Crossing linguistic borders: Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

Pelleas and Melisande
Philip Ross Bullock

Although my academic involvement in Creative Multilingualism focuses primarily on a collaboration with the Oxford Lieder Festival, this year has seen a couple of operatic adventures too, and these have helped me to reflect both on my identity as a linguist, and on the relationship between language learning and creativity. In January, I was invited to speak at the Stuttgart Opera house as part of a weekend of events designed to illuminate the life and work of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Then, in early May, I gave a talk in Oxford about Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande as part of Garsington Opera’s summer season.

When I was approached by Garsington Opera to see if I’d like to introduce any of the operas they were performing in their summer 2017 season, I leapt at the chance of tackling a work I’ve loved since I was a teenager. It was also a way of capitalising on the fact that I’ve been living and working in Paris for the year, and of turning my love of French into something tangible. But as things transpired, Debussy’s French opera turned into a meditation on translation and stepping outside of language and the nation. As I read and thought, it soon became apparent that Pelléas et Mélisande is full of echoes of foreign cultures. Debussy wrote it under the influence of Wagner, yet for French composers writing after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, German culture was an ambiguous point of reference. We also know that Debussy – like many French artists at the time – was fascinated by Russian culture, and that he may have had Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov in mind as he wrote. And then there is the play on which the opera is based. Its author was Maurice Maeterlinck – who wrote in French, but who was a Belgian from the Flemish-speaking city of Ghent. Maeterlinck was far more interested in works of English and German literature than those of his French confrères, and his study was hung with copies of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and illustrations. His Pelléas et Mélisande is set in the mysterious kingdom of Allemonde – a word that neatly encapsulates the Germanic and Latin worlds and hints at Belgium’s bilingual place on the linguistic map of Europe.

So Debussy’s opera, for all its elegant Frenchness, turns out to be an exemplary existence in border-crossing, on living in between languages and cultures, yet never inhabiting any one of them definitively. Debussy styled himself as a ‘musicien français’, yet he also proved to be a citizen of the world. And it was this notion of world citizenship, of cosmopolitanism, that gave me a clue to the opera – and its contemporary relevance. Writing in 1795, Immanuel Kant argued that being a citizen of the world involved not just exercising one’s rights to travel, but also a responsibility towards those forced to leave their homelands. Cosmopolitanism, for Kant, was intricately bound up with hospitality and our duty to welcome the strangers in our midst: ‘hospitality signifies the claim of a stranger entering foreign territory to be treated by its owner without hostility. […] This right to present themselves to society belongs to all mankind in virtue of our common right of possession on the surface of the earth on which, as it is a globe, we cannot be infinitely scattered, and must in the end reconcile ourselves to existence side by side.’ Debussy’s opera, often read as a piece of musical symbolism with little connection to the real world, deals with just such themes. Its heroine, Mélisande, comes from an unknown realm, scarred by events that she will not name and may not even remember. Far from being a fin-de-siècle femme fatale, she is a refugee who receives the cosmopolitan hospitality espoused by Kant a century earlier.

I gave my lecture on 3 May, a day which proved to be a turbulent and emotional one. As I got up to speak, I knew that back in Paris, my friends and colleagues would be watching the televised debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the two candidates for the French presidency. I felt homesick for a country that is not mine by birth, language or nationality, but which has become partly mine through affinity and affection, and through the kindness of those who have made me welcome there. And in Britain itself, I could only watch with sadness as the general election campaign turned our negotiations with the European Union into a prickly and hostile argument.

But even here, Debussy pointed to a way out of my impasse. In rehearsals for the first production of the opera in 1902, he urged the cast to ‘forget that you are singers’. An eccentric piece of advice, you might think, but a wise one. Forgetting who we think we are, putting ourselves in unsettling circumstances, can create a new sense of self. In my case, whether talking about a French opera in Oxford, or performing a German version of myself in Stuttgart, I had to leave behind my Russian, academic persona and all the confidence and authority that that persona (ideally) gives me, and embrace instead the risk of inhabiting a more personal, more engaged, more obviously creative sense of identity. Part of my work on the Creative Multilingualism project involves examining how language-led research can feed into collaborations with performers and audiences (Julie Curtis and I worked with Garsington Opera last summer on their production of Tchaikovky’s Evgeny Onegin). Yet there is a risk that I always end up being the teacher and never the learner. So talking about Pelléas et Mélisande proved to be a very good lesson in how to be a learner once again, and how refreshing that new perspective can be.

Philip Ross Bullock is Professor of Russian Literature and Music at the University of Oxford and Senior Researcher on our 4th strand: Languages in the Creative Economy.

Where next?

Watch the Evgeny Onegin talks here and here

Creative translation: bending the rules to keep it personal

Thriving in post-Brexit Britain: the importance of languages

Image credit: Edmund Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons