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.


    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 Label Catalog #
    2017 Deutsche Grammophon 4797477
    2016 ABC Classics 4812871
    2016 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