Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Pierrot Lunaire Turns 100

It was 100 years ago yesterday that Arnold Schoenberg's almost-unclassifiable, remarkable pantonal piece Pierrot Lunaire débuted at the Berlin Choralien-Saal, with Albertine Zehme as the solo vocalist.  A century later, despite all the developments, changes and shifts in music, and the assimilation even of Schoenberg's later 12-note compositional style by musicians working in rock, jazz, and other genres and idioms, the Pierrot Lunaire has not lost its freshness, strangeness or edge. Schoenberg based his Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds 'Pierrot lunaire' ("Three Times Seven Poems from Albert Giraud's 'Pierrot lunaire'") on poems by the now-forgotten Belgian symbolist poet Albert Giraud, translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben, and the 3 x 7, or 21 poems, revolve around the lovelorn exploits of that Romantic and later fin-de-siècle icon, the Comedia del'Arte pierrot, as the his assail him/her. Moondrunk at first, the poems tell of desire, sex and sacrilege, then of violence ("Theft," "Beheading"), then of his return home to Italy, the final poem utterly nostalgic in its tone, "O Alter Duft" (Oh Ancient Air).

As in later works, like his unfinished opera Moses und Aron, Schoenberg incorporates the Sprechstimme (speak-sound) or Sprechgesang (speak-singing) technique, pitched speech, as it wee, which presses right up to the limits both of talking and of singing without fully sliding into either. The small but potent forces in the melodrama's ensemble are unusual and highly inventive; they include a flute (doubled as piccolo), a clarinet (doubled as bass clarinet), a violin (doubled as viola), a cello, and a piano. Part of what gives the piece its almost otherworldly qualities is this ever-varying combination of instruments, which play in differing pairings throughout the piece, with the entire ensemble playing together only in the 11th, 14th, and final four pieces, but what also becomes clear with careful listening is that Schoenberg incorporates older classical forms (as his student Alban Berg would do, up several levels of composition, in his opera Wozzeck), such as passacaglie and canons, across the 21 settings.

Nuria Schoenberg Nono commenting on her father's Pierrot Lunaire

There are also, as with other Schoenberg (and Berg works), a numerological coherence to the poems. He began the work on March 12 (3/12, in the year 1912 (numerological a 3)); it constitutes his Opus 21, and contains 21 poems. There are seven performers on stage, including the conductor, and the work makes use of 7 note motifs throughout. The number 13, which Schoenberg also often avoided, is significant, in that each poem comprises 13 lines (2 quatrains followed by a quinzaine), while the first line of each poem occurs three times (being repeated as lines 7 and 13), which is the way that Hartleben reproduced Giraud's originals.

Zehme commissioned the work based on Giraud's poems, and Schoenberg spent five months perfecting the piece, which he completed on July 9, 1912.  He and Zehme then spent the next four months, with over 40 rehearsals, perfecting Pierre Lunaire, finally presenting it to the public that fall. It was not his first triumph, nor his last, but it definitely lodged Schoenberg's name in the ears and minds of his peers. Pierrot Lunaire would have a profound influence not only on Schoenberg's students, such as Berg and Anton Webern, but on musicians working in different styles and tonal idioms, such Anton von Zemlinsky and Maurice Ravel. Even today, figures as different as Björk, John Kelly and Bruce LaBruce have been entranced by the other-worldly music and performance the piece brings forth. My favorite performance is Christine Schäfer as the soprano soloist performing with the Ensemble InterContemporain, led by Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon, 1997), though the Glenn Gould version below is probably one of the most beautiful and entertaining on the web.

Here are a few clips of Pierrot Lunaire from YouTube. Enjoy!

The one and only Glenn Gould, performing selections with Patricia Rideout
The first set of poems, soloist Schäfer with Boulez, and the score
The second set of poems, soloist Schäfer with Boulez, and the score
A version with jazz interludes

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