Pierrot lunaire at 95: Arnold Schoenberg’s Musical Hybrid and Twentieth-Century Vocal Chamber Music

October 1, 2009

On October 16, 1912, at the Choralien Saal in Berlin, Arnold Schoenberg conducted the premier performance of one of the twentieth century’s most influential works of music. From its origin as a straightforward commission for a musical melodrama accompanied by piano to its position as what Stravinsky called “ . . . the solar plexus as well as the mind of early 20th century music,”1 Pierrot lunaire has served as a point of reference for composers eager to explore the principles it first articulated. These principles include a small but almost infinitely flexible chamber ensemble, the use of new vocal techniques, the use of new harmonic/melodic techniques, the rethinking of established musical genres and instrumentation such as the musical melodrama, the reflexive pairing of voice with piano, and the Lieder cycle. The so-called “Pierrot ensemble” —flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano—plus or minus certain instruments, provided the foundation for numerous twentieth century pieces, and became as well established an ensemble as the orchestra or string quartet. Moreover, something that might be called the “Pierrot principle”—its brevity of expression, the varied uses of its instrumental combinations, and the shifting diversity of character and atmosphere that Boulez terms an “art of contrasts”2 —has continued to intrigue musicians to our own day. Composers whose styles and interests were as diverse as Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, William Walton, Luigi Dallapiccola, Peter Maxwell Davies, Pierre Boulez, and Brian Ferneyhough paid Schoenberg the ultimate compliment by creating new works in response to Pierrot lunaire, thus greatly enriching the repertoire of vocal chamber music. Perhaps it is that tension between the conscious sense of historical necessity that Schoenberg described himself as having felt at the time and the dreamscapes of conscious/unconscious desire embodied in the character of Pierrot that has produced such a fertile reaction in the minds of so many creative individuals.

The questions that I will address here concern what Schoenberg retained from his nineteenth century heritage, what he rejected, how he transformed the material he retained, and how later composers have taken his work as their inspiration.

Neither the dramatic/musical genres nor the texts were Schoenberg’s choice. Albertine Zehme (1857-1946), who commissioned the work, was a well-known theatrical personage who specialized in the performance of musical melodramas (texts recited to a musical accompaniment, usually provided by piano). Jean-Jacques Rousseau, looking for a way to bring greater realism to music, initiated the genre for his Pygmalion (1775). Although musical melodrama was a failure in France, it enjoyed an uneasy existence throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in German-speaking countries as a kind of “ugly stepsister” to Lieder. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn all wrote melodramas with piano, but the genre had virtually disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century, when it was briefly revived by Engelbert Humperdinck’s Die Königskinder (1897).

Mrs. Zehme provided the texts, as well as the idea of cyclic organization, when she commissioned Schoenberg. His diary entry of January 28, 1912 makes that quite clear: “ . . . Proposal to compose a cycle Pierrot lunaire for Dr. Zehme’s intended recital . . . .” 3

Probably the most significant theatrical element woven into Pierrot lunaire was the Parisian pantomime, an outgrowth of Italian commedia dell’arte. The character of Pierrot was all the rage among French literati beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, when Parisians by the thousands trooped out to the fairground for their evenings’ entertainments. Through Pierrot’s greatest interpreter, Jean-Gaspard (or Baptiste) Deburau, the pale youth evolved from commedia dell’arte’s village bumpkin to a highly nuanced individual whose silence was a choice, not a handicap. Pierrot began life as the universal fool, both idiotically simple and remarkably canny (a character quite similar, in fact, to the one played by Harpo Marx). By the end of the nineteenth century, poets and journalists had transformed him into someone who embodied their Romantic image of themselves—thin, androgynous, lovesick, and fascinating.

