The Kennedy Center

Pierrot Lunaire

About the Work

Arnold Schoenberg Composer: Arnold Schoenberg
© Richard Rodda

By 1912 Arnold Schoenberg, having succeeded in "emancipating the dissonance" and abandoning traditional tonality in order to create a more richly expressive musical art with his compositions following the Piano Pieces, Op. 11, of 1908, had already established himself as a high priest of modernity when the actress Albertine Zehme asked him to write a new work for her. Frau Zehme was a specialist in melodrama, the venerable German theatrical form in which a monologue is spoken above a musical background, and she specified that the solo part be for a speaker rather than for a singer. To fulfill the commission, Schoenberg chose to set 21 of the 50 poems from the 1884 cycle Pierrot Lunaire by the Belgian critic and dramatist Albert Giraud (1860-1929). Schoenberg knew the poems not in their original French, however, but in an 1892 translation, actually a thorough reworking into German, by the playwright Erich Hartleben (1864-1905). (Schoenberg, an avid numerologist, chose 21 poems to match the opus number of the work.) To evoke the strong images of Giraud's verses and to meet Frau Zehme's requirement, Schoenberg developed a startlingly innovative style of vocal delivery that he called Sprechstimme "Speaking-Voice"-which required a delivery that is partly spoken and partly sung. (He had already experimented with Sprechstimme in his Gurrelieder of 1900-01.) The songs were composed quickly between March and June 1912, some in a single day, and the actress began experimenting with Sprechstimme as soon as Schoenberg had started work. She had perfected the difficult new style by the time of the premiere (October 16, 1912, in Berlin, with Schoenberg conducting), and Pierrot Lunaire was enthusiastically received by the public, though the critical response was rather cool. Schoenberg toured Germany and Austria with Pierrot during the winter, and it created a sensation at every performance. (The United States premiere occurred in New York in 1923.) Except for the Three Songs of Op. 22, it was last music he was to write for the next decade, the crucial time when he withdrew from active composition to formulate his 12-tone theory.

Pierrot is the painted-face clown of French pantomime, descended from the Italian commedia dell' arte, who is "moon-struck" ("luna"-"loony"-"Lunaire") for love. By the late 19th century, Pierrot had become an artistic vehicle for the depiction of deep emotions masked by a carefree appearance, symbolizing the sufferings of a sensitive person showing a happy face to the world. (Frau Zehme dressed as Columbine for the premiere; Schoenberg and the instrumentalists were hidden behind screens.)

Schoenberg grouped the poems into three parts comprising seven numbers each. In Part I, Pierrot, drunk, is subject to a whirlpool of feelings and fantasies about love, sexual longing, religious hysteria, and neurasthenia. Part II finds him plunged into a nightmare world of pillage, violence, and blasphemy. He climbs slowly from this murky depth in Part III, journeying toward his home in sunny Bergamo and returning, at last, to the daylight world and thoughts of a fabled, contented yesteryear. Though Schoenberg claimed to have conceived the work in a "light, ironical, satirical tone" (Pierre Boulez went so far as to call it "un ‘cabaret' supérieur"), the words of Pierrot Lunaire and their musical realizations form one of the most difficult and challenging of all listening experiences. "In their intense and morbid expressivity they seem to breath the stuffy atmosphere of that enclosed nightmare world of expressionist German art in the decade before 1914," wrote Charles Rosen in his perceptive study of the composer. "Even the wit and gaiety are macabre; against a background of controlled hysteria, the moments of repose take on an air of death.... To approach this work, we need a sympathy for the period in which it was written (or at least a suspension of distaste)."

Each of Giraud's poems was disposed in the form of a rondeau, an ancient French 13-line genre in which lines one and two are repeated as lines seven and eight, and line one as line 13. Schoenberg virtually ignored the rigor of the verses' construction in his musical settings, however, investing the work with an enormous formal and sonorous variety. The ensemble of eight instruments played by five musicians (piano, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/ viola and cello) is disposed differently in each of the 21 numbers, with all of the instruments heard only in the last song. The formal types range from a free, non-repetitive stream of counterpoint (Enthauptung-"Decapitation") to one of the most tightly controlled and elaborate canons written since the end of the Renaissance (Mondfleck-"Moonspot").

Pierrot Lunaire is one of the seminal works of modern art, "the solar plexus as well as the mind of 20th-century music," according to Igor Stravinsky. It influenced composers from Webern to Ravel to Boulez, and continues to amaze and disturb listeners a century after it was first heard.