December 4, 2013 5:26 am ||  2 Comments

Coming to Pierrot Lunaire?

It’s here! The week I make my debut with Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. I have wanted to do this piece ever since I first heard it in a music history class at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. It is kooky, demanding, and difficult to wrap your head around. It challenges your aesthetics. It requires the skills of a smart and talented singer/actress 🙂 It is everything I look for in a piece of music. If you are coming to see me perform this week, perhaps this is your first time with Pierrot Lunaire. If it is, below are some things you should know.

First and foremost, I believe this piece is about the search for genuine, authentic expression. A Belgian poet, Albert Giraud, wrote the poetry for Pierrot Lunaire in 1884. Giraud struggled against tradition and poetic ideals. He attempted to abandon tradition for a time only to discover that its absence led to an emotional imbalance – a desecration of his soul. He eventually reconciled his differences with tradition, finding a balance between tradition and a form of expression with which he identified.

Albertine Zehme, the actress-singer who commissioned Arnold Schoenberg to write the song cycle in 1912, was also searching for a more authentic means of expression. Zehme was trained as an actress and studied singing for a while before becoming well known for her performances of melodrama. Melodrama, popular during the Romantic era, was a style of performance where poetry or a monologue was dramatically declaimed over a musical composition. Zehme, however, was not satisfied with the traditional manner in which these texts were declaimed. She was in search of something new – an unrestricted freedom of tone – that would accurately capture our deepest emotions.  In 1911, Zehme wrote:

“Meaning should be conveyed not only by the words we speak; the sounds should also participate in relating the inner experience. To make that possible, we must have unrestricted freedom of tone. Emotional expression should not be denied any of the thousands of oscillations.”

Zehme found a kindred collaborator in Arnold Schoenberg and she was thrilled with the sprechstimme (speaking part) that he created for Pierrot Lunaire. Despite her enthusiasm, this style of sprechgesang (speech-song) did not become the norm.

Arnold Schoenberg’s story is a little better known than Giraud’s or Zehme’s. Mostly self-taught, Schoenberg was an Austrian composer who learned to trust his musical instincts and to regard rules as abstract concepts drawn from previous works, rather than laws that could not be broken. This led him to eventually abandon tonality altogether, finally creating a system where all twelve tones within an octave were considered equal. He believed that he, and each of his students, had a musical “soul” that was entirely their own and that one needed to trust that “soul” despite what anyone might say. It is interesting to note that this commission did not immediately excite Schoenberg. There was something about the poetry that spoke to him though, as we will see later.

One of the aspects of this piece that can be either off-putting or exciting is the sprechstimme. As was mentioned above, the sprechstimme and concept of sprechgesang grew out of the genre of melodrama that was so popular at the time, as well as cabaret, where the actor-singers would often transition effortlessly from singing to speaking and vice versa (think Marlene Dietrich). What Schoenberg created though was definitely different from either melodrama or cabaret. For example, Schoenberg notated the pitch and rhythm carefully, asking the sprecherin  (speaker) to speak, and occasionally sing, within a range of two and a half octaves and to be able to discriminate spoken pitches to the half step. While there is still much debate over whether the sprechstimme is to be spoken entirely as indicated — Schoenberg himself provided conflicting instruction in this regard — it cannot be denied that what Schoenberg envisioned had never been asked of a speaker or singer previously. It demands, as Zehme had hoped, an unrestricted freedom of tone that is fully committed to the story and the emotional life of the characters.

And what about these characters and story? Do you know about Pierrot? Pierrot is a descendant of one of the stock characters in the Italian commedia dell’arte theatrical troupes. He was originally conceived as a zany and naïve clown in love with fellow character Columbine. Throughout the course of time, however, Pierrot’s character evolved to a more troubled and suffering creature. By the late 19th century, Pierrot began to embody the late Romantic artist who used expression as a screen behind which to hide his anguish. He started to be associated with the moon and slightly more macabre antics.

Giraud strongly identified with Pierrot, admitting, “I am a dressed-up Pierrot,” in the final poem of his 1884 creation Pierrot Lunaire: Rondels bergamasque. As we learned earlier, Giraud struggled against tradition, and his fifty-poem cycle based around Pierrot was to serve as a record of his struggle against and eventual reconciliation with tradition. That said, his collection of poems were chaotically organized and one would have a difficult time finding a dramatic arc within the cycle. Schoenberg, working with a German translation by poet Otto Erich Hartleben, managed to create that missing arc by eliminating all poems that do not exhibit a connection to Pierrot, the moon, night, and/or poetry. This left twenty-one poems which Schoenberg rearranged, allowing the listener to follow Pierrot from a place of disenchantment and loneliness to a scary and violent world that would eventually leave him for dead, until Pierrot is reminded of his by-gone days and decides to return home. This storyline must have spoken leagues to Schoenberg who, likewise, embarked on a scary journey as he abandoned tonality and put his faith in his musical integrity. While Schoenberg never returned to tonality, I believe there must have been some acknowledgement on his part that his abandonment of tonality had nothing to do with the merit of tonality, but rather that tonality wasn’t part of his musical “soul”.

When Schoenberg set this poetry for Zehme, he set it for sprecherin and five instrumentalists: flute (doubling on piccolo), violin (doubling on viola), clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet), cello, and piano. The instrumentation is slightly different for each poem and Schoenberg painstakingly composed the music to illuminate and enhance the scene and mood of each poem. We can also hear how Schoenberg includes allusions to his own journey with tradition and tonality. The beginning and ending of Pierrot Lunaire are much more “tonal” than the middle of the piece where Pierrot seems to be sinking in a wasteland of chaos. There has been much written about Schoenberg’s compositional process for Pierrot, much more than I have room for here, so if you are interested, let me know and I’ll point you in the right direction!

Because this piece asks us to question so many traditions poetically, musically, and vocally, it can be very difficult to listen to or watch. Be open to the discomfort while also looking for the light, ironic tone that Schoenberg hoped to infuse into this composition. Finally, I hope what I’ve written here can help you to enjoy it just the littlest bit more. Hope to see you Thursday!


  • I’ve only just stumbled across your page while I was again surfing for further readings on Pierrot Lunaire. I am pleased I did. I have attended two performances of Pierrot over four decades and collected numerous recordings of this piece. My favorite is by Cleo Laine with the Nash Ensemble, who also performed with Nancy Shelton in both her German and English recordings. Your notes confirm for me that Ms Laine’s interpretation is just as legitimate as the others, if not more so. I wish I could have heard you. It is little performed. If you have heard the Cleo Laine recording I would much welcome your response to it. I know no one else who even knows of the recording. If you haven’t heard it I would be glad to send it to you. I converted it from a vinyl Japanese import of an RCA recording; there is no published CD recording that I know of. I hope to hear from you.

    • Hi, David! Thanks for your comment! I am embarrassed to admit that I have not heard the Cleo Laine performance. I am definitely curious about it now! I would love to hear it. Is it possible to share via Dropbox? If not, I can share a mailing address privately. Best!

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