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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Pierrot Lunaire

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I'm somewhat obsessed with the history of the arts in general, and of music in particular. One of the things which strikes me about both is the way in which certain cycles seem to be evident in the ways people express themselves in the arts.

For example, there are times in which form, structure and process are paramount, and these are often followed by times where the rules are thrown out and freedom of expression seems to be the only rule. The neatness and balance of the Renaissance was followed by the wildness of Mannerism and the Baroque. The clarity and poise of the Enlightenment and 18th century Classicism was followed by the passionate emotionalism of the Romantics. And - pertinent to the music under discussion here - the perceived stuffiness and straight-jacketed values (not to mention overblown megalomania) of the late 19th century in Europe were rejected by the Impressionists and even more so by a mood in the arts which came to be called Expressionism.

Expressionism was not a movement in the sense that Impressionism was. It’s more an over-arching term to describe an approach which is evident in the visual arts, theatre, film, literature and philosophy in the early 20th century, especially in German-speaking countries. Expressionism exposes raw and intense personal emotion. Unlike Impressionism - focusing on an impression of an object relevant to the external world - Expressionism gave the artist's own views, emotional and responses directly, and distortion or exaggeration were the means by which this was done. In the visual arts, Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream (or to give it its full title, The Scream of Nature) is a perfect example of Expressionism.

Munch: The Scream of Nature (1893)

Of course coupled with this is approach to art were other events which rocked western thought. The work of Sigmund Freud gave to the world - and to the German-speaking world in particular - a whole new way of viewing life, death, sex and desire. Freud's Studies in Hysteria was published in 1895, and The Interpretation of Dreams appeared in 1900. These - and subsequent works like Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (published 1905) - appeared right at the time Expressionism was at its height. In fact, Freud's work may be said to have aided the acceptance and popularity of Expressionistic methods in the arts.

Siegmund Freud (c. 1921)

All this was of intense interest and importance to the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Born in 1874, Schoenberg's earliest works grew out of the late Romantic world of Brahms, Strauss and Mahler. But his style stretched and stretched the bounds of conventional tonality to the point that by 1908 he'd abandoned tonality entirely. From that time until around 1920 his music was completely atonal, written in no major or minor keys. He took in music the same path as the abstract painters; Kandinsky's first non-objective paintings date from exactly the same time.

Kandinsky: In Grey (1919)

In the early 1920s, though, he undertook another major shift in his compositional style, developing serialism or twelve-tone technique, in which the twelve notes of the octave are arranged in their own unique "scales" for each work.

Expressionism and psychoanalysis play very neatly into Schoenberg's various artistic crises in the first decades of the 20th century. In the period 1908-12, having embraced atonality, Schoenberg had a burst of incredible creative energy, producing some of his greatest and most ground-breaking works. These include the second string quartet, the song cycle known as The Book of the Hanging Garden, the opus 11 piano pieces and the opus 16 orchestral pieces. Perhaps above all the works of this period, Erwartung, a work for soprano and orchestra which explores grief and psychosis, is a towering achievement. But on a much smaller scale, the work of Schoenberg's I want to focus on here opens up this world of shadows, ambiguity and intense emotion just as well. It appeared in 1912 and it's called Pierrot Lunaire.

The title, Pierrot Lunaire, can be translated as "Moonstruck Pierrot" or "Pierrot in the Moonlight". The Pierrot referred to is the stock character from Italian commedia dell'arte, a lovesick clown, pining for Columbine. He's a trusting fool, naïve and sad. (You can read more about commedia dell’arte here)

Paul Legrand as Pierrot (c. 1855)

The basis for Schoenberg's work is a set of fifty poems written in French under this title by Albert Giraud. From Otto Hartleben's German translation Schoenberg selected 21 to set to music as short pieces for a small ensemble of instruments and voice.

The ensemble requires five players who play eight instruments among them. In addition to a piano, there is violin (doubling viola), flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet) and cello. The voice part is an example of a style of writing which has become synonymous with Schoenberg. It's called Spreschstimme, a style of vocal declamation midway between speaking and singing. The composer notates the sung pitches but the notes are marked with a sign to indicate they're not sustained, as in regular singing; rather the voice hits the note then slides in a speech-like manner up or down to the next note. The effect is eerie and captivating, even a little mad, but this, as we discover, is completely appropriate.

The poems - and the entire work - reflect a bundle of contradictions. The female vocalist sometimes acts as the male Pierrot, sometimes not. Like any clown, Pierrot is sometimes a hero, sometimes a fool. The ensemble is sometimes a chamber group, sometimes a miniature orchestra. Desire contrasts with cruelty, pleasure with pain, ecstasy with tragedy. It's a dream sequence and like any dream there are always things which don't make sense, or don't add up. As such it's an intriguing artwork which asks more questions than it answers, a real child of its time, and it influenced generations of composers.

