pierrot lunaire

27 July 2007 - muzikologi

pierrotsur le pierrot lunaire de schoenberg op21 – comme quoi la numérologie mène à tout à condition de ne pas en sortir – mémoire de 2ième cycle – sous la direction du Dr. craig ayrey – (en anglais)

“Read the preface, had a look at the poems, am thrilled. Brilliant Idea, exactly what I had in mind”[2]. It is thus that Schoenberg greets the project put to him in 1911 by his friend the singer Albertine Zehme of setting to music Albert Giraud’s symbolist poem, translated in German by von Hartleben. To show the uniqueness of this creative act with regards to the then prevailing music aesthetics, we will look at 4 of its layers.

choice of text
The text which fired up Schoenberg’s enthusiasm is unusual in both format and content.

Based on the rondel (or rondeau), it has a A-BCDEF-A-BGHIJ-A format, the A line or refrain being repeated three times, thus reminding us of Homer’s “rosy fingered dawn”, an alliterative and repetitive rhetoric device allowing an audience to join in the pleasure of repetition. As a musicologist, Schoenberg comments that “repetition satisfies the desire to hear again what was pleasing at first hearing, and simultaneously aids comprehension”[3].

The content is not the common German romantic anguished narrative introspection of a character seeking a psychological certainty, by laying bare his feelings and state of mind, as penned by Heine, Schiller or Goethe. Originally a comic character from the Comedia dell’Arte tradition, Pierrot, in Giraud’s setting, becomes a figure of depression, unable to keep at bay the anxiety which relentlessly assails and splinters his position as a sovereign subject. This is reflected in both the images of death, mourning and sadism portrayed in the poem, as well as in the narrative voice occasional shifting from 3rd to 1st person (as in Colombine and Gebet an Pierrot)[4]. Also, the causal logic which normally binds together signifier and signified is dissolved, and signifiers roam about under their own steam, thus creating a “non-sense” typical of dreams: wine is drunk through the eyes (Mondestrunken), swords feast in bodies (Die Kreuze), butterflies are black and gigantic (Der Kranke Mond), rubies bleed drops of ancient glory (Raub), and Pierrot smokes tobacco out of Cassander’s skull (Gemeinheit). As such, the poem is closer, in its inspiration, to Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror than to any symbolist tradition, even if Hartleben’s translation from the original French tends to soften the intensity of some of the metaphors[5].

music setting
While the original poem consisted of 50 strophes, Schoenberg rearranged it into 3 parts comprising 7 poems each, thus preserving his beloved tri-partite format. At first audition, it is clear that each of the 21 strophes stands musically in itself and for itself, with no reference to an overall contrasting or developing tonal plan. And while Wagner’s influence in the European musical world is still very strong, here “the leitmotiv ceases to be the psychological key to the dramatic action; the score is characterized by its totally athematic nature….”[6]. Schoenberg’s innovation, with respect to tradition, is “to embed musical forms free of tonal and harmonic impetus inside traditional shapes”[7]. For instance, Nacht consists of a 3 part canon developed from the very first bars out of a 3 note motive (E-G-Eb) and has the form of a passacaille. Parodie starts as a canon in inversion between viola and clarinet, with the voice part imitating the viola part. Der Mondfleck is a double mirror canon, between winds (piccolo and clarinet) and strings (violin and cello), with a fugue accompaniment by the piano[8].

The instrumental palette used by Schoenberg does not seek to achieve any kind of unity between meaning and emotions, “in a quest for a synthesis of music and poetry”[9]. It does not attempt to convince through a grandiose musical statement, made of tonal harmonies and progressions, acting as metaphor for a statement of a profound philosophical import, as in Mahler’s 8th Symphony (1906)[10]. Nor does it try to draw the listener in an introspective mood, through the intimate character of voice and piano. On the contrary, “the tone colour of each instrument is discovered anew”[11]. Scored for piano, flute (also piccolo), clarinet (also bass clarinet), violin and viola, producing a very unusual overall timbral atmosphere in itself, these instruments, further, appear in different combinations devoid of any apparent functionality, except that of contrast[12]. The piano is present in 17 strophes, the clarinet and cello in 14, the violin and flute in 12 each, the piccolo in 7, the clarinet in 6, and the viola in 5[13]. Only in the last strophe do all the instruments appear together.[14]

text as inspirational crutch
Before Pierrot Lunaire, song writing (at least in Germany) consisted in establishing tonal and motivic relationships with narrative factors, thus drawing on the tradition of the Romantic lied. Longing or sadness would be expressed by a sequence in the minor mode, a quickening of the senses by a corresponding quickening of the rhythm.

Although in the same year that Pierrot was composed Schoenberg had stressed the independence of text and music in his compositions inspired by specific poems[15], there is evidence of text to music correspondences. For instance, Valse de Chopin is in a 3/4 meter, while the last repeated A# of the piano part correspond to the repeated enharmonic equivalent Bb in the 4 first bars of Chopin’s Grande Valse Brilliante Op. 18, thus reinforcing the idea of a waltz.

What is unusual though is that these correspondences are indexed to the metric, syntactic, and syllabic layers of Giraud’s poem, which act as strong determinants in the musical organisation of Pierrot, notably on the rhythm, pitch, timbral and tempo layers, albeit in differing proportions[16].

In Colombine, the rondel of the 1st stanza has a quasi-periodical structure, the two half sentences corresponding to one another in their rhythm and melodic course. The notes for the syllable group “Weissen Wun-”[17] (E-D-G#) are an expansion of the notes for the syllable group “Mondlichts blei-“ (C#-B-D), while the first 3 notes of the 2nd half sentence (D#-E-D) are a transposition of the last 3 notes of the 1st semi-sentence (B-C-Bb). The rhythm of “Des Mondlichts bleiche” corresponds to the rhythm of “die weissen Wun-“. The conflicting meters of the 1st stanza are reflected in the conflicting meters of the violin and the voice: while the violin follows the 3/4 pulse of the piece, the voice’s meter tends towards a binary pulse. At the syllabic level, there is an internal alliterative correspondence (outlined in bold) in the first 2 verses: “Des Mondlichts bleiche Blüten, Die weisse Wunder rosen”, reflected in the parallelism of bar 1-2, as outlined previously. Textural changes in the instrumentation are also related to the text: violin with piano accompaniment for the rondel lines (bar 1-5), and piano with violin accompaniment for the non rondel lines (bar 6-12). Further, the piano switches from being polyphonic (bar 6-9) to being chordal with a melodic bass line (bar 9-11).

In Raub, the descending minor second Ab-G appears 3 times on the “u” and “ü” sounds of the words “fürstlich”, “blutge” and “schlummen”, while the tonic accent of that strophe (^^ – ^^^) is reflected in the rhythm of the Pierrot motive (which consists of a rest followed by 7 eighth-notes), present in both the voice (bar 6) and in the ostinato of the flute and violin parts (bar 7).

In Galgenlied, each verse has 5 syllables (except for verse 4 in the 1st stanza). Correspondingly, the voice is notated by a group of 5 notes (bar 1-2), while the instruments are notated by 2 sequences of 5 notes each.

In Heimfahrt, the parataxis format is reflected in the free flowing melody and rhythm of the voice, while a new musical segment (bar 22) supports the last verse of the 3rd stanza, which is syntactically self-contained.

In Mondestrunken, the Tempo indication at bar 35, preceded by a molto rit. at bar 34, coincides with the penultimate verse of the strophe, instead of the last one, as would be logical. This is because the last verse is part of a sentence which actually starts on the penultimate verse. Thus syntax is given priority over versification.

