Brussels Philharmonic | Programme notes: Another Mélisande

Another Mélisande

programme notes


Mirela Ivičević Violin Concerto (2024, world premiere)
Arnold Schönberg
Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5 “Symphonische Dichtung für Orchester” (1903)**

*Co-Commissioned by I&I Foundation – on behalf of the sponsors Mr. & Mrs. Collardi – and the Brussels Philharmonic. Dedicated to Eloïse and Chiara Collardi.
**With video by Lise Bruyneel (la fabrique des regards), commissioned by Festival 20.21, Leuven (2023)

[read: composer's note by Mirela Ivičević]
[read: a Visual Schönberg, video by Lise Bruyneel]
[read: interview with Ivičević]
[read: Ecstatic Soundworlds]
[discover also: Close Encounters]
[discover also: Symfomania! Pelleas und Melisande]
[all programme notes]


23.03.2024 FLAGEY

Another Mélisande

‘A musical omnivore’ or ‘guardian of contemporary music’, is how conductor Ilan Volkov is sometimes described. Internationally, he is regarded as a perceptive conductor who renders a clear and enthusiastic interpretation of the most complicated scores, from romantic repertoire to new creations. So the complex score of Schönberg’s Pelleas und Melisande is right up his alley. In this extensive symphonic poem, Schönberg (1874-1951) shaped the inner conflicts of the characters from Maeterlinck’s eponymous play in a tone language that falls just within the boundaries of tonality and romance.

Volkov also found an excellent partner-in-crime for exploring new horizons in the all-rounder Brussels Philharmonic. This time they will perform the world premiere of the brand new violin concerto by Croatian composer Mirela Ivičević (1980), with Ilya Gringolts as the soloist.

Expressing the unspeakable

It was none other than Richard Strauss (1864-1949) who gave Schönberg the idea for Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5. He was convinced that Schönberg was the ideal composer to turn the eponymous theatre play by symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck into an opera. In July 1902, Schönberg began composing, and although he had been won over to the idea of an opera, he eventually changed his mind:

‘I had originally thought of setting Pelleas et Mélisande as an opera, but gave up on this plan later, although I did not know that Debussy was working on his opera at the same time. I still regret not having realised my original intention. The wonderful aura of that drama might not have been caught to quite the same extent, but I would certainly have brought the characters to life more lyrically. On the other hand, the symphonic poem helped me to translate the different moods and characters into precisely formulated units, a technique that might not have worked so well in an opera.’

Schönberg did not just give in to the form of a symphonic poem; that choice stemmed from his admiration at the time for Strauss’s Tone Poems and the great movements from the early symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): ‘When Mahler and Strauss appeared on the musical stage, their appearances were so fascinating that every musician was immediately forced to take a stand, either for or against. As a 23-year-old, my enthusiasm was quickly aroused, and so I began composing one-part, uninterrupted symphonic poems, following the example of Mahler and Strauss.’

Un rêve qui ne s’arrête pas

Like his earlier symphonic poem Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) from 1899, Schönberg’s Pelleas und Melisande is a long, compelling metamorphosis of themes and motifs. Nevertheless, there is some structure to be found in the work. According to Alban Berg, one of Schönberg's students, there are four movements that follow the story closely. From the meeting between Golaud and the beautiful but mysterious Mélisande in the dense forest, to the fatal relationship between her, Golaud (whom she marries) and Pelléas (with whom Mélisande develops a spiritual affinity). The intrigues lead to a gruesome end: Golaud murders his brother, Mélisande dies in childbirth and finally Golaud succombs to madness.

During a radio interview in 1949, Schönberg indicated that, apart from a few omissions and small changes in the order of the scenes, he had tried to represent every detail. And that, ‘as often happens in music’, he had given the love scenes a little more space. That said, it is mainly the destructive and dark passion that prevails in his translation of Maeterlinck's story.

After the premiere at the Vienna Musikverein in 1905, the audience was harsh in its criticism: ‘The premiere, which I conducted myself, caused a riot among the audience and even among the critics. The reviews were unusually mean – one even suggested putting me away in an insane asylum and keeping all music paper out of my reach!’ Fortunately, a few years later, the harsh opinions had already softened to statements such as ‘comfortable to listen to ’.

Sonic Fiction

Boundless, energetic and compelling. Those are the adjectives that pop up most often when you google the name Mirela Ivičević. The young Croatian composer studied in Zagreb with Zeljko Brkanovic, but soon traded her native country for Vienna to specialise in media composition and electro-acoustics. And also to broaden her view of the world, because that’s what she often does. Ivičević doesn’t think in boxes. For her, new music is not a genre but a way of thinking: ‘Limiting yourself to one genre or idea is not helpful for my thought process. What most interests me is to create spaces in which differences can interact with each other.’

Ivičević says she creates ‘sonic fictions’, surreal worlds in which the most diverse sounds and languages can coexist. Her works take the form of a patchwork quilt, with abruptly changing structures, distorted noises, and fragments of sound. As such Ivičević starts from recognisable sounds that she takes from their everyday reality and transposes to a new acoustic world: ‘I make new connections in order to question the old ones, to perceive and understand them differently. From that point of view, it’s like a movie; you create a dream, an illusion. But the illusion offers the opportunity to express something essential.’

When composing commissioned works, Ivičević keeps the personality and technical ability of the soloist in question in mind: ‘Working closely with a musician, and getting to know their character, preferences or even hidden talents, opens up so many additional possibilities; it makes me more adventurous in trying out new things and usually yields my best works.’ But she is equally surprised by the magic of the moment and the way a musician interprets her score. It will be interesting to see what sparks will fly in the hands of Ilya Gringolts, Ilan Volkov and the Brussels Philharmonic.

[read: composer's note by Mirela Ivičević]