The recording I’ve linked to on YouTube was conducted by Pierre Boulez and features an incredible line-up of musicians. The vocalist is Yvonne Minton, with Antony Pay (clarinet/bass clarinet), Michel Debost (flute/piccolo), Pinchas Zuckerman (violin/viola), Lynne Harrell (cello) and Daniel Barenboim (piano).

The text with translation can be downloaded from here.

Arnold Schoenberg (1903)

Arranged as three groups with seven poems in each group, the three parts of Pierrot Lunaire have different emphases. Part One sees Pierrot made drunk by the influence of the moon, whereupon he fantasises about love, sex and religion. The work opens with Mondestrunken (Moondrunk). Drinking from the chalice of desire, filled by the moon, the poet's emotions and cravings pour forth. [listen]

The grouping of the 21 poems into three groups of seven is only the start of Schoenberg's obsession with three and seven in this piece. Almost every song reflects groups of threes and sevens in some form or another. That first song was based on a seven note pattern heard right at the start, for example. Going even further, those first seven notes (G sharp, E, C, D, B flat, C sharp and G) come to represent Pierrot throughout the work, and it's no coincidence that the name "Pierrot" itself has seven letters.

The second song is called Colombine, the name of Pierrot's love interest in commedia dell'arte. Here the metaphor of the moonlight is blurred with that of a flower's buds, blooming and needing to be plucked. [listen]

In every movement of Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg uses his five instrumentalists in a different combination. This helps maintain an ever-changing palette of colours to set this extraordinary poetry and to support the stylised and other-worldly sound of the voice performing in Spreschstimme. The third song, Der Dandy (The Dandy) has the flute player change to piccolo; the only other instruments in this one are the clarinet and piano.

The poem refers to Bergamo, where Pierrot comes from, and the clown muses on the colours he will use to paint his face. [listen]

Interestingly, in setting these poems Schoenberg virtually ignores the rigid structure in which every one of the texts is written. Every poem contains 13 lines, and lines 1 and 13 in each poem are identical. In addition, lines 1 and 2 are the same as lines 7 and 8. This creates interesting shades of meaning in the texts but Schoenberg makes no attempt to draw attention to these textual repetitions in the music. Rather he chooses to set the whole poem every time virtually as blank verse, freeing up the musical structure almost despite the rigid verbal one.

The fourth song is Eine blasse Wäscherin (A Chlorotic Laundry Maid). The imagery here become more sexual, with the white arms of the girl, her white silk garments and the white moonlight all blurring in the poet's mind. [listen]

The world of dreams - that crazy world where disparate objects and situations seem to coexist in a way they never could in real life - is the world in which Pierrot Lunaire exists. The fifth movement is titled in French and means "Chopin Waltz". Yet despite being in 3/4 time there is no pastiche of Chopin here. The text speaks of deliriously of music being infused with deathly charm like a drop of blood on the lip of a consumptive. Halfway through this song the clarinettist has to change to bass clarinet. [listen]

This leads directly into no 6, called Madonna. Religious imagery comes to the fore here: the mother of Christ is bleeding in sorrow at the sight of her crucified son. [listen]

The first group of seven songs, appropriately, end by directing our attention to the source of Pierrot's drunkenness: the moon. Called Der kranke Mond (The Sick Moon), Schoenberg limits himself to the flute alone to accompany the voice. The moon, on her high couch in the sky, is sickly and pale, yet her light still affects the minds of men below and excites them to love. [listen]

Arnold Schoenbrg, self portrait (1910)

The second group of seven songs in Pierrot Lunaire sees Pierrot plunge deeper into his fantasy world of nightmarish visions, and the predominant images here are of violence and religion. This work sees Schoenberg not only trying to create something new but he seeks to create using not only atonality but also ancient forms and compositional devices. That is, in looking forward he at times also looks backward. The first song of Part Two, simply called Nacht (Night), is a passacaglia. The whole song is based on a repeated sequence of notes which is transformed throughout the movement. The poem describes heavy, black moths which obscure the sun and sink into men's hearts. The composer limits the instrumental palette to the lowest sounds available: bass clarinet, cello and piano. [listen]

Part Two continues with a Prayer to Pierrot in which the supplicant poet laments the loss of laughter and brightness from his life. [listen]

The next song, called Raub (Loot), tells of Pierrot ravishing a hoard of blood-red rubies in a subterranean cavern. The sexual imagery is tinged with the colour red with references to blood and the precious stones. Schoenberg's setting suggests an accompanied recitative, with the flute, clarinet, violin and cello at times alternating with the voice. [listen]

The piano was silent in that movement until the very end, whereupon it linked without a break into the next song, Rote Messe (Red Mass). Here the colour red remains, but the scene shows Pierrot in church, displaying his bleeding heart in the place of the elements of communion. [listen]