Schoenberg’s use of the human voice is perhaps the most unusual aspect in Pierrot, in that he treats it as an instrument in its own right, and therefore brings into play more of its sonic capabilities. Termed Sprechstimme (literally speak-voice) in the preface to the score, it becomes Rezitation (telling) in the actual score. Notated for the most part with regular notes but with a slash across the stem to denote their special status, the Rezitation part is “…not meant to be sung. The reciter has the task of transforming it, with a thorough regard for the prescribed intervals, into a speech melody…keeping the rhythm absolutely strict…” and while the performer must not “fall into a singing way of speaking”, nor must she strive for “…a realistic natural speech”. Its pitch compass extends from E2 to Ab4, with many awkward intervals.[18]

The technical virtuosity required from the singer is far remote from the techniques at play in bel canto or the lied, where evenness of tone, pitch and delivery is paramount. Further, Schoenberg bans any attempt at expressiveness: “the performer never has the task of bringing out the mood and character of the sense of the words” for “…it will be found in the music” and trying to do so “would be not an addition but a subtraction”[19].

However, this “not sung but not spoken either” and its associated ambiguity of execution[20] , is not maintained throughout the work. In Mondestrunken (bar 10), Colombine (bar 35), Der Dandy (bar 16-18), and Gebet an Pierrot (bar 13), gesungen (sung) immediately followed by gesprochen (spoken) are indicated, and tonlos geflüstert (whispered hardly audibly[21]) appears in Der Dandy over notes with pitch (bar 8), as well as over notes without pitch (bar 30)[22]. Although written specifically for a female voice and, since its creation by Albertine Zehme, always sung by a female, curiously, Schoenberg does not indicate the gender of the Sprechstimme.

Another unusual component in the organization of Pierrot is numerology[23]. It is a divinatory practice “based on the Pythagorean idea that all things can be expressed in numerical terms, because they are ultimately reducible to numbers”[24]. This is done by assigning each letter of the alphabet a number from 1 to 26 (modulo 9), then adding the resulting numbers until only a single digit number is obtained. For instance, the name “PETER” would reduce to: 7+5+2+5+9=28=2+8=10=1+0=1 (the numbers 11 and 22 are not further reducible).

While there are precedents of music works having a numerological content[25], in Pierrot, the numbers 1, 3, 7, 11 and 22 have a structural determinant over each of its aspects. In the numerology system, they respectively represent innovation, artistic expression, spirituality, artistic inspiration and practical idealism. This determination can be traced in the way Schoenberg reorganized Giraud’s original work as well as in the pitch and rhythm of the work[26]. The number of poems kept by Schoenberg, out of the 50 strophes, is 21 (2+1=3). Made up of 13 lines, each poem has actually 10 different lines (1+0=1). In the German translation, the number of letters in each poem, for the most part, also reduces to 1, as in Mondestrunken[27]. The entire title to the 1914’s edition reduces to the number 1. As for the instrumentation, 5 instrumentalists + 1 reciter + 1 conductor + 3 doubling instruments =10=1+0=1[28].

As for the music itself, Sterne[29] clearly demonstrates that pitch values, length of musical statements (counted in quarter-notes, eighth-notes and sixteenth-notes), distance between pitches, and number of pitches that make up a particular musical sequence are also derived from numerology. Focusing again on Mondestrunken, the quasi-ostinato figure played by violin has 3 notes, and their 2 pitches (F# and D#) have a pitch value of 7, with a diatonic step range value of 3. The statement has 3 eighth-notes + 1 rest and is repeated 4 times, this giving 4×4=16=1+6=7[30]. The first entry of the voice is delayed by 7 eighth-notes, and its first phrase has a time span of 21=2+1=3 eighths notes. Its intervallic value is 7. The total number of notes for each stanza is 22, 22 and 11 respectively, which reduces to 22+22+11=55=5+5=10=1+0=1[31]. Further, the tutor for this course also showed that the distribution and organization of instruments (in their numbers) over the entire piece reduces to 21=2+1=3[32].

