Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1872 as a 10-year-old and left it in 1884, when he won the Prix de Rome with his cantata L’enfant prodigue. He was therefore among the most thoroughly trained Western European composers of all time, and any revolutionary attitudes he espoused (and there were many) sprang from a full knowledge of what he was rejecting, or at least attempting to reject. He seems to have had little sympathy with the grand operas of Meyerbeer and Halévy and none whatever with those of the Italian verismo school. But Wagner was a more complicated matter.
Debussy went to Bayreuth in 1888 to see Parsifal and Die Meistersinger, and again the following year to see Tristan und Isolde. Not much of Die Meistersinger found its way into his own music, but the other two operas had a lasting influence, for all that Debussy railed against Wagner’s pernicious effect on French music and included a spoof on the opening bars of Tristan in the central section of the ‘Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk’.
During his stay in Rome from 1885 to 1887 Debussy was required to complete a number of envois – compositions to reassure the authorities back in Paris that he was making profitable use of his sojourn in the Eternal City. One of these was a setting, never completed, of a text based on Théodore de Banville’s play Diane au bois, on the legend of Diana, ‘queen and huntress, chaste and fair’. He complained that in writing this work he had ‘no precedent to go on, and I find myself compelled to invent new forms. I could always turn to Wagner, but I don’t need to tell you how ridiculous it would be even to try. The only thing of his I would want to copy is the running of one scene into another.’ Here we find a plain statement of Debussy’s penchant for blurring boundaries.
Diane au bois anticipates Pelléas's attempts to encapsulate a whole character – the ‘beautiful but cold’ look of Diane – in what he calls ‘an idea’ – a single phrase or motif. The other most direct clue as to what Pelléas would turn out to be comes from records of conversations Debussy had with his teacher Ernest Guiraud in 1889. His ideal librettist would be someone ‘who only implies things and who would allow me to graft my dream on to his, who would invent characters belonging to no particular time or place’. Going against the current of the times, he declared that ‘in opera there is too much singing: every musical development not called for by the words is an error’. His emphasis on the ‘dream’, on lightness, brevity, subtlety, mobility, variety and ambiguity, will surprise no pianist who has played either the early Arabesques or, more ambitiously, the late Études.
These qualities also inform the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune of 1894, together with the String Quartet of the preceding year. In the spring of 1893 he also went to see Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande in Paris and seems to have realised instantly that this was the story he had been looking for. Yet the progress of his opera over the next nine years was dogged by self-doubt, apathy in official quarters, and the attentions of at least two well-meaning friends (one of them the violinist Ysaÿe) who thought Debussy should make a suite of excerpts from his opera, to be offered as a ‘taster’ of the real thing.
Essentially, the first version of the vocal score was complete by August 1895. From here on, the work lived a kind of secret life and existed only in private performances by Debussy, playing the orchestral part on the piano, and singing all the vocal parts in a dreadful baritone.
Pelléas seems to have owed its emergence into the limelight to the disastrous fire at the Opéra-Comique that had killed 80 people in 1887. When the current building in the Place Boïeldieu was inaugurated in 1898, the new chief conductor, André Messager, turned to Pelléas to get the new house off to a good start. After a highly excitable reception for the dress rehearsal and the first night, the rest of the 14 performances of the first run in 1902 were greeted with increasing respect and interest. From 1902 to 1914, Pelléas was performed at the Opéra-Comique in every season but two. Indeed, from the time of the 1940 Opéra-Comique production, conducted by Desormière, and the subsequent recording, it would become a cornerstone of the operatic repertory.
What, then, of the work’s impact on Debussy’s later output and on 20th-century opera in general? His unparalleled skill in capturing effects of light and water in his orchestration of Pelléas probably fed through into piano works such as ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ from Estampes, ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ and ‘Poissons d’or’ from Images, and ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’ and ‘Feux d’artifice’ from the Préludes, and more obviously into other orchestral works such as the Nocturnes and La mer. The sense of flow in Pelléas also persists in Debussy’s music right through to the ballet Jeux of 1913 and the late sonatas of 1915-17. In setting the text of Pelléas, too, Debussy paid special attention to the weighting and colouring of chords, that Stravinsky, among others, would learn so much from.
As for its overall influence on 20th-century opera, crucially Pelléas demands that we hear and understand every word of its text. Whereas conventional 19th-century opera librettos had taken account of the probability that not every single word would be heard, in Pelléas there is no libretto as such – the text is simply that of Maeterlinck’s play with cuts and a very few changes, set largely as a musical conversation. It is the earliest operatic masterpiece in which there are no big, lyrical tunes, even if there are a few big moments. In short, no one goes to Pelléas just for a night out. It is an opera that demands close attention, engaging our intelligence like almost no other.