Arnold Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21 (1912)

After the premiere. Schoenberg is third from left.


A recording can be found at Columbia's online reserves in the original German here or here or in an English translation here.

Columbia also has quite a series of webpages devoted to Pierrot that may or may not be accesible here to those on Columbia's servers.

A complete collection of Schoenberg's paintings, sketches, and even a set of playing cards he designed can be seen here.

But art belongs to the unconscious! One must express oneself directly. Not one's taste, or one's upbringing, or one's intelligence, knowledge or skill. Not all these acquired characteristics, but that which is inborn, instinctive. - Arnold Schoenberg

As a young composer, Arnold Schoenberg had strong ties with Berlin's cabaret scene. He conducted and arranged numerous works for cabaret, collecting eight settings for soprano with piccoli, trumpet, snare drum and piano under the title Brettl-lieder. In 1912, Viennese actress Albertine Zehme, known for her performances of poetry recited to musical accompaniment, was looking for effective settings of the poetry of Albert Giraud. In commissioning Schoenberg, Zehme allowed him the freedom to work on them as he pleased. Schoenberg, thrilled, noted in his diary: "I read the forward, looked at the poems, am enthralled. Brilliant idea, quite to my liking. I would have wanted to do this even without payment. That is why I made another suggestion: instead of a payment, a percentage of the performances. I can accept that, because I can't work on command, And I feel that I am definitely approaching a new form of expression. The sounds directly become an animalistic, immediate expression of sensual and spiritual movements."
Schoenberg responded to the commission with Pierrot Lunaire a cycle of "three times seven melodramas" scored for reciter (Zehme), flute, clarinet, violin (also playing viola), cello and piano. After almost 40 rehearsals, the work was premiered on October 16th and became one of Schoenberg's only successes. (In his 1930 essay "My Public" Schoenberg recalls the story of an elevator operator who had heard its premiere and still had the sound in his ears.) Pierrot Lunaire would become a major representation of the Expressionist aesthetic and provide an influence for nearly every composer of the twentieth century, many of whom have written works for the ensemble known as the "Pierrot" ensemble.
The choice of 21 poems was not a coincidence: Pierrot was completed in 1912 and was to be Schoenberg's Opus 21. Numerology is found throughout the work: Born on September 13th, and convinced that the number 13 wold have some role in his death, Schoenberg was concerned about the length of the poems: thirteen lines. To counteract the malevolent influence of 13, Schoenberg sectioned the twenty-one settings into 3 groups of 7, pinning his hopes on those two auspicious numbers. In later years, Schoenberg would avoid 13 at all costs going so far as to rearrange the numbering of his musical measures to avoid it: 12, 12a, 14. Schoenberg's fears were not unfounded; he died on Friday, July 13th, 1951, in his 76th year.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) as painted by himself
In the musical settings of Giraud's poetry, Schoenberg worked diligently to reflect the strange character of the texts. First, he asked that the vocal part be delivered in a manner somewhere halfway between speaking and singing: an eerie effect known as sprechstimme. This innovation was as practical as expressive: Zehme was not a singer and had only as much musical knowledge as a typical well-educated German lady of the time, which while considerable by today's standards was not up to the challenge of the work. Second, Schoenberg treated his musical material in a freely atonal way. That is, he tried to separate the work's harmonies, rhythms and motives from their goal-oriented tonal functions. To provide forward momentum and formal cohesion he substituted, in the place of tonality, constantly changing motivic development and increasingly complex contrapuntal treatments, including double canons, (in Mondfleck), passacaglias(in Nacht) and fugues. On the harmonic level, Schoenberg intentionally tried to avoid tonal progressions in order to "emancipate the dissonance." in this configuration, individual tones need no longer be subservient to the tonic, instead becoming equal to each other. In Schoenberg's atonal works, there were no longer "right notes" and "wrong notes" in the traditional sense, only right notes and wrong notes in an expressive sense.
The selection of poems move from an introduction of the main commedia characters of Pierrot, Colombine and Harlequin to a gradual morbidity in the first seven poems. In the second group, Pierrot struggles with troubling images of horror, such as smoking tobacco from the trepanned skull of Cassander in Gemeinheit. In the third group Pierrot becomes increasingly melancholy before returning to Bergamo, his homeland.

Albert Giraud (1860-1929)
The Poems
Albert Giraud, a popular Belgian poet, published his Pierrot Lunaire, 50 Rondels Bergamasques in 1884. The poems tell the story of the classic characters of Commedia dell'arte placed in all manner of imaginative settings from the backdrops of Brueghel to the autumn colors of Watteau. Borrowing from the French symbolist poets, such as Mallarme, Giraud writes the poems in an artifically archaic poetic form, the rondeau. In a rondeau lines 1 and 2 return as lines 7 and 8.
Giraud's poems were translated, it appears rather freely, by the German poet Otto Erich Hartleben in 1892. It is Hartleben's translations that are set to music by Schoenberg.

Texts for the poems not covered here can be found here.

1. Mondestrunken
Den Wein, den man mit Augen trinkt,
Gießt Nachts der Mond in Wogen nieder,
Und eine Springflut überschwemmt
Den stillen Horizont.

Gelüste schauerlich und süß,
Durchschwimmen ohne Zahl die Fluten!
Den Wein, den man mit Augen trinkt,
Gießt Nachts der Mond in Wogen nieder.

Der Dichter, den die Andacht treibt,
Berauscht sich an dem heilgen Tranke,
Gen Himmel wendet er verzückt
Das Haupt und taumelnd saugt und schlürit er
Den Wein, den man mit Augen trinkt.

7. Der kranke Mond
Du nächtig todeskranker Mond
Dort auf des Himmels schwarzem Pfühl,
Dein Blick, so fiebernd übergroß,
Bannt mich wie fremde Melodie.

An unstillbarem Liebesleid
Stirbst du, an Sehnsucht, tief erstickt,
Du nächtig todeskranker Mond
Dort auf des Himmels schwarzem Pfühl.

Den Liebsten, der im Sinnenrausch
Gedankenlos zur Liebsten schleicht,
Belustigt deiner Strahlen Spiel -
Dein bleiches, qualgebornes Blut,
Du nächtig todeskranker Mond.

10. Raub
Rote