears as a kind of adagio movement. The epilogue, in which Schoenberg reflects on the death of Melisande, is a masterstroke, as is the final, resigned descent back into D minor.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Die ein wenig bewegt - zögernd
    2. Heftig
    3. Lebhaft
    4. Sehr rasch
    5. Ein wenig bewegt
    6. Langsam
    7. Ein wenig bewegter
    8. Sehr langsam
    9. Etwas bewegt
    10. In gehender Bewegung
    11. Breit

    Appears On

    Year Title / Performer Label / Catalog # AllMusic Rating
    2017
    Deutsche Grammophon
    4797477
    2016
    ABC Classics
    4812871
    2016
    Various Artists
    Deutsche Grammophon
    4796018
    2015
    Deutsche Grammophon
    002894794261
    2015
    Helicon Classics
    HEL 029665
    2015
    Oehms Classics
    OC 445
    2014
    Deutsche Grammophon
    4793445
    2013
    MDG
    MDG 9011807
    2012
    Deutsche Grammophon / Universal Classics & Jazz
    2012
    Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler
    PH 12021
    2011
    Deutsche Grammophon
    001535502
    2010
    Deutsche Grammophon
    2010
    Naxos
    8506023
    2008
    RCO Live
    08005
    2008
    Naxos
    8557527
    2008
    Pentatone Classics
    5186324
    2007
    Supraphon
    SU38992
    2007
    Apex
    4699845
    2006
    EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics
    0946371492
    2005
    Chandos Classics
    10285
    2005
    Music & Arts
    CD1156
    2005
    Weitblick
    48
    2005
    EMI Classics
    2005
    Budapest Music Center
    102
    2003
    Andante
    4080
    2002
    Telarc Distribution
    80372
    2000
    Koch International Classics
    374712
    2000
    Deutsche Grammophon
    469008
    2000
    Deutsche Grammophon
    4696902
    1999
    Chandos
    8619
    1999
    Deutsche Grammophon
    439942
    1998
    Erato
    24241
    1998
    Deutsche Grammophon
    457721
    1997
    Denon Records
    18014
    1995
    Erato
    98496
    1995
    CP2
    105
    1995
    Koch International Classics
    37316
    1993
    Erato
    45827
    1991
    Sony Music Distribution
    45870
    1989
    Deutsche Grammophon
    4274242
    Deutsche Grammophon
    435321
    Arkadia
    20
    Arkadia
    769
    Supraphon
    110973
    Ricercar
    111082
    Supraphon
    0663
    Deutsche Grammophon
    423132
    Arkadia
    585
    Originals
    827
    Intaglio
    717
    Deutsche Grammophon
    435323