Writing sample by Aaron Grad.
© 2012 Aaron Grad. All rights reserved.

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Pierrot lunaire, Op. 21 [1912]           

ARNOLD SCHOENBERG
Born September 13, 1874 in Vienna
Died July 13, 1951 in Los Angeles

Arnold Schoenberg reached a breaking point in 1908, when his wife left him for several months to live with a young painter. Besides his personal troubles, Schoenberg was at a musical crossroads, having stretched conventional tonality to its functional limit. He took up painting, creating crude but powerful expressionist works, and he applied that same intensity of feeling to a new style of composition, first realized in the thirteenth song of the cycle The Book of the Hanging Gardens. In that song, he dispensed with a tonal center altogether, and let the text and his musical instincts dictate a freely atonal language. This idiom of free atonality occupied Schoenberg for over a decade until another impasse led to his development of the twelve-tone system, a structured approach to creating atonal music.

Pierrot lunaire, composed in 1912, is the most famous work from Schoenberg’s “expressionist” period. He wrote it for the actress and singer Albertine Zehme, who wanted a high-art showpiece for her cabaret act. Zehme introduced Schoenberg to an 1884 collection by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud, translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben. Schoenberg selected 21 poems, which he organized into three parts. Zehme had asked for a work for voice and piano, but Schoenberg expanded the instrumentation to include four other players: flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), violin (doubling viola) and cello. A century later, this combination has become a common lineup for new music ensembles, many of them initially formed to perform this very work.

A distinguishing trait of Pierrot lunaire is the manner of vocal performance. Schoenberg wrote the vocal line in a Sprechstimme (“spoken voice”) style, in which the rhythms are precisely notated, but the pitches are only approximate and relative. He stressed in a preface to the score, “it must never be reminiscent of singing,” requiring the performer to immediately leave each pitch, as in the spoken word, instead of sustaining the pitch as a singer would.

Pierrot lunaire, or “Pierrot in the Moonlight,” borrows a stock character from the Italian Commedia dell’arte tradition, a style of improvised comedy that flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries. Pierrot was typically portrayed as a naïve fool, dressed in all white with a powdered face, and hopelessly lovesick for Columbine, who typically left him for the more dashing Harlequin.

 “Moondrunk,” in which the moon is “the wine that one drinks with the eyes,” establishes the mood for Part I of Pierrot lunaire. Moons abound in these first seven texts: In No. 2, Pierrot dreams of giving “moonlight’s pale blossoms” to his beloved Columbine; In No. 4, the moon is a “faded washerwoman” who “washes nighttime’s pale clothes.” In the last song of Part I, Pierrot describes the “nocturnal deathsick moon, there on the sky’s black pillow.” The music of this opening section is the most spacious, obliging the nocturnal glow of the text. The seventh song, “The Sick Moon,” closes Part I with a dark duet for flute and voice.

In true expressionist fashion, Part II is morbid and grotesque, the text overflowing with death and blood and the colors black and red. In the eighth song, “Black giant moths killed the sun’s splendor,” and in the tenth, “Through the gloom—like eyes!—stare from the dead’s caskets red, princely rubies.” The remaining songs in Part II are particularly gruesome, as in No. 11 (“His heart—in bloodied fingers—for a terrible last supper”) and No. 12 (“In his brains, stuck like a nail, the withered whore with the stringy neck”). In No. 13, Pierrot is beheaded by “the moon, the shining scimitar.” In No. 14, the poet is crucified on his own verses. The dissonant and brittle musical language of this section gives voice to the brutal imagery.

Part III ushers in nostalgia and humor as Pierrot pines for “an old Italian pantomine,” mentioned in No. 15, “Homesick.” In No. 16, he uses a polished skull as a tobacco pipe; in No. 17 (“Parody”), an old woman with knitting needles longs for Pierrot. Next he mistakes a spot of moonlight for a bit of plaster on his clothes, and is frustrated when he can’t remove it. No. 19 takes a musical cue from the text, in which, “with a grotesque, giant bow, Pierrot scrapes on his viola.” (The scoring actually features cello, often in its upper range.) No. 20, “Homeward Bound,” is an ironic barcarolle, evoking the canals of Venice. The final song imparts a sense of history and completeness, with the entire instrumental array appearing.

Once the shock of hearing Pierrot lunaire wears off—and after 100 years, it is still plenty shocking—the work’s obsession with the past becomes more and more apparent. The underlying current of nostalgia is best summed up by the opening phrases of the last song: “O ancient fragrance from fabled times, ravish again my senses.”