The score for “Emeralds” was pieced together by Balanchine from incidental music Fauré composed for theater productions of Pelléas et Mélisande (1898) and Shylock (1889), and it combines impressionist washes of sound, perfumed and yearning, with simple woodcut melodies that seem sprung from medieval lore. “Emeralds” finds Balanchine deep in the poetic realm of Coleridge and Keats—it’s an enchanted forest filled with Darke Ladies and muses on the make—and in the compositional genre of hunt and vision scenes (
, The Sleeping Beauty) and twilight gardens (Serenade). It is a work of trance and transparency. You feel you can reach through the green of “Emeralds” and grasp nothing. Swan Lake
…"Only the most beautiful emeralds contain that miracle of elusive blue,” wrote Colette in Gigi. And it is through elusive blue we must travel if we are to grasp Jewels, through Fauré and Debussy and the playwright Maurice Maeterlinck to the deep-sea mystery of Mélisande, the ingenue-soprano who has kept opera lovers guessing for almost a century. She is the central question of Maeterlinck’s play, for she herself will answer no questions. We, along with Golaud, the older man who marries her, know only where he found her—Maeterlinck’s stage direction reads: “A forest. Mélisande discovered at the brink of a spring.” It could be Balanchine’s stage direction for “Emeralds.” Mélisande is lost and weeping, has dropped the crown she was wearing into the spring, and will later drop her wedding ring there as well (a Freudian slip of the fingers). Pelléas is Golaud’s younger half-brother, and he has instant affinity with Mélisande, which becomes love and leads to his death at the hand of Golaud. Where Pelléas believes in “the truth, the truth, the truth,” Mélisande offers evasion, as if unversed in human rules. She nurses a secret sorrow, and is allied with water, fountains, the sea.
What—not who—is Mélisande, may be the better question. There are those who believe she is one of the water sprites immortalized (and they are immortal, unless they mix with humans) in Friedrich, Baron de la Motte Fouqué’s story Undine (1811). Also, the name Mélisande is very like Mélusine, the undine of a famous French fairy tale. (Mélusine marries a human on the terms that he must never interrupt her privacy. Breaking the terms, he enters her chamber and finds her transformed, playing in a pool. She leaves him.) And in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, a work of ravishing irresolution begun in 1893 and premiered in 1902, the closest the composer comes to a true aria occurs when Melisande lets her otherworldly hair fall from a window. Mermaids are known for two things - their long, long hair, and their song.
Although “Emeralds” has been likened to a tapestry, to chivalric
, to green earth, it has always been described with liquid images. Verdy commented on its “underwater quality,” and Kirstein described it as a “submarine summer-green garden.” In his book George Balanchine, Richard Buckle reports that in 1958 Balanchine had discovered the music of Fauré and imagined a “tipped ballroom” behind a scrim with “a projection of the sea . . . which pulsates.” France
...Move in close and Jewels acts more like a solitaire under a spotlight, a single gem glinting a spectrum of hue and allusion. Jewels is knee deep in French Symbolists, Mallarmé as much as Maeterlinck. Listen closely to Fauré, and you hear Debussy’s tumescent woodwinds, Mallarmé’s faune stretching in the leaves, wondering “Loved I a dream?” Jewels takes up the tensions of the Symbolists, who took up symbols of the Romantics before them—their use of the half-human to understand the human, their sense of the dislocation between possession and privacy, infatuation and freedom. Jewels is a vision touched with myths of transformation, with the conflicting impulses of escape and rescue. That the mermaid swims through all channels of Jewels is yet another flash of recognition: mermaids have always symbolized the free flow of the mind, the sea of the subconscious. The questions whispered in these waters and woods are the stuff of Balanchine’s dreams, and they are unanswerable: to what extent can you possess a woman, a wife, a ballerina? To what extent can you possess your Only Desire without killing it?
There is an alternate view to Mélisande’s identity, and its meanings move deep and dark under Jewels. This analysis also comes by way of the opera. If Mélisande has dropped her crown into the spring, the obvious next question is, who gave her the crown? She says: “It is the crown he gave me. . . . I will have no more of it! I had rather die.” The scholar Henri Barraud identifies Mélisande as one of Bluebeard’s ex-wives escaped from his castle. Perhaps she is a wife to be. One of Charles Perrault’s more rigid and unforgiving tales (it’s hard to call it a fairy tale), Bluebeard’s Castle connects with Pelléas et Mélisande in its atmosphere of hot and cold unknowns, its Symbolist portents ripe with erotic suggestion. Another link is Maeterlinck himself. He wrote a version of the tale called Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, and he named one of the wives Mélisande.
The entirety of Jacobs’ essay on Balanchine’s Jewels can be found here.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Music that I love...Fauré
I had forgotten how much I loved Fauré’s music. Today, I’ve been listening to Pelléas et Mélisande (NOT the Schoenberg or Debussy). I also love Laura Jacobs' description of this music in Balanchine’s Emeralds: