There they are, the two giants of classical music in the 20th century. Schoenberg, the year before “Pierrot lunaire”, 1911, the overripe late stage of a hundred years worth of emotional extroversion and artistic inflation: moonfaced, artsy in his neckerchief. And Stravinsky (with his poet collaborator C. F. Ramuz) in 1918, the year of “Histoire du Soldat,” at the other end of an annihilating, pointless carnage--ascetic, all thin lines and angles, preparing to construct with the splinters of a tradition in that cool Swiss mountain air.


Arnold Schoenberg          Pierrot lunaire (1912)

No work composed since has had a greater influence on the composing and the hearing of “classical” music than Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (1912). Igor Stravinsky: “Pierrot is the solar plexus as well as the mind of early twentieth- century music.” (Too bad there’s no lunar plexus....) Other composers who acknowledged its effect on their processes include such diverse figures as Ravel, Walton, Dallapiccola, Boulez and Carter. Numerous groups have been formed with its specific instrumentation--the term “Pierrot ensemble” has become generic. More profoundly radicalizing even than its instrumentation has been the grammar of Pierrot’s musical language, a new way of assembling pitches and rhythms.

Pierrot lunaire is a cycle of 21 texts--or as the composer preferred, of three times seven texts--selected from a German translation by Otto Erich Hartleben of French poems by Albert Guiraud, centering around the white-faced mime of commedia dell’ arte, that improvisational, burlesque street theater of the17th and 18th centuries. We cannot technically call these settings ‘songs’ (though I will), as they are not to be sung (with the exception of an occasional few notes), but recited to precise rhythms and approximations of pitch. This Sprechstimme, an untranslatable German term, had rare precedents around the turn of the century. Pierrot the character, however, made appeared frequently in the poetry and the theater of the later nineteenth century, representing the mute, because misunderstood, artist. In the present set of cameos, he is sometimes victim, sometimes victimizer; sometimes sentimental, sometimes cruel; and always, ultimately, a clown. Other voices share his spotlight, usually in a storytelling third person, occasionally with an anonymous and varying “I”, who may at times be The Poet.

Schoenberg was commissioned to compose Pierrot by Albertine Zehme, who had been an actress, then a singer, and who aspired to be simultaneously both and neither. The project quickly captured him at a time when he was fundamentally questioning traditional modes of musical expression, and he executed the commission in under four months. As a younger man he had pushed to its limits the Wagnerian inheritance of his generation (he was born in 1874) in regards to harmonic language, then, to scale. His first successful work, Verklaerte Nacht for string sextet (1899), is a dense web of high-caloric harmonies, setting a poem drenched in moonlight (!). The major project of the next decade was Gurrelieder, an epic Nordic oratorio with an enormous orchestra reminiscent of Schoenberg’s hero and protector, Gustav Mahler. In the course of its long composition, the composer’s attachment to the tonal harmonic system--chords in planetary relationship to a central star--that had evolved since before Bach became increasingly frayed. By the second decade of the century, Schoenberg had stretched his expressive vocabulary to a point of no return. Within any given piece, he was straying from a recognizable tonic so far and so often that he eventually no longer saw the point in coming home at all, and decided to compose with tones untethered from any central point of reference. Though his preferred term for this method was “pantonality,” it made history as “atonality.”

To compose, however, implies, requires arranging pitches such that they form a coherent whole. Some eight years after Pierrot, Schoenberg decided that in order to do so he needed rules after all, and for each composition bound himself exclusively to one of the permutations for aligning in succession the twelve pitches of the Western scale: a “row.” This “twelve-tone”, or “dodecaphonic”, or “serial” method of composition became dogma to a large sect and remained so far into the twentieth century.

Pierrot, however, falls into the fertile years between tonality and serialism. Absent these, two factors give each song its integrity. One is the text, which molds the musical form to its three stanzas and twice repeated refrain. The other cohesive device, building on Brahms, is the recurrence within a song of a melodic cell, or several, repeated and recombined. An example is the downward ripple in the piano at the very beginning of the first song, illustrating cascading moonlight, that recurs transformed and shared with other instruments later in the song; it even reappears in later songs, subtly binding the cycle as a whole. This essentially linear, melodic- not-harmonic organizing principle is at times carried to a logical extreme in a paradoxically historical way. “Parodie,” Nr. 17, bases on a series of canons, for instance at the beginning of the song, where viola, clarinet and voice stagger overlapping note-for-note repeats of each other. (As in “Row, row, row your boat”--which, incidentally, is not based on a “row.”) Such learned counterpoint permeates the number: later, for instance, piccolo imitates voice, while clarinet imitates viola--but upside down. Number 18, “Der Mondfleck,” tops that, as a fugue between clarinet and piccolo and a three-voice fugue on a different subject in the piano are garnished by a canon between violin and cello, all proceeding simultaneously. (Whether there lives a set of ears and a brain between them that recognizes that at first hearing is an open question.)

These techniques, with a heritage extending unbroken to the Renaissance, are perhaps primarily of academic interest (and have they ever been...!). The genius of Pierrot, as of Bach’s passions, Mozart’s operas, Schubert’s songs, lies in the oneness of form and depiction. Schoenberg’s five instrumentalists (six, when the violinist is not also the violist) on nine instruments paint the moonlight, the resonating wash basin and the crystal flasks on it, the bleached laundry, the mesmerized congregation, and even, in the fanatically contrapuntal “Mondfleck,” obsessive pursuit: the top fugue and the canon begin to unspool backwards at the exact moment Pierrot discovers the moon-spot, and starts pursuing it. Less pictorially, tones alone also evoke lust, scurrility, lovesickness, paranoia, nostalgia etc., in endless inventiveness.

Pierrot lunaire is a sophisticated riddle in aesthetic distancing: its Expressionistic effulgence makes it the decadent culmination of German musical Romanticism, which it simultaneously parodies. It is a clue for performers and listeners that at a rehearsal prior to the work’s premiere Schoenberg approached the torrid reciter of a particularly morbid poem and whispered, “Remember, Frau Zehme, there’s always life insurance.”

Listen to a complete recording of the work by Chicago Symphony.

Beyond the Score – Pierrot lunaire: Sounds Strange? --an elaborate, perhaps exhausting as well as exhaustive but most entrancing (providing an entrance to) dramatization and exploration of the process that led to the composition.


Stravinsky          Histoire du Soldat

Igor Stravinsky huddled from the horrors of the First World War in neutral Switzerland. In his thirties, he had behind him the three ballets on Russian subjects premiered in Paris that had catapulted him into fame. The last particularly, “Le sacre du printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”), appearing barely half a year after Schoenberg’s “Pierrot lunaire,” was to prove “the other” seminal work of modern music, long after its scandal-strewn opening night. In a way parallel to early Schoenberg, the ballets required large orchestras, and increasingly masked tonality under jarring dissonance. Stravinsky, however, never abandoned harmonic underpinnings until, in his late ‘70s, he was to adopt the twelve-tone system of his longtime Los Angeles neighbor! (They were not friends.)

Came the war, and with it the destruction of both the means to extend the excesses of the century that had in effect ended in 1914, and the impulses to do so. A slash had been drawn across Western culture, with sobriety on its forward side. In his alpine refuge, Stravinsky was sustained by a close friendship with the Swiss poet C.F. Ramuz. In 1918, they found a collaborative outlet for their stifled creativities in the form of an itinerant theatrical work, to be performed off a truck pulled from village to village by a tractor. Just as the work, “Histoire du Soldat,” was completed its launching was denied as the war jumped the Swiss border after all in the form of a virulent “Spanish flu” epidemic that forbade travel. The premiere eventually took place in a conventional theater, in Lausanne in September.

Rhythm! How could its first mention have been delayed until this third paragraph! The “Sacre” revolution was above all, one of rhythm. In its dynamic (as opposed to the lyric) passages, insistent pulses predominate. However, they are often asymmetrical, consisting of an odd number of beats, negating the tendency of the symmetrical human body to place its feet at regular intervals. Moreover, these pulses are simultaneously plural, overlapping in ways such that there is no common denominator of “up” and “down.” This technique was to characterize Stravinsky from there on in, including very much so in “Histoire.” A tango that begins with the predictable two beats to a bar quickly slips into one-and-a-half beats, and even smaller fractions. The climax of the opening “Soldier’s March” has the double bass proceeding in even march beats, left-right left- right; the violin playing the “pahs” to that “oom” off by half a beat; the clarinet, bassoon and trombone playing a pattern of 3 1/2 beats; and the percussion playing an irregular repetition of three beats. All at once!--It has been pointed out that this interweaving of repeated patterns is akin to the visual tapestry of older Slavic art. It is true that in his exile from a homeland he was never to see again, Stravinsky was immersed in the study of Russian (Ukrainian) folk poetry.

Stravinsky had attended the premiere of “Pierrot,” and though his initial comments disparaged what he felt was its tired art nouveau esthetic, he later was quoted as above. Influence or coincidence, “Pierrot” and “Histoire” have in common unique small combinations of instruments (in Stravinsky’s case, a Noah’s rowboat of two winds, two brass, two strings and percussion), and a non-sung text. They also both have dim ancestries in the street theater of earlier centuries. Non-identical twins.



Notes by Michel Singher