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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 7

Schoenberg - Pierrot Lunaire: an Atonal Landmark

by John Winiarz / April 1, 2000

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Though freely atonal, Pierrot lunaire marks a return to counterpoint and looks forward to the ordered atonality of serialism. However, the aspect of Schoenberg's Expressionist style which had the greatest impact on later composers was his conception of music as a free, twelve-tone chromatic field where any configuration of pitches could act as a "norm." Contextual music, where each work defines its own particular vocabulary and method, can only be understood in terms of these new, wider limits.

Au clair de la lune, Mon ami Pierrot

The work is a melodrama, a form popular at the time, consisting of poetry spoken against an instrumental background. Schoenberg's title describes the work as "three times seven poems by Albert Giraud in German translation by Otto Erich Hartleben." Pierrot lunaire is the last important work of Schoenberg's Expressionist period (1907 to World War I ).

Schoenberg (1874-1951) reached musical maturity in Vienna, the home of Freud and the Expressionist art movement that dominated Germany and Austria during the early twentieth century. Expressionism is generally defined as art in which representation of nature is subordinated to expression of emotion. Certain Expressionist artists favoured non-representational images to project emotions directly, without interference from the "outside" world. At about the same time that Wassily Kandinsky painted his first non-objective paintings, Schoenberg abandoned tonality. Music during this period seemed to pour out from a deep level of his psyche. In his Expressionist masterpiece, Erwartung ("Expectation") Op.17 (1909), the hysteria of a woman's terror-stricken search for her lover is evoked by a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness text faithfully mirrored by turbulent, athematic, atonal music in free, prose-like rhythm.

In 1912 Schoenberg met the actress-singer Albertine Zehme (1857-1946), who specialized in melodrama. Zehme often declaimed poems to Chopin's music. She also sang Otto Wrieslander's (1880-1950) song settings of Hartleben's translations of Albert Giraud's (1860 -1929) Pierrot lunaire. Zehme introduced the Giraud-Hartleben poems to Schoenberg and requested a cycle of recitations with music for her evening concerts at a new kind of "high" (i.e. serious) cabaret. Schoenberg responded positively in his diary, writing, "A marvelous idea, quite right for me."

Prête-moi ta plume, Pour écrire un mot

Choosing twenty-one poems, Schoenberg planned a three-part work. In Part I, Pierrot, intoxicated by the moon, fantasizes about love, sex, and religion. Part II finds him in a violent nightmare world of plunder and blasphemy. In Part III he journeys home to Bergamo, haunted by nostalgic thoughts of a fabled past.

Schoenberg's settings virtually ignore the rigid structure of the stanzas and display an enormous formal variety ranging from free, non-repetitive counterpoint (Enthauptung or "Beheading") to one of the most tightly controlled canons and fugue written since the Renaissance (Der Mondfleck or "The Moonspot"). The eight instruments played by five performers (piano, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola and cello) are arranged differently in every number and produce an amazing variety of sound. Among the outstanding moments are the fascinating flute-narrator duet in Der kranke Mond ("The Sick Moon") and the sombre bass clarinet and cello sounds in Nacht ("Night"), where "black, giant butterflies descend upon the hearts of men." An unforgettable feature is the vocalist's "Sprechstimme," an eerie declamation between song and speech. The pitch is sounded but not held; instead, the vocalist immediately leaves the note and falls or rises to the next one. This was the first musical work to require such a detailed approximation of a "melodic" line.

Many music analysts believe that the title's description "dreimal sieben" (three times seven) held great significance for the composer, who had become seriously interested in number mysticism. The number of songs selected (21) reverses the digits of the opus number (12) and 1912, the year of composition. The numbers three, seven, and thirteen dominate the work. Three authors are involved—Giraud, Hartleben and Schoenberg—and the work's three parts each contain seven poems. The poems, all strict rondeaux, have three verses totalling thirteen lines, with the first line stated three times (with repetitions at lines seven and thirteen). The performing ensemble, made up of conductor, vocalist , and five instrumentalists, totals seven members, and the seven-note Pierrot motif (G#, E, C, D, Bb, C#, G—one note for each letter in Pierrot's name) is omnipresent throughout the music.

After forty rehearsals, Pierrot lunaire was premiered at the Berlin Choralion-saal on October 16, 1912. Zehme stood alone on stage in costume while the composer conducted the musicians behind a screen. Austrian composer Anton Webern, who attended the premiere, 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 one place where unrest was caused by an idiot who was laughing . . . but at the end . . . it was an unqualified success."

Ma chandelle est morte, Je n'ai plus de feu

After completing Pierrot lunaire Schoenberg fell almost silent until his twelve-tone works appeared in 1924. Following the premiere, it soon became popular, the success due partly to the subject matter's current vogue. The commedia dell'arte figure, part dumb puppet, part sensitive being, presented an image of doubt about man's power over himself. It appealed as much to Picasso and Stravinsky (in Petrushka) as to Schoenberg.

The work is full of ambiguities. The German translations of French verses repeatedly switch between first and third person narration. The "light, ironic, satirical tone" is fused with feelings of terror, violence, and nostalgia. The composition lies between the stage and the concert hall, with the soloist vocalizing between song and speech. Its theatrical nature, featuring an actor and including allusions to scenes of a play, influenced the later music theatre of Cage, Kagel, and Stockhausen, among others.

Although a bundle of contradictions, Pierrot lunaire's confusion expresses a fundamental connection made by the unconscious between feelings that are normally poles apart: desire and cruelty, pleasure and pain, ecstasy and melancholy. If such sensations invoked exultation among nineteenth-century Romantics, later artists tended to project sarcasm through the pathetic clown who mocks the poet's image, parodies his heroics, and derides his achievements. Yet it was through the soul of the clown that irony could once again assert itself and grant the artist both self-vindication and a vision of a new spiritual abode.

Ouvre-moi ta porte, Pour l'amour de Dieu.

John Winiarz is a composer and professor of music history at Concordia University, Montreal.

Recommended recordings:

1) Pierre Boulez conducting the Domaine Musical Ensemble with Helena Pilarczyk, voice, recorded in 1961. Adès 14 078-2 (ADE 680) digital stereo (1985) CD ; and Adès 202912 stereo AAD (1985) CD.

2) Arnold Schoenberg, conducting an instrumental ensemble

with Erika Stiedry-Wagner, voice, recorded in 1940.

CBS MPK 45695 digital mono (1989) CD.

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