Whichever aspect Pierrot Lunaire is apprehended under, we are faced with a unique formulation of an idea[33], unprecedented in the European musical world of that time. It splinters and disrupts the traditional compositional models but, and that may well be its innovative aspect, without destroying or renouncing them. Rather, it leans on them to spring towards yet unexplored areas and create new network of sonic signifiers and, therefore, new effects. As Schoenberg himself will say in 1923, “…it will be more a matter of relatively novel presentations of relatively novel ideas.”[34]

[1] Arnold Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire (California: Universal Edition, 1914).

[2] Quoted in Weytjens, Stephan, 2004: “Text as Crutch in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire”, in Pierrot Lunaire: A collection of musicological and literary studies. ed. Mark Delaere and Jan Herman (Louvain: Éditions Peeters). English translation by T. von Schullenberg.

[3] Schoenberg Arnold, 1970: Fundamentals of Musical Composition, ed. G. Strang & L. Stein. (London: Faber & Faber).

[4] Even when the narration is in the 3rd person singular, the origin of the utterance is unclear: from Pierrot or the narrator?

[5] For example, in Valse de Chopin, verses 1 & 2 (crachat sanguignolent de la bouche d’une phtisique) actually means “a bloody gob of spit from the mouth of a woman with phthisis”.

[6] Rognoni Luigi, 1977: The Second Vienna School, Expressionism and Dodecaphonism, trans, R.W. Mann. (London: John Calder).

[7] Stuckenschmidt H.H., 1959: Arnold Schoenberg, trans, E.T. Roberts & H. Searle (London: John Calder).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Grove Music Online Ed. L. Macy (Accessed November 2005), <www.grovemusic.com>

[10] Cf Simms Bryan R., 1996: Music of the Twentieth Century, Style and Structure (California: Schirmer).

[11] Stuckenschmidt H.H., 1959: Op. Cit.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.


[15] Cf. Schoenberg, Arnold, 1984: “The Relationship to the Text” in Style and Idea, ed. Leonard Stein, trans, Leo Black (Berkely: University of California Press).

[16] Weytjens Stephan, 2003: Text as Crutch in Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”, Op. 21? An Analytic Study of the Relationship between Textual Aspects and Musical Structure (Ph.D., K.U. Leuven). The analysis and examples in this part of my essay are entirely derived from Dr. Weytjens’s work.

[17] For convenience, I have chosen to represent the Gothic script letter ß in its modern “ss” transcription.

[18] Wood W. Ralph, 1946: “Concerning ‘Sprechgesang’”, Tempo, No 2, p3-6.

[19] Wood W. Raph, Op. Cit.

[20] How can a notated pitch be produced without singing it?

[21] English translation by T. von Schullenberg.

[22] Wood W. Ralph, Op. Cit.

[23] We cannot but notice the link between numerology and Kabbalah, since Schoenberg was raised, initially, in the Orthodox Judaic faith. This may be a significant espitemological avenue to be explored.

[24] “Numerology”, Encyclopædia Britannica, from Encyclopædia Britannica Deluxe Edition 2004 CD-ROM.

[25] Bach’s B Minor Mass and Die Kunst der Fugue for instance.

[26] Sterne Colin, 1982: “Pythagoras and Pierrot: An Approach to Schoenberg’s Use of Numerology in the Construction of ‘Pierrot Lunaire’”. Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 21, No. 1/2, pp 506-634.

[27] Ib.

[28] Ib.

[29] Ib.

[30] Ib.

[31] Ib.

[32] Ayrey Craig: 2005, Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire (1912): Distribution and Organisation of Instruments (Course Handout, London).

[33] In the Schoenbergian sense.

[34] Schoenberg, Arnold, 1984: “New Music” in Style and Idea, ed. Leonard Stein, trans, Leo Black (Berkeley: University of California Press).

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