The twelfth song is called Galgenlied, a Song of the Gallows. The image here is pure death and depravity, in 17 seconds. [listen]

In the thirteenth song Schoenberg again pays homage to the musical past by having the instruments indulge in what one writer has called "non-repetitive counterpoint". In the middle of the song the accompaniment indulges in complex threads of independent musical lines, but the whole is very free and not rigidly structured. The song is called Enthauptung (Decapitation). Pierrot fantasises that the moon is a scimitar, poised to cut off his head. [listen]

This interlude played by the four instrumentalists other than the pianist serves to prepare us - or not, as the case may be - for the final song in Part Two of Pierrot Lunaire, called Die Kreuze (The Crosses). In this song the religious imagery reaches its peak in Pierrot's disturbed mind. The poets are said to bleed silently and their verses are holy crosses. There are references to vultures and blood, a sinking red sun and finally death. [listen]

Schiele: Arnold Schoenberg (1917)

The depths of horror in Part Two are in part assuaged by the seven movements of the third and final part of Pierrot Lunaire. In this sequence, Pierrot travels home to Bergamo, although he is still haunted by nostalgia for a past that probably never existed. In fact the next song is called "Nostalgia" (Heimweh) and tells of Pierrot's heart, now a wasteland, a desert, still longing and yearning as he hears the familiar sounds of home. [listen]

Pierrot's vision in the next song, called Gemeinheit (Atrocity), is rather bizarre. The bald head of Cassander (another character in commedia dell'arte), drilling into a brain and smoking rare Turkish tobacco are the ideas juxtaposed in this poem. [listen]

The seventeenth song is called "Parody" and tells of a Duenna sitting with knitting needles in her hair. She is in love with Pierrot and she's also being driven mad by the moon. [listen]

In the eighteenth song Schoenberg reaches the pinnacle of his deference to musical forms and structures of the past by setting the text in music which bristles with contrapuntal ingenuity. Among other things, the flute and clarinet are in canon (that us, playing as a round) with each other, and the violin and cello indulge in a completely different canon at the same time. Midway through the song these two canons turn back on themselves and are played backwards. At the same time, the piano imitates the canon of the flute and clarinet but at half speed, so that by the time the song is ended it has played the canon once in the forward direction only. The voice remains independent of all these musical wizardries. The song is called Der Mondfleck (The Moonfleck), telling of Pierrot desperate attempts to rub a speck of moonlight from his back. [listen]

Cassander reappears in the nineteenth poem, angry at Pierrot making grotesque noises on his viola late at night. (As a former violist, I resent that remark!) Schoenberg resists the obvious temptation to include the viola in this setting; the accompaniment only uses the cello and the piano. The composer even avoids using pizzicato at the point where it is expressly mentioned in the words. [listen]

The wind instruments and violin eventually enter to usher in the second last song, a barcarolle called Heimfahrt (Homeward Journey). This follows without a break. Heading home to Bergamo, Pierrot uses a moonbeam as his rudder. [listen]

And so to the twenty-first and last song, bringing Part Three, and the whole of Pierrot Lunaire, to a close. It's called O alter Duft (O Ancient Scent) and it seems to provide a happy ending in which Pierrot is back in his past, in his comfortable world of Bergamo, intoxicated with the scent of his homeland. He views the world again with happiness, away from the moon and its influences. Or is he now so mad that he doesn't have any insight? This movement is almost in E major so it's hard to know what Schoenberg's views on the subject are. [listen]

Klee: Pierrot Lunaire (1924)

Schoenberg took four months to compose Pierrot Lunaire, from March to July, 1912. The first performance was given in Berlin on 16 October 1912 after an amazing forty rehearsals. The vocalist was Albertine Zehme, who had drawn the composer's attention to the poems in the first place. She wore a Columbine costume, while Schoenberg conducted the ensemble behind a screen.

Reaction was mixed. The composer Anton Webern was present and he wrote: Naturally there were a few people who hissed…but that meant nothing. There was enthusiasm after the second part, and in the third there was unrest caused by one idiot who was laughing…but at the end…it was an unqualified success.

The ensemble who gave the premiere of Pierrot Lunaire in 1912

If you’d like to watch a live concert performance with English subtitles, there’s an excellent one here...and a somewhat more theatrical one, also with subtitles, here.

Pierrot Lunaire is itself a bundle of contradictions: a work with elements of both high art and cabaret which is neither sung nor spoken yet which creates a powerful mood. It stands as one of the most important and innovative works of musical art from the early 20th century. In its own quiet way it was as influential as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring which premiered the following year and like that more famous work, any performance of Pierrot Lunaire even today is regarded as a major event. It's draining and exhausting, but sometimes art does that.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2009.

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