Schoenberg — Pelleas und Melisande

Schoenberg stretched the bounds of Romantic harmony to their limit to express the ecstasy of Pelleas und Melisande and their tragic tale of forbidden love.


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Schoenberg began the composition of Pelleas und Melisande in 1902, the same year that:

  • American author John Steinbeck is born. He will win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize for Literature, and change the lives of millions with novels including Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.
  • The first cinema in the United States, Electric Theatre, opens in Los Angeles.
  • Australia’s Public Service is created when the Commonwealth Public Service Act is passed into law. Over 11,000 individuals are employed as part of the civil service in the first year.
  • St Mark’s Campanile in Venice’s Piazza San Marco collapses. There are no fatalities, other than the caretaker’s cat; the rebuilding takes 10 years, but returns the tower to its original state (with the addition of an elevator).

Fast Facts

  • Arnold Schoenberg was one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, challenging the rules of harmony in ways that have opened up new understandings of what music is and how it works.
  • He began writing music in the late Romantic style, following in the footsteps of Brahms and Wagner with lush, complex harmonies intended to evoke intense emotional responses. His last major work in this musical language was Pelleas und Melisande, inspired by a French play which tells a story of doomed love: in a mystical, medieval world, the prince Golaud discovers a young woman called Melisande weeping in the woods. He persuades her to marry him, but when she meets Golaud’s younger brother Pelleas, she falls in love with him instead. One day, as the two lovers sit talking together, Melisande accidentally drops her wedding ring into a deep well. Golaud, already suspicious, becomes violently angry when he notices that the ring is missing. He sets his young son to spy on the couple, and when he discovers them embracing, he kills Pelleas; Melisande dies of a broken heart.
  • Pelleas und Melisande is an example of ‘program music’: pieces that have a title or a scenario (a ‘program’) to suggest what you might see or imagine when you hear them. A large-scale piece of program music written for full orchestra is called a ‘tone poem’ or a ‘symphonic poem’.
  • When Schoenberg felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of Romanticism, he started to look for a way to express feelings directly in music, without using the established conventions of harmony. During this ‘Expressionist’ period, he chose notes purely on the basis of the sounds they made together — whether beautiful or harsh — without any concern for whether they belong together in a regular scale or key. This is called ‘atonal’ music. Five Orchestral Pieces is one of his best-known Expressionist works.
  • In the 1920s, Schoenberg took atonality a step further: he invented a system in which the twelve notes of the chromatic scale — all the black and white notes on a piano between, for example, one C and the one above it — would be arranged into a particular order (a ‘tone row’) which used all the notes without repeating any. That order would then be used throughout the piece, so that every note would be heard equally as often as any other. Music to Accompany a Film Scene is an example of this ‘twelve-tone serialism’ technique.
Arnold Schoenberg, 1927, by Man Ray