Claude Debussy worked for ten years to create a truly French drama from the Belgian poet, Maurice Maeterlinck's dreamlike drama, Pelleas et Mélisande. It was this work that finally liberated composers from the influence of Richard Wagner (and particularly Tristan and Isolde). By an irony of fate, only a year after Debussy's anti-Tristan premiere, a young man from Vienna, who had been working in Berlin from 1901 to 1903 – a certain Arnold Schoenberg – completed his own score of Pelleas. Far from turning from Wagner, it seemed to follow the escape route Wagner himself had indicated. True, it was not opera, but rather wordless program music which Wagner's followers and supporters took to their hearts.
For Schoenberg it was Richard Strauss' essays in a genre bequeathed by Liszt, that attracted him and which he considered modern. Schoenberg was able to meet Strauss in Berlin. The older man recommended him to study the Maeterlinck piece.
At the beginning of the stage work, we see Golo, lost in a forest, coming across a fairy like girl on a river bank. Debussy's folksong-like diatonic melody introduces the opera. Schoenberg by contrast thought in terms of Wagnerian chromaticism. While in Debussy, Melisande's first words falter with fear, in Schoenberg she reacts with hysteria. Schoenberg's symphonic poem remains doggedly German. We know precisely how Schoenberg followed the Maeterlinck story from one of his most faithful pupils, Alban Berg, who wrote a detailed critique of the work. It transpires that Schoenberg concentrates on only a few important moments from the drama. After the music of Golo and Melisande's forest meeting (the first sonata-like section) is over, the Pelleas motif is introduced as a subsidiary theme. The ensuing scherzo-type section bears the title “scene at the park well.” At least, according to Berg. Melisande enters the court of King Arkel as Golo's wife, but from the first meeting, she develops feelings for Golo's younger brother. Neither of the lovers confess their feelings. At the well, all that happens is that Melisande removes her ring from her finger, and despite Pelleas' warning, throws it playfully up – and forgets to catch it.
The next section is actually a slow movement – the music of irresistible love and of course, also of Golo's growing jealousy. Afterwards, another passage presents the musical picture of the underground reservoir. Golo leads Pelleas here. He shows him the gaping depths – he can do nothing else. But Pelleas understands what he means. Schoenberg here employs extremely novel instrumental effects: trombone glissandos that create a frightening atmosphere. The finale is fundamentally a kind of summary, and also the music of the unfolding tragedy. The jealous husband stabs Pelleas, Melisande who is pregnant dies from her pain. But the child is born. In Maeterlinck and Debussy, Arkel warns that the child has an unhappy life in store. Schoenberg seems to be hinting as much in purely musical terms.