Schönberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" - door to 20th century's music

The creation of Schönberg's Pierrot Lunaire was made possible through the 20. century's first marital scandal among the European crowned families: In 1903 Luise, the Habsburg princess and unhappy wife of the Saxon crown-prince (and later king) Friedrich August escaped to Geneva with the language teacher of her six children (being pregnant with a seventh one). At the Catholic and bigot court divorce was almost impossible and moreover needed the consent of the pope. These difficulties were navigated successfully by a Leipzig lawyer Dr.Felix Zehme, who subsequently became the most famous divorce attorney in Germany and very wealthy. He was a generous patron of the arts and friend of Max Reger. Luise after many other affairs was briefly married to pianist Enrico Toselli (1883-1926) of Serenade fame and died shortly after the second world war in utter poverty.

Dr.Zehme married the talented and successful actress Albertine (1857-1946) who retired from the stage after marriage. Only at a ripe age, she relaunched her career reciting melodramas or selected poems to Chopin's music. 1912 she discovered Schoenberg and asked him to compose music for voice and piano to her choice from Albert Giraud's (1860-1929) cycle of poems "Pierrot Lunaire" (1884) in Otto von Hartleben's translation (1892). These poems combine very strict form with an absurdly nightmarish, cruel and sometimes also comic content, an anticipation of expressionism and even surrealism. Pierrot appears only in some of the poems, often with the moon.

Pierrot in the French-speaking culture of the time related to the famous mute white clown created 1816 at the Théâtre des Funambules in Paris by Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796-1846). After Debureaus death Paul Legrand (1816-1898) gave the role more sentimental and moving traits, e.g. as the unhappy lover. Later on, the role was taken over by Debureaus son Charles (1829-1873). Pierrot always appeared with a few other stage personages like Colombine and Harlequin to the accompaniment of a small musical band, acting out sometimes juicy sketches like "Pierrot amourex", "Pierrot millionaire" or "Pierrot somnambule", there were dozens of these. The Théâtre des Funambules being cheap it was frequented by the lower classes but also by artists seeking to escape the bourgeois roles. Pierrot became an inspiring presence throughout the 19th century e.g. for the poet Théophile Gautier, the many symbolists and even Claude Debussy. 

Pierrot is a descendant of Pedrolino from the Italian Commedia dell Arte - and also Giraud's Pierrot is "from Bergamo" and still longs after the "old Italian pantomime". In the poem number 19 "Moonfleck" Pierrot wears a black coat, and in fact, exceptionally Pierrot wore black on stage. Giraud is counted among the Belgian symbolist poets, but he was also an art critic, political journalist and in later life librarian of the Belgian ministry of the interior.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) had some previous experience as a composer of literary cabaret in the Berliner "Überbrettl"-Theater. He was immediately attracted to these poems and said he would also have composed without being asked. He, however, enlarged the ensemble step by step and his patrons finally had to consent to diverse combinations for five instrumentalists. For her performances, Albertine wore a Colombine-costume. 

Zehme was not a singer, and the voice part is meant and written as "Sprechgesang", a mixture of speaking and singing, about which Mrs.Zehme had very clear ideas. In her own words: "The singing voice, that supernatural, chastely controlled instrument, ideally beautiful precisely in its ascetic lack of freedom, is not suited to strong eruptions of feeling…. Life cannot be exhausted by the beautiful sound alone. The deepest final happiness, the deepest final sorrow dies away unheard, as a silent scream within our breast, which threatens to fly apart or to erupt like a stream of lava from our lips. …We need both the tones of song as well as those of speech. My unceasing striving in search of the ultimate expressive capabilities for the "artistic experience in tone" has taught me this fact."

And Schoenberg in his preface: "...Difference between singing tone and speaking tone: singing tone unalterably stays on the pitch, whereas speaking tone gives the pitch but immediately leaves it again by falling or rising. However, the performer must be very careful not to adopt a singsong speech pattern. That is not intended at all. Nor should one strive for realistic, natural speech. On the contrary, the difference between ordinary speaking and speaking that contributes to a musical form should become quite obvious. but "it must never be reminiscent of singing." 

In the program notes of the premiere, Schönberg inserted a "Fragment über absolute Poesie" by the German poet Novalis – with a slightly modified text – before Giraud's poems: "Narratives can be conceived without connections, but with associations, like in a dream – poems that merely sound harmonious and are full of beautiful words, but also without any sense or connection, at most with a few comprehensible strophes, like fragments of the most diversified things. This true poetry can at most have an allegorical meaning on a large scale and an indirect effect." This quote seems almost an outline of Schönberg's later music. 

There is no recording by Zehme, but one by Erika Stiedry directed by Schoenberg himself which shows the idea: 

Many interpretations by singers in their chastely controlled beauty fall short of the criteria formulated by Zehme and Schoenberg. Schönberg had used "Sprechgesang" already before meeting Zehme, namely in his monumental Gurrelieder (1903-11) whose first performance in Germany in 1914 was with the participation of Albertine and financed by Dr.Zehme. Hear how it sounds here:

The novel content of the poems inspired Schoenberg, if not yet to twelve-tone technique, so to new freedoms, harmonic, formal and of minimalistic instrumentation. He wrote: "I feel that I reach here absolutely new forms of expression. The sounds become an almost animally immediate manifestation of sensual and psychic movements as if everything would become transmitted directly." 

One of the poems is entitled "Galgenlied" (gallows-song). And indeed Christian Morgenstern's (1871-1914) "Galgenlieder" from 1905 seems to be a direct continuation of Giraud/Hartleben's poems in their comic and absurd morbidity. 

Therefore what Morgenstern wrote about his "Galgenlieder" might somehow also apply to Pierrot and his companions: "The poetry of the gallows is a special view of the world ("Weltanschauung"), the unscrupulous freedom of the eliminated, of the dematerialized. The gallows brother is an intermediary between human being and universe. One sees the world differently from the gallow hill."

"Pierrot lunaire" became a landmark and an inspiration for generations. Indeed the breakdown of a royal marriage in a bourgeois society had facilitated a different musical view into a different musical world which was going to project widely into the next hundred years and beyond...

I have played the Pierrot many times as a violinist. But I always longed to do the speakers/singers part once. When, because of a painful arm condition I could practice less than usual I began to learn Pierrots Sprechgesang under the professional guidance of Esther de Bros. After a year's work, I took the plunge in October 2017 with musicians of the Utah Symphony and Thierry Fischer in the adventurous surroundings of the Sky Salt Lake City Nightclub. I wore a replica of Gaspard and Charles Deburau's original Pierrot costume, which really goes back to Beethoven's times. I thank Thierry Fischer and his musicians from all my heart to have given me this opportunity to enlarge my experience and my horizon. Pierrot in the meantime already went to Saint Paul, Basel and Zürich and he plans to wander further to Rotterdam, Motreal, Göteborg, Berlin and what not... 


For wider context see Robert F. Storey: PIERROT - A Critical History of a Mask, Princeton University Press 1978. 

Text in English:
Text in German and English (bad translation):