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“All crazy, all sick, these musicians.” On Maeterlinck and Debussy’s fraught collaboration.

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May 17, 2021, 1:42pm

Today in 1893 was the first performance of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas and Mélisande, which was met with modest praise from his peers and confusion from critics. Little did Maeterlinck know that the then-unassuming Pelléas and Mélisande would lay the groundwork for an enduring feud—between Maeterlinck and Claude Debussy, starting when Debussy adapted Pelléas and Mélisande into an opera.

At first, the collaboration was smooth-sailing—the two artists liked each other from the start. Maeterlinck gave Debussy permission to make whatever cuts were necessary to the play to make it work in opera form, as he knew nothing about music and fell asleep when Debussy played him the score. Said Debussy on Maeterlinck, “When it comes to a Beethoven symphony he is like a blind man in a museum.”

But then a problem arose: Maeterlinck’s wife/mistress (different sources claim different relations) Georgette Leblanc, an actress and singer, wanted to play Mélisande in the premiere of Debussy’s opera. According to Leblanc, Debussy was “enchanted” with the idea and they rehearsed several times. But Leblanc’s dreams were dashed when Albert Carré, director of the Opéra Comique, introduced Debussy to singer Mary Garden. Said Debussy, “That was the gentle voice that I had heard in my inmost being, with its hesitantly tender and captivating charm, such that I had barely dared to hope for”—he was sold, and cast Mary Garden as Mélisande.

But Debussy neglected to communicate this casting change to Maeterlinck. Maeterlinck and Leblanc knew nothing about it until they read of Mary Garden’s casting in the papers—and they were furious. Maeterlinck tried to stop the production, but Debussy said he never actually promised Leblanc the role. Maeterlinck took Debussy to court, and the court decided in favor of Debussy.

Everything went sharply downhill from there. Upon receiving the verdict, Maeterlinck was consumed by anger: he leaped out the window of his apartment (don’t worry—he lived on the ground floor), ran straight to Debussy’s apartment, and broke in. Debussy promptly fainted into an armchair and his wife had to revive him with smelling salts. Maeterlinck, deprived of the confrontation he likely expected, left quickly, saying, “All crazy, all sick, these musicians.” (Luckily for Maeterlinck, no one was paying enough attention to him to construct a similar formulation about playwrights!)

Maeterlinck threatened to duel Debussy, but it never came to fruition; Debussy was busy rehearsing. Maeterlinck then went to a clairvoyant to see if he should duel Albert Carré; the clairvoyant apparently went into convulsions, spoke in the voice of a young girl, and then said Maeterlinck shouldn’t duel Carré because the “forces of nature are well-balanced” and Carré would soon be “covered in blood.” (Though Carré did get very sick shortly after, he did not die.)

Maeterlinck ended up writing a letter to the paper Le Figaro, which ended, “The Pélleas in question has become strange and hostile to me, practically an enemy, and, deprived of all control over my work, I resort to wishing its immediate and decided failure.” It’s a good lesson to all artistic collaborators: communication is key. If you find yourself writing an open letter decrying your collaborator in the newspaper, something has gone horribly wrong.

[WPR, The Lives of the Great Composers, NYTimes]

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