Writers as diverse as George Sand, Baudelaire, and Verlaine found pantomime characters compelling. In 1884, at the height of Pierrot-mania, the Belgian Symbolist poet Albert Giraud published 50 rondels entitled Pierrot lunaire. Only a few decades later, however, this “sad clown” had become an object of scorn to poets such as Appollinaire and Éluard, who rejected the wispy draperies of Symbolism. Pierrot was, one might say, breathing his last when Mrs. Zehme presented Schoenberg with the poems in their 1892 German translation by Otto Erich Hartleben. Schoenberg’s deft craftsmanship with this period piece not only prolonged Pierrot’s existence, but also elevated and illuminated it, giving the puppet wraith a lasting incarnation.

Überbrettl, a high-minded manifestation of Berlin cabaret, may also be considered one of Pierrot lunaire’s theatrical precursors. Founded in 1901 by three writers, among them Hartleben, Überbrettl briefly employed Schoenberg as music director. During his tenure, he composed a number of songs, including the high-spirited “Nachtwandler.” Its imaginative scoring for piccolo, trumpet, snare drum, piano, and voice prefigures Pierrot lunaire by more than a decade, while its sardonic musical delineations of the lower-class residents it celebrates bears a similarly strong family resemblance to the later work.

Having briefly examined what Schoenberg was given through the terms of the commission, we will now turn to the ways in which he shaped or changed these givens. Exhaustive studies have been done on the new ideas of harmony introduced with this cycle, as well as the use of chamber ensemble to replace piano. Less attention seems to have been paid to the specific elements of Pierrot lunaire that are not, strictly speaking, new, yet the things an artist accepts without question may say as much about him as those he chooses to confront or reject. That Schoenberg accepted the idea of cyclic organization is obvious. He had already written one Lieder cycle (Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten [1909]), and it has often been noted that he tended to pour even his strongest new wines into the dusty bottles of established forms.4 Similarly, he did not tamper with the well-established Lieder tradition of syllabic text setting in either of his cycles or his other vocal works. He accepted the convention that text setting should be consistent with natural speech inflection and should foster intelligibility. The text setting in Pierrot lunaire is as scrupulously attentive to the declamation and cadence of spoken German as any song by Wolf.

Schoenberg carefully crafted the music to illuminate the atmosphere of the poems, sometimes illustrating or commenting on a specific line of text, just as composers of the nineteenth century had done. It can even be said that his settings referred to these earlier works. Anyone who knows both Pierrot lunaire and Schumann’s Liederkreis (Op. 39) would not fail to notice the strong resemblance between the descending arpeggiated figures in the first measure of Mondestrunken and that of Mondlicht, for example. There are other ways in which these two cycles correspond, such as their episodic quality, the Romantic strangeness of their scenic locations, and a final return to some happier spiritual state than the one in which each cycle began.

Schoenberg subtly recast other elements of the genre while still honoring them. From the very first song cycle, Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, the reprise of musical material in the last song was often used as a unifying device. Schoenberg employed a musical reprise in Pierrot lunaire, but instead of placing it at the end of the work, he situated it immediately prior to the final scene of the second part, a position (roughly that of the golden section) that has always been dramatically far stronger than that of the denouement, as the second act finales in operas by Donizetti, Verdi, and other composers would suggest.

Another area where Schoenberg varies the tradition is in his choice of narrator. Lieder cycles were usually written from the perspective of a single experiencing subject; that is, they were narrated by the one whose thoughts and adventures are described. Schoenberg continued the tradition of a central subject, in this case, Pierrot, but gave the role of the narrator to an observer, the poet.5

Schoenberg diverged from other conventions of Lieder in more significant ways. First, of course, was his decision to use other instruments in addition to piano, and he was fortunate in Mrs. Zehme’s willingness to provide the funds he needed for each new player. It was certainly the novelty of this instrumental ensemble that first struck contemporary composers most forcefully. The diversity with which Schoenberg employed his instrumental ensemble, using a different combination for almost every individual movement, took somewhat longer to bear fruit, not really being seized upon until after World War II.

