Arnold Schoenberg – Three times Seven Poems from Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire

Posted on October 7, 2012

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Pierrot Lunaire was written in the freely atonal period of Schoenberg’s career. It was commissioned by the actress-singer Albertine Zehme, who intended to perform a German translation of the poem collection Pierrot lunaire: rondels bergamasques authored by the Belgian symbolist poet Albert Giraud. Schoenberg quickly became enthusiastic about the idea and developed it into a synthesis of his innovative compositional ideas. No doubt that Schoenberg found a soul mate in the character Pierrot, who, at the end of the nineteenth century was a symbol of the sensitive, lonely artist estranged from his surroundings, poorly appreciated or ridiculed by his contemporaries. His only friend is the mysterious night wanderer, the Moon, who follows Pierrot everywhere into the night looking for joy and adventure and finally turning sentimentally towards his homeland. The poems draw their inspiration from the inner (often the darkest) depths of the human soul; they are poetic images creating associations with emotions such as desire, hopeless love, ecstasy, hatred, sorrow and sentimentalism. Illness and death are recurring motifs in the poems – e.g. in poem 5 (Valse De Chopin), poem 7 (The Sick Moon), poem 12 (The Gallows Song) and poem 13 (Beheading) – creating a grim atmosphere and a decadent allure throughout the 21 songs.

Pierrot Lunaire is a continuation of the German polyphonic, expressive compositional style based on complex harmonic development, but it completely rejects the constrains of tonal harmony. Instead, it develops its own “rules of the game” playing freely and intuitively with numbers and structures. Certain numbers gain special significance and they seem to constitute the backbone of the piece – perhaps the most prominent such number is seven – there are twenty-one songs structured in groups of seven, the basic melodic motive of the piece “the Pierrot motive” contains seven notes, and, as coincidence (?) the opus number of the piece is 21. Another important number is thirteen – each song shares the same rondo structure, consisting of thirteen lines, where the first and second lines are identical with the seventh and eighth, respectively, and the thirteenth line in every song is a repetition of the first. An interesting fact is that later during his life Schoenberg developed a fixation on and morbid fear of the number thirteen, being diagnosed with triskaidekaphobia (which means phobic fear of the number thirteen). He believed that his that would be somehow related to the number thirteen, perhaps as he was born on the 13th of September. Schoenberg died on 13th of July 1951, a few minutes before midnight.
The song cycle is written for a vocal singer and small orchestra that have since become standard, known as the “Pierrot orchestra”, including a piano, a cello as well as three pairs of instruments covering lower and upper registers of their characteristic tone colour: a flute and a piccolo, a violin and a viola, plus a clarinet and a bass clarinet. The character of the vocal line is another originality of the piece – it is a hybrid of singing and speaking, intended to be neither singing nor speaking, but something different, never heard before, that Schoenberg called Sprechstimme. In that the voice of the vocal performer follows the pitch set by the orchestra, but rigorously avoids a singsong style transition between the notes. The inflections of he vocal line follows and enhances the emotional content of the poems, which is further strengthened by the orchestra. The textures and elements evoked by the words, such as light, fluid or metal are reflected in the tone colour and figures of music. One example would be the soft, mysterious airy music of the moonlight alternating with smooth legato evoking liquid quality when singing about the wine of moonlight “The wine that only eyes may drink Pours from the moon in waves at nightfall”. Also, in song number 3, “The dandy”, the image of moonlight glittering on the metal washstand and crystal flacons of Pierrot is emphasised by high register “metallic” trills and tremolos played on strings, piccolo and piano.
Schoenberg’s composition has left a long lasting influence on modern and postmodern arts. Numerous composers and choreographers, such as Adolf Bolm, Glen Tetley, Hans Eisler, Oskar Schlemmer and Paul Hindemith were inspired by Pierrot Lunaire. Pierrot orchestras were founded, for example by Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle in England as well as by Silvia Gelos and Gustavo Balanesco in Wien. In addition, Pierrot Lunaire found its way into fine arts by pictures of painters such as Paul Klee and Mark Chagall and into the pop culture via rock bands in several countries all over the world, such as Brazil, Russia and Italy.

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Posted in: Part 2