Michel Leiris—Pelleas et Melisande


Today it seems surprising that Pelléas et Mélisande was taken as a model to follow by the anti-Wagnerians. Though it might have brought something new to opera (the rejection—or at the very least, discrete use—of leitmotive, series of brief tableaux linked by interludes, as Alban Berg would later do in Wozzeck), Claude Debussy's work does in fact remain very Wagnerian: the use of a legendary subject not unlike that of Tristan, the orchestra/voice relationship that justifies the reproach made to Wagner of having placed the statue in the orchestra pit and the pedestal on the stage, the musical influence of Parsifal, etc.

From a contemporary perspective, we can consider that Pelléas et Mélisande represented the end result of Wagnerism—and, if you like, its crowning achievement—rather than the opening of a truly new path in music. From the same perspective, it paradoxically seems that Puccini—scorned for so long by people of taste, at least in France—was a greater innovator in opera than Debussy. For though a "Verist," he is also an "Expressionist" and, by that very fact, prefigures a few of the most beautiful modern operas.

Could Debussy have penned one of those masterpieces which (as it often happens) differ greatly from the one the author inteded to write, but which are nevertheless masterpieces? It's impossible not to think of Baudelaire writing Le Spleen de Paris, and Roussel writing his novels, the former thinking of Aloysius Bertrand, and the latter, Jules Verne and, far from attempting to do the opposite, nevertheless strayed in spite of themselves from their models. You'd wish that Debussy, following the example of these two indisputable innovators, were both less Wagnerian and more Wagneristic, and that, contrary to what he intended, he had done something entirely different from his glorious predecessor.