Schoenberg, Arnold: ‘Pierrot Lunaire’, Op. 21

Just to create an impression of the type and feel of events in 1912, here is a bit of a sample, casually chosen:

  •  the Titanic sinks in the Atlantic
  •  the Republic of China is founded at the end of the Qing Dynasty
  •  the theory of continental drift is first proposed
  •  the Mayor of Tokyo donates 3,000 cherry trees to the city of Washington
  •  Fenway Park opens
  •  Carl Jung publishes Psychology of the Unconscious
  •  Arizona becomes the 48th state, closing the Western frontier
  •  the smallest earth-to-moon distance of the 20th century occurs on January 4

Meanwhile, something is clearly afoot in the Balkan states, something identifiable only in retrospect. And in Berlin, Pierrot Lunaire is performed for the first time. It is a great success.

In early modernism (and/or late romanticism), there was a considerable vogue for commedia dell’arte settings. Petrushka and and Pulcinella from Stravinsky, and Picasso’s Three Musicians, among many other works, took advantage of the colorful stylizations it made available. The French poet Albert Giraud wrote a cycle of fifty poems entitled Pierrot lunaire: Rondels bergamasques in 1884. Upon the request of the performance artist Albertine Zehme, who had been declaiming the poems as translated into German by Erich Otto Hartleben, Schoenberg selected 21 poems for a proper song cycle. Or sort of a song cycle, anyway: Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire cannot really be called that since the words are spoken (sprechstimme) rather than sung. The effect is of an extremely queer cabaret.

Giraud’s poems form the most clearly identifiable formal mechanisms of the work, even if, in the end, they function as a sort of prism for musical thought. Each poem is thirteen lines long, with a very specific rhyme scheme: ABcd efAB ghijA, where A and B are entire lines, repeated exactly. As was often the case for Schoenberg, many important outlines can be traced with numbers (from the clear numeric outlines, the colors can spring wildly and variously outward). First: there are 21 poems (for Schoenberg’s Op. 21). The 21 poems are divided into three groups of seven, each of which has a very distinct color, instrumentation, and character. The first group centers on the white and black of night; the second group is heavily red and black with night and blood; and the third group brings senses of memory, nostalgia, narrative, irony, quasi-comic violence, and a return to weird calm. Generally speaking, the instrumentation is darker in the middle seven.

But patterns beyond that are hard to find. Each of the pieces, around the core of very similar poem, has a very distinct character. The instruments, themes, and genres are so diverse, and often so strangely juxtaposed, that one begins to feel a simulated randomness. There is a conscious multiplicity, bringing a strange and individual new light on each verse. So many different events, all at night, all unfamiliar and odd, theatrically exaggerated – a crazy multidimensional patchwork (the piece itself a sort of harlequin), illuminating in telling moments a fantasy world created from music, verse, and puppets, in 1912.

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