Certain other new principles Schoenberg established with Pierrot lunaire were still at work at the end of the twentieth century. First, of course, is the independence from the rules of tonal harmony. An interesting outgrowth of this independence, initially interpreted as a prohibition against tonality, was the late-century freedom to reintroduce tonal elements.

The second is the idea that every piece of music can be almost sui generis, each determining its own instrumentation and sound world, harmonic vocabulary, and formal structure. This operates hand in hand with the realization that every combination should be examined afresh before using it. As a result, the field of choice available to, even demanded of composers is now far wider than it was a century ago.

The works of Schoenberg’s free-atonality period dispensed with musical development, albeit somewhat by accident. The breakdown of linearity and narrative construction that resulted from atonality was neither his conscious choice nor desire, and he developed the twelve-tone method partly as a result of his resistance to its implications. Yet non-linearity (and by extension, non-narrativity) became a significant aesthetic current throughout the century, as artists in every discipline searched for new ways to structure their works after turning their backs on representationalism.

The use of new vocal techniques was, of course, a conscious departure from the established norms. Other than sung pitches, Schoenberg used only two different vocal timbres, sprechstimme and toneless whispering, but with them he opened the door to the imaginative and virtuosic explorations of unconventional sounds and extended techniques for all instruments that flourished after the Second World War.

Finally, Pierrot lunaire initiated, in effect, a revival of vocal chamber music. Extremely important in the Baroque period, pieces for voice and chamber ensemble more or less disappeared in the Classical and Romantic eras. One reason was the decline of aristocratic and church patronage that had furnished many occasions for cantatas and solo motets. Another was the then-new pairing of voice and piano, so important in the home music-making of the upwardly mobile bourgeois class. After Pierrot lunaire, which became a piece of chamber music somewhat inadvertently, not to say serendipitously, the situation almost reversed itself, with voice and piano taking a somewhat more subsidiary role in the compositional hierarchy throughout the twentieth century.

Let us now turn to representative pieces that were directly inspired or influenced by Pierrot lunaire. At the early performances, critical reception was sometimes hostile, and the public’s reaction was occasionally violent, yet composers were captivated from their first hearing. After attending the dress rehearsal, Stravinsky rescored his Trois Poèsies de la lyrique japonaise. His enthusiastic report to Ravel encouraged that composer to start work on Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. Stravinsky’s and Ravel’s pieces were scored for an expanded Pierrot ensemble, in this case two flutes, two clarinets, string quartet, and piano. The two works were premiered together in Paris the following year, along with Maurice Delage’s Quatres Poèmes hindous, scored for the same ensemble. Stravinsky seems to have reconsidered Pierrot lunaire at various times throughout his life. In 1918, he brought forth L’Histoire du Soldat, using the melodramatic format and featuring voice, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, violin, double bass, and percussion. Coming to terms with atonality after Schoenberg’s death, Stravinsky published Three Songs from William Shakespeare in 1953, which are scored for a highly concentrated Pierrot ensemble (female voice, flute, clarinet, and viola) and more than flirt with the twelve-tone method.

William Walton’s melodrama, Façade (1922), for reciter and sextet, was his first important work. Like L’Histoire du Soldat, it incorporates straightforward narration, metered but unpitched, and utilizes a “jazz” ensemble of flute, clarinet, trumpet, cello, and percussion. Its derivation from Pierrot lunaire can be seen in its 21 movements, the unusual instrumentation, and the fact that it is a melodrama written for a non-traditional chamber ensemble on texts (by Dame Edith Sitwell) that are somewhat whimsical or nonsensical.

Luigi Dallapiccola heard Pierrot lunaire at its Milan premier in 1924, in an audience that included Puccini, and the piece changed his life. He immediately undertook a laborious ten-year study of every score by Schoenberg that he could find, no easy task in Italy at that time. The result of that study, Divertimento in quattro esercizi (1934) for soprano, flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet, viola, and cello, sets love poetry by anonymous Italian writers of the thirteenth century. The resemblance to Pierrot lunaire can be seen chiefly in the unusual combination of instruments. The harmonies are largely modal, although there are moments in the Siciliana that hint at his devotion to Schoenberg’s post-tonal works. His mature pieces for voice and small instrumental ensemble, such as Goethe-Lieder (1953) and Sicut umbra (1970) show how profoundly he was affected by his acquaintance with the works of Schoenberg, and later, with music by Berg and Webern.

International tensions and war disrupted much of European musical life during the late 1930’s and 1940’s, although Schoenberg’s ideas were quietly percolating their way through musician’s heads, perhaps most famously in the composition classes of Messiaen attended by Pierre Boulez. Probably the most important response to Pierrot lunaire in terms of its influence on the direction of twentieth century music was Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître. Boulez’s ensemble for 1954’s Le Marteau sans maître—mezzo-soprano, alto flute, xylorimba, vibraphone, percussion, guitar, and viola—was deliberately chosen as a mid-century, avant-garde response to Schoenberg’s original instrumentation, as well as with regard to the low sonorities of the individual instruments.

Its premier at the 1954 festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music took place despite intense opposition from the French delegation, and it appeared at a time when music was beginning to diverge into ever more significantly different conceptual and stylistic streams such as “‘rational’ serialism and ‘irrational’ Dada,”6 and the spirit of both is contained within Pierrot lunaire.

The brilliant, percussive ensembles in the original chamber versions of Boulez’s Improvisations I et II sur Mallarmé (1957) paid tribute once again to the timbral possibilities first explored in Pierrot Lunaire. Improvisation I employs soprano, harp, vibraphone, bells, and four percussionists, a grouping to which Improvisation II adds piano and celesta. A concert Boulez organized in Los Angeles in the 1960’s included Le Marteau sans maître, the two Improvisations, Ravel’s Mallarmé poems, Stravinsky’s Japanese Lyrics, and Pierrot lunaire. Certainly the kinship he felt with Schoenberg’s score could be no more strikingly asserted.

Hans Werner Henze’s Apollo et Hyazinthus (1957) for alto, piano, alto flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn in F, and string quartet seems quite securely related to Le Marteau sans maître—and, by extension, to Pierrot lunaire. Reminiscent of Le Marteau’s “‘bel édifice et les pressentiments’ double” where the voice is gradually subsumed by the instruments, Henze’s alto soloist doesn’t even enter until bar 250 of a piece that has only 318 bars. He uses his timbral forces quite traditionally, however; the singer sings and the players play.

Luciano Berio’s Folksongs (1962) for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, two percussionists, harp or guitar, viola, and cello, can certainly be considered among the pieces for which Pierrot lunaire’s innovative instrumentation opened the door. Berio, like Stockhausen and Boulez, was heavily influenced by his study of music written by the composers of the Second Viennese School, and with the willing and expert collaboration of Cathy Berberian, he was one of the first composers to explore the extended vocal techniques suggested by sprechstimme.

With his El Cimarrón (1969-70) for baritone, flute (doubling piccolo, alto flute, mouth organ, trill whistle, and Jew’s harp), guitar, and percussion (encompassing 33 instrument types), Henze entered another world from Apollo et Hyazinthus. The ensemble is both imaginative and unusual, qualities that were increasingly more difficult to achieve as the century progressed (a difficulty that is in itself one of Pierrot lunaire’s legacies). Similarly, the extended techniques and indeterminate elements in the vocal part are performance elements that were born with Pierrot lunaire. But unlike Apollo et Hyazinthus, which could have been written almost any time after the First World War, El Cimarrón could only have been written in the post-war world that included not only Boulez and Berio but also Cage. The working-out of ideas that began with Schoenberg and the cross-fertilization of interests in Asian music, indeterminacy, and the politicization of art are clearly present in El Cimarrón, and there is little of the “traditional” remaining in it.

Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969) is exactly contemporary with El Cimarrón. Its connection with Pierrot lunaire is explicit; Maxwell Davies’ chamber group, The Fires of London, was founded as one of the first “Pierrot ensembles” that grew up in the postwar period. The enormous range of its extended vocal and theatrical elements marked the coming of age of the separate genre known as Music Theater.

Elliott Carter’s 1975 set of songs on texts by Elizabeth Bishop, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, is scored for soprano, flute (doubling piccolo and alto flute), oboe (doubling English horn), clarinet (doubling Eb clarinet and bass clarinet), percussion, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. While not specifically related to Pierrot lunaire except by the terms of the commission (it was written for Susan Davenny Wyner and Speculum Musicae, a group formed, like The Fires of London, as a “Pierrot ensemble”), it could only exist in a “post-Pierrot” world. Its strongest resemblance to Pierrot lunaire inheres in the fact that the instrumentation is different for each of the six movements. Perhaps it is the purest coincidence that the loveliest song in A Mirror on Which to Dwell is a paean to the moon.

Another American composer, Lukas Foss, contributed Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (1979) for voice, flute, percussion, and piano. The vocal part incorporates a variety of altered timbres, as does the flute, and the ensemble is, again, a concentrated version of Schoenberg’s original.

Late in the twentieth century, the English composer Brian Ferneyhough was commissioned to write a piece for Ensemble Contrechamps of Geneva, another “Pierrot ensemble,” and American mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski; his On Stellar Magnitudes premiered in 1994. Its moods and atmospheric evocations are immensely varied, from the “appropriately stellar music”7 of the piano introduction to a weirdly fantastical section in which all instruments play in altered timbres. Its wildly shifting character is closely related to Pierrot lunaire’s wide-ranging dramatic scenarios.

Even in the new century, the basic ensemble Schoenberg established with Pierrot lunaire is still active. A competition announced in July 2007 by Nuova Consonanza in Italy called for single pieces or short song cycles scored for female voice and an ensemble comprising one flute (doubling piccolo and alto flute), one clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), one violin, one cello, one piano, and percussion (one player). Numerous ensembles, such as the Chicago-based Eighth Blackbird, use Pierrot lunaire’s basic instrumentation (in their case, minus the voice). Certainly, Schoenberg’s group contains all the elements necessary for acoustic ensemble performance—voice, wind instruments, strings, and percussion (piano)—from which may be drawn a multiplicity of dramatic or aesthetic potentialities.

This paper has given a brief survey of works that can be said to depend on Pierrot lunaire in one way or another. It has dealt primarily with the basic elements of instrumentation—voice and small chamber ensemble—without exploring the more substantive ways in which they draw their inspiration from their source. Further, in-depth research on the individual pieces would certainly reveal far greater correspondences as well as divergences from Schoenberg’s epochal work.



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________. Schoenberg Chamber Music. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972.




1Quoted by Whittall, Schoenberg Chamber Music, 28.

2Boulez, Orientations, 330.

3Schoenberg, “Diaries,” 1-48.

4Schoenberg did not, however, return to the song cycle after Pierrot lunaire. It may be argued that although he continued to write vocal music to the end of his life, he had said everything he needed or wanted to say about cycles in the two he had already written. He seems to have been more enlivened by the artistic challenge of working in many different genres or media and mastering them one by one, than by concentrating his efforts in a single genre.

5It should be noted that not every author agrees with this contention—Jonathan Dunsby, for example, suggests that Colombine is the narrator. (See Dunsby, Schoenberg: Pierrot lunaire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 35). After reading the original rondels, however, I believe that it is the poet himself who is describing what he sees in a Parisian pantomime. Who but a poet (and a Romantic one at that) would write “Verses are holy crosses upon which poets silently bleed?”

6The terms are from Whittall, Music since the First World War, 3.

7Cross, “A Necessary Violence.”

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