With the production at Paris in the spring of 1902 of Claude Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande, based on the play of Maeterlinck, the history of music turned a new and surprising page. “It is necessary,” declared an acute French critic, M. Jean Marnold, writing shortly after the event, “to go back perhaps to Tristan to find in the opera house an event so important in certain respects for the evolution of musical art.” The assertion strikes one to-day, five years after, as, if anything, over-cautious. Pelleas et Melisande exhibited not simply a new manner of writing opera, but a new kind of music—a new way of evolving and combining tones, a new order of harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structure. The style of it was absolutely new and absolutely distinctive: the thing had never been done before, save, in a lesser degree, by Debussy himself in his then little known earlier work. Prior to the appearance of Pelleas et Melisande, he had put forth, without appreciably disturbing the musical waters, all of the extraordinary and individual music with which his fame is now associated, except the three orchestral “sketches,” La Mer (composed in 1903-1905 and published in the latter year), the piano pieces Estampes (1903), and Images, Masques, l’Ile joyeuse (1905), and a few songs. Certain audiences in Paris had heard, nine years before, his setting of Rossetti’s “Blessed Damozel” (La Demoiselle Elue), a “lyric poem” for two solo voices, female chorus, and orchestra; in the same year (1893) his string quartet was played by Ysaye and his associates; in 1894 his Prelude a l’Apres-midi d’un Faune was produced at a concert of the National Society of Music; the first two Nocturnes for orchestra, Nuages and Fetes, were played at a Lamoureux concert in 1900; the third, Sirenes, was performed with the others in the following year. Yet it was not until Pelleas et Melisande was produced at the Opera-Comique in April, 1902, that his work began seriously to be reckoned with outside of the small and inquisitive public, in Paris and elsewhere, that had known and valued—or execrated—it.
In this score Debussy went far beyond the point to which his methods had previously led him. It was, for all who heard it or came to know it, a revelation of the possibilities of tonal effect—this dim and wavering and elusive music, with its infinitely subtle gradations, its gossamer fineness of texture, its delicate sonorities, its strange and echoing dissonances, its singular richness of mood, its shadowy beauty, its exquisite and elaborate art—this music which drifted before the senses like iridescent vapor, suffused with rich lights, pervasive, imponderable, evanescent. It was music at once naive and complex, innocent and impassioned, fragile and sonorous. It spoke with an accent unmistakably grave and sincere;