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Subject: High notes in PELLEAS
From: [log in to unmask]
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Date:Thu, 31 May 2001 07:57:32 -0400

TEXT/PLAIN (67 lines)

On Sat, 26 May 2001, Leslie Barcza wrote:

> Pierre continues:
>     >About those high notes [of Pelleas]... I always wondered whether they
>     might not be a >mistake on Debussy's part.
> I can't say, although it's interesting to note that the love scene in Act IV
> was the FIRST one Debussy composed and scored. Why is that significant? I
> can think of a few reasons:
> -because Debussy might not have kept the tessitura clearly in mind
> -because Debussy's idea of the role may have changed
> -because this part of the libretto, calling for a very different type of
> exchange between the characters (almost operatic?) was virtually anomalous
> compared to the rest of the work
> And of course, the long time between the composition and the premiere (seven
> or eight years for this act?), also may have screwed things up, too. While
> this isn't the 24+ years Wagner put into the RING, please note, that this is
> Debussy's first and only completed opera. One only really learns from
> hearing the work in performance, and of course, Debussy revised it a number
> of times. But.... while he made revisions in this act, he didn't change the
> tessitura, did he...? oh well... more mystery.
To those well thought-out hypotheses, let me add a fourth one, not
necessarily exclusive of them all, and which relates to Debussy's attitude
to the operatic tradition.

There was something bold in his project. He wanted to innovate in a
revolutionary way, unheard of in the history of opera since the days of
the early Italian pioneers (Lully included) who had invented everything.
But that put him in a very delicate, potentially untenable situation,
resulting from the basic challenge of all revolutionary projects : how far
can one break with tradition and yet remain part of it?

To embark on their creative career had been a comparatively easy
proposition for most composers in history. Take Verdi for instance. All
that he had to do was to take opera as it existed, the opera of Donizetti
and Mercadante, and start experimenting with it, thus progressively
defining his own personality as his models, and innnumerable others had
done before him, WITHIN the framework of a well-established tradition.

Even the great 19th century revolutionaries, like Berlioz and Wagner, did
proceed on the basis of models. Only Mussorgsky, the non-professional,
may perhaps be considered an exception, and it seems, indeed, that what
Debussy wanted to achieve was something *like* BORIS and especially
something that, by dint of *affectation*, could look as little as possible
like its true model, which was Wagnerian music drama.

But this revolutionary *opera* (for he insisted on calling it an opera)
would still have to be recognizable as an opera! Hence, the high notes, I
think, among various curious features interspersed here and there in the
work. Are not tenors and sopranos screaming high notes at each other one
of the defining features of romantic opera? In the scene that we have been
discussing, he decided to insert some high stuff *pour faire opera*. I
must add that, THAT JUST LIKE IN WARNER'S MUSIC DRAMAS (ah! ah! ah!),
we are talking of a high note with an unimpeachable dramatic purpose, a
high note with a point. (Just like in Wagner, except that those are
moments when Wagner's own debt to the operatic tradition is at its

My only contention with that device  (*mais elle est de taille*) is that
it compromises the tessitura of the rest of Pelleas' role. Blessed be the
high baritone who can sound like a tenor when required to, but they will
not all be able to do that.

Pierre M. Bellemare
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