[Pierrot lunaire for speaking voice, piano, flute (alternating with piccolo), clarinet (alternating with bass clarinet), violin, (alternating with viola) and 'cello. 21 melodramas after Albert Giraud, translated by O. E. Hartleben] 


2. Columbine

3. Der Dandy

4. Eine blasse Wäscherin

5. Valse de Chopin

6. Madonna

7. Der kranke Mond

8. Nacht (Passacaglia)

9. Gebet an Pierrot

10. Raub

11. Rote Messe

12. Galgenlied

13. Enthauptung

14. Die Kreuze

15. Heimweh

16. Gemeinheit

17. Parodie

18. Der Mondfleck

19. Serenade

20. Heimfahrt

21. O alter Duft

>>> text | sources

DURATION: ca. 34 Min.

TEXT: Otto Erich Hartleben nach Albert Giraud

Universal Edition
Belmont Music Publishers (USA, Kanada, Mexico)

The disruptive scenes occasionally provoked by fanatic supporters and detractors of Mr. Arnold Schönberg during performances of “Pierrot lunaire” in Vienna require him to stipulate that his participation can occur only if absolute quiet is guaranteed for the length of the performance and the public does not undermine the ambiance during the breaks. (Commercial Association of Regensburg, 1914)

Arnold Schönberg (1874, Vienna – 1951, Los Angeles) → Composer, author, painter, teacher, theoretician, inventor, leading figure of the Viennese School, pioneer of the twelve-tone method, fundamental part of recent music history

Pierrot (17th Century, Bergamo) Stage character from the Commedia dell’arte; intercultural multimedia star in visual arts, literature, music, and film; achieved peak popularity in the 19th century; eccentric, melancholiac with a penchant for moonlight, symbolic character for all forms of exaltation

Pierrot lunaire op. 21 (1912, Berlin) Melodrama/song cycle in three parts (each with seven poems) for speaking voice, piano, flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), violin (doubling viola), and cello; performance length with two breaks between parts: ca. 45 minutes; founding document of musical modernism; also known as the “solar plexus of early 20th-century music” (Igor Stravinsky)

Arnold Schönbergs Pierrot lunaire op. 21, a key work of musical modernism, was written in 1912 in Berlin for the elocutionist Albertine Zehme. Zehme, a singer, professional reciter of texts, and voice coach (as well as a former student of Cosima Wagner) followed a highly idiosyncratic aesthetic in her recitation, in which she wanted to “reclaim the ear’s place in life”: “I demand not freedom of thought, but rather freedom of sound! […] In order to communicate our poets and our composers, we need both the sound of song and the sound of speech. The unrelenting work to find the ultimate expressive possibilities for ‘artistic experiences in sound’ has taught me this necessity.” (Program note from an evening of recitation featuring the Pierrot lunaire poems in 1911) This quest for a boundless “freedom of sound” led her, consequently, to a kindred spirit also fighting for a similar freedom: “I have neither to work with a fundamental tone nor any other tone; I could use any of the 12 tones, I don’t have to constrain myself to the Procrustean bed of motivic work, nor do I need to incorporate conventional formal sections or phrase structures.” (Schönberg’s note on the page margin of a copy of Ferruccio Busoni’s Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, 1916)

The German poet Otto Erich Hartleben’s free rendering of the French collection of poems titled Pierrot lunaire: Rondels bergamasques (written by Albert Giraud and published in French in 1884) achieves the rank of an independent poetic work. Hartleben’s translation appeared in several editions after its first publication in 1892, and it had been set to music numerous times before Schönberg took up the material about the old character from the Commedia dell’arte. The structuring of the texts, arranged into a narrative, and their setting as a “specifically musically realized form-idea” focus on an “allegorical parable about artists and their calling”. Schönberg’s fascination with the poems, which he converted into a “colorful intermediate realm between singing and speaking” (Reinhold Brinkman) with a small ensemble, exerted a tremendous creative impulse on him. The dramatic arrangement is based on the numerical order 3x7 (“three times seven poems…”), which later informed the title and has its numerological equivalent in the opus number of the work. Also significant in this respect is the inspiration Schönberg found in Robert Schumann’s cycle Carnaval op. 9, which is made up of 21 piano miniatures and includes character pieces named Pierrot, Arlequin, Chopin, and Columbine.

In the First Part of Schönberg’s opus 21, the dominant theme is that of the artist, whose world of thought and creative impulse is symbolized by the moon. The Second Part descends, after a “deathly ill” clouding of the moonlight, deeper and deeper into the shadow-world of death, and the “sun’s glow” is blotted out by giant black moths, the emissaries of the night. The Rote Messe [Red Mass] (no. 11) can be understood as a peripeteia within the song cycle. Pierrot’s Heimfahrt [Jounrney Home] to Bergamo concludes the Third Part, which is rich with elements of parody. “Although they are all grotesque, the three parts (according to some predominant nuances) still can be designated as lyric, tragic, and humorous.” (Ferruccio Busoni to Egon Petri, 19 June 1913)

At the time of its creation, Pierrot lunaire was a unique genre that brought together characteristics of its ensemble. A speaking voice and five performers were used in changing instrumentation, that is, in varying combinations: the flautist plays also piccolo, the clarinetist also bass clarinet, and the violinist also viola; additionally, there is a pianist and a cellist. In solos, duos, trios, quartets, and quintets of varying constellations, the composer created a cosmos of sounding colors around the speaking voice. The specific instrumentation of the texts and their poetic realms follows traditional models. The flute, for instance, is associated with the moon, while the piccolo accentuates Pierrot’s buffoonery and portrays light and brilliance with its bright tone color. The sonorous cello operates in a hemisphere between seriousness and sentimentality, and to the violin or viola is prescribed a romanticizing idiom. The interpretation of the vocal part is helped by some statements made by the composer, and these function also somewhat like a historical recording under his direction, which mediates between the score and the vocalist. “I must say one thing immediately and decisively: ‘Pierrot lunaire’ is not to be sung! Song melodies must be weighed and formed in a completely different manner than speech melodies. You would completely distort the work, if you were to sing it, and he is correct who says: this is no way to write for singing!” (Arnold Schönberg to his student Alexander Jemnitz, 15 April 1931)

The constantly changing instrumentation, colors, construction, forms and genres, symbolism and semantics in these melodramas suggest that Schönberg was exploring and affirming his own compositional mastery through the 21 highly stylized masterpieces. Each individual melodrama presents its own principle, in which he “counters a new expression” (Berlin Diary, 13 March 1912). Freeing himself from traditional cadential harmony enabled him to utilize “all of the 12 tones” unrestricted by conventional hierarchies: “The only method here is unalloyed idea.” (Margin note in Ferruccio Busoni’s New Esthetic of Music)

At the time of the work’s creation, the degree of complexity of the score was just as extraordinary as the musical language of the cycle. The performers of the world premiere, after countless hours of individual study of their parts, completed no less than 25 ensemble rehearsals before Schönberg brought invited guests to hear the piece one week before its official premiere (on 16 October 1912) in the Choralionsaal in Berlin. In an interview, the pianist and Schönberg student Eduard Steuermann reported on the world premiere: “Mrs. Zehme insisted on performing in a Pierrot costume and standing alone on the stage. The musicians, and their conductor Schönberg, were situated behind a rather complicated screen – complicated because on the small stage it was not easy to construct something that allowed for eye contact between the vocalist and the ensemble while also hiding the latter from the view of the audience. […] And the result? Of course there was a ‘scandal’ […], but also spirited ovations.”

If Schönberg, as a musical trendsetter for the following generation of composers, should be expected to found a new tradition with his newly formulated tonal language, then he himself composed always with retrospection upon his own (German) tradition, in which he understood himself to stand in a line of development. Schönberg’s recourse to older forms and compositional models in opus 21 (including passacaglia, fugue, canon, polka, waltz, and barcarole) reflects a “historical representation of the problems facing artists in modernism” (Reinhold Brinkmann). Schönberg furnished the inventory of his textual interpretation motivically, rhetorically, and compositionally with numerous allusions to music history, which can be heard in veiled quotations from works of past and recent masters. Among these are Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (in Madonna, no. 6) as well as Wagner’s Parsifal (in Gebet an Pierrot, no. 9) and Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss (in Der Dandy, no. 3). A specifically Viennese – and for Schönberg, a native – flavor can be found in the allusion to Johann Strauß’s Künstlerleben in Der Dandy, something verified in subsequent research. The composer infused the “driving force” of his tones (Schönberg, Theory of Harmony) with an “ancient scent from far-off days” [a reference to the title of the final song in the cycle], a recollection of his artistic home, the history of German music since Bach.

The interpretation of the unreal figure of Pierrot evades any common practice of understanding and is largely a problem for our fantasy. In the program book for the premiere, Schönberg prefaced the poems with a (slightly modified) text from the German poet Novalis titled Fragment on Absolute Poetry: “One can imagine stories without conventional coherence, but with associations as in a dream – poems that are merely euphonious or filled with beautiful words, but which have no meaning or coherence, perhaps containing a few understandable strophes, like fragments from the most diverse objects. This true poetry can have, at most, an allegorical sense by and large and an indirect effect.”

Therese Muxeneder
© Arnold Schönberg Center


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