"Pelleas et Melisande", 1927 (Erté, 1892-1990) (© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York)

"Pelleas et Melisande", 1927 (Erté, 1892-1990) (© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York)

Roses in music or literature: the rose is intoxicating. Everywhere it grows, the rose has inspired poems, songs and drawings… But notes and words, even brushstrokes, fail, sometimes sublimely, to render what it gives, always simply: its scent.

And Marcel Proust took no risks. Although he is the least sparing of authors when it comes to describing the indescribable, he merely evokes hay fever when describing this dizzying scent of roses – not without a hint of irony. It was on the subject of another work, the opera Pelléas et Melisande composed by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) to a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), first performed in 1902. This long drama set to an intoxicating, aesthetic musical score carries many scents, sometimes dark, sometimes sensual.

“Well, here is the stagnant pool I told you about… Can you smell the scent of death rising?” sings Mélisande in the castle vaults… But suddenly, when they go out on to the terrace the fresh air from the sea and the flowers invigorate the characters: “Ah! They have just watered the flowers by the terrace and the smell of green and of wet roses rises up to here. It must be nearly noon; they are already in the shade of the tower…” sings Pelléas.

So in Proust’s book Le côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way, published in 1920-21) when Madame de Cambremer who is visiting the narrator declares, “It is true, we have a lot of roses […] our rose garden is almost too close to the house, some days it gives me a headache. It is more pleasant from the terrace at la Raspelière where the rose scent is wafted on the wind, and is less heady.” He turns to her daughter-in-law and says, “That is just like Pelléas […] to satisfy his taste for the modern, this scent of roses rising up to the terraces. It is so strong in the score that, as I have hay-fever and rose-fever, I sneeze each time I hear the scene.”

The author is certainly mocking the snobbishness of his lady characters. But he is also killing two birds with one stone. For, by reporting the effect on him of the work and its rose scents, exaggerating the fever and sneezing, he is also paying tribute to the troubled fantasy of this opera. After all, its composer confided to Ernest Guiraud, his composition teacher, that he wanted the music for Pelléas… to seem as if it were coming out of the shadows and then going back into the darkness…