Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Arnold Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912)

The crowning glory of Schoenberg’s “emancipation of dissonance” period is Pierrot Lunaire.  In terms of its importance and influence on the literate music of the twentieth century, Pierrot Lunaire stands second only to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which Stravinsky completed six months after Schoenberg (1874-1951) finished Pierrot.  1912 was, truly, a miraculous year for Western literate music.

Pierrot Lunaire is a set of twenty-one songs for female voice and five instrumentalists playing piano, violin doubling on viola, cello, flute doubling on piccolo, and clarinet doubling on bass clarinet.  Inspired by Pierrot Lunaire, this ensemble became so standard during the twentieth century that it is now simply referred to as a “Pierrot Ensemble.”

The “Pierrot Ensemble” immediately after the premiere on October 16, 1912
The “Pierrot Ensemble” immediately after the premiere on October 16, 1912; Arnold Schoenberg is third from the left, Albertine Zehme is fourth from the left

Pierrot Lunaire was commissioned by a Viennese actress named Albertine Zehme (1857-1946), who asked Schoenberg to compose a work she could recite to a musical accompaniment.  Schoenberg created a vocal part using a technique drawn from German cabaret music called Sprechstimme or “speech voice.”  Sprechstimme is a sing-songy recitation technique in which the notated pitches are only momentarily touched upon, even as the rhythms, dynamics, and phrasing are performed as written.  

This is the first key to understanding, appreciating, and even enjoying Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire:  it is a set of extremely sophisticated cabaret songs.

Albert Giraud (1860-1939) in 1890
Albert Giraud (1860-1939) in 1890

The poems themselves are drawn from a collection of fifty French language poems published in 1884 entitled Pierrot Lunaire: Rondels bergamasques by the Belgian Symbolist poet Albert Giraud (1860-1939).  “Pierrot” is an archetypal character from the Italian commedia dell’Arte, the travelling, improvisational theater troupes that originated in the city of Bergamo (thus “bergamasques” in Giraud’s title) in the fifteenth century.  Pierrot is a white-faced clown that is a stock character in almost every Western culture.  Sometimes a rascal, sometimes sad-faced, Pierrot is capable of extraordinary pathos and violence, and in this he represents both the best and worst of who we are.  There are all sorts of national variants: in Italy, he is known as “Pulcinella,” “Pulcinello,” or “Pedrolino”; in Russia as “Petrushka”; in England as “Punch” or “Punchinello.”

The traditional image of Pierrot, as portrayed here by the famed French mime Paul Legrand (1816-1898) in 1855
The traditional image of Pierrot, as portrayed here by the famed French mime Paul Legrand (1816-1898) in 1855

The title “Pierrot Lunaire” can be understood in a number of different ways: as “moonstruck Pierrot,” as in “Pierrot in love”; or as “mooning Pierrot” (no, not that kind of “mooning”!) meaning “melancholy” or “moping Pierrot”; and, lastly, as “lunatic Pierrot.”  Each of these characterizations will be found in Giraud’s poems and thus in Schoenberg’s songs!

Working from a German translation by Otto Erich Hartleben, Schoenberg set twenty-one of Giruad’s poems, dividing them into three groups of seven (Schoenberg’s title page reads “Three Times seven Poems by Albert Giraud”).  The first seven songs are “expository”: they introduce us to the strange, moonlit world of “Moonstruck Pierrot.”  By comparison, the next seven songs are dark and macabre in tone and subject matter, often even satanic.  In the final seven songs, the musical tone and subject matter lighten, and the piece ends in a mood of wistful sentimentality.  …

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