Composers Datebook®

Operatic Intrigue and Debussy's "Pelleas"

Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918) Pelléas et Mélisande Cleveland Orchestra; Erich Leinsdorf, cond. Cleveland 9375

Composer's Datebook - April 30, 2021


April 30, 2021


Today we have a tale of jealousy to tell — the tale of Claude and Mary and Maurice and Georgette—related to the premiere, on today’s date in 1902, of “Pelléas et Mélisande.”

This new opera by Claude Debussy was based on a play about jealousy by the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. Debussy had worked on his opera for years with no objection from Maeterlinck until late in 1901, when Debussy announced that the Scottish soprano Mary Garden would sing the role of Mélisande.

Suddenly, two weeks before the premiere, Maeterlinck began saying the opera was “alien” to him, that he had lost artistic control over his own work, that he hoped the opera would flop.

Well, that accounts for Claude and Mary and Maurice, but what about Georgette? Turns out SHE was the real reason behind Maeterlinck’s objections. Georgette was a soprano–and Maeterlinck’s mistress. When Debussy refused to even consider her for the lead role in his new opera, Maeterlinck’s smear campaign began.

He was not alone—the eminent French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, jealous as any character in Debussy’s opera, delayed his customary vacation abroad to stay in Paris, and, as he put it, “To speak ill of Pelléas.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918) Pelléas et Mélisande Cleveland Orchestra; Erich Leinsdorf, cond. Cleveland 9375

On This Day


  • 1870 - Hungarian-born Austrian composer Franz Léhar, in Komorn;

  • 1939 - American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, in Miami, Fla.; She was the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music (in 1983 for her Symphony No. 1);


  • 1728 - Handel: opera "Tolomeo, re d'Egitto" (Ptolomy, King of Egypt), in London at the King's Theater in the Haymarket (Gregorian date: May 11);

  • 1855 - Berlioz: "Te Deum," at the church of St. Eustache in Paris;

  • 1902 - Debussy: opera "Pelléas and Mélisande," in Paris at the Opéra-Comique;

  • 1925 - Hindemith: "Kammermusik" No. 3, Op. 36, no. 2, in Bochum, Germany, conducted by the composer with Rudolf Hindemith the cello soloist;

  • 1934 - Stravinsky: opera "Persephone," at the Paris Opéra, with Ida Rubinsetin in the principal role (spoken part) and the composer conducting;

  • 1973 - Lou Harrison: Concerto for Organ, at San Jose State University, with organist Philip Simpson;

  • 1991 - Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Bass Trombone Concerto, by soloist Charles Vernon with the Chicago Symphony, Daniel Barenboim conducting;

  • 1994 - John Harbison: String Quartet No. 3, at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., by the Lydian String Quartet;


  • 1932 - Opening of the first "Yaddo" Festival of Contemporary Music at Saratoga Springs, N.Y.