“As a pallid drop of blood/stains the lips of a consumptive,/so there lurks within this music/morbid soul-destructive charm.”
One of the strangest, most haunting, and influential pieces of 20th century chamber music is “Pierrot Lunaire” (1912) by Arnold Schoenberg. The title means “Pierrot ‘Moonstruck’” though that does conjure for most modern readers unfortunate images of Cher and Nicholas Cage. Our word “lunatic” has the same original reference, people whose overly sensitive moods may be either influenced by or as changeable as the moon.
The work is a cycle of “three times seven” poems set for “reciter” and five instrumentalists who play eight instruments (piano, flute/piccolo, clarinet(s), violin/viola, and cello. The “reciter” must use a rare technique called “Sprechstimme,” German for “speech-voice,” in which the pitches are indicated but rarely sung fully. A sort of Halloweenish constant glissando or sliding is the result.
I’ve always felt that the Goth kids would really “get” Pierrot if they were exposed to it. Messages of alienation, nostalgia, and romantic frustration have changed little from the late 19th century to the present day. Clowns, masks, and commedia dell’arte are used as metaphors for the plight of the creative artist.
The poems were originally in French (by a Belgian author) but Schoenberg set them in a German translation. He was asked by an over-the-hill actress known for her Ibsen to create some music that she could use in her new incarnation as cabaret performer. The resulting 21 songs must have startled her in their difficulty and scope.
Schoenberg wanted the pieces performed in the language of the audience. He was very insistent on that point. So, when the piece was first performed in France, the French originals which were translated to German were retranslated into yet another French version. Nevertheless, to me the “speech-voice” technique sounds most effective in German, and kind of silly in English.
Contrary to what most people think, this is not “12-tone” music. That system hadn’t been organized by Schoenberg yet. The music is restless, with dissonance that is easy to “take” because of the delicate, transparent scoring for the instruments. I used to point out, only somewhat jokingly, that the final song actually ends with a traditional cadence in E major. Schoenberg uses traditional forms like passacaglia (repeating bass line), canon (melody imitated in another line of the music but separated by one or more beats), and waltz to organize the music, though you’d be hard put to dance to the waltz.
Seventy-five rehearsals with the instruments alone were required before the premiere, and, after all that work, the players (and conductor) were behind a black curtain, with only the actress in her Colombine costume visible. Technical standards have improved so much that a conductor is no longer required, and the instrumentalists definitely want to be seen.
Typical of Schoenberg’s prickly attitudes is the following statement: “The performers’ task here is at no time to derive the mood and character of the individual pieces from the meaning of the words, but always solely from the music. To the extent that the tone-painterly representation of the events and feelings in the text were of importance to the composer, it will be found in the music anyway. Whenever the performer fails to find it, he must resist adding something that the composer did not intend. If he did so, he would not be adding, but subtracting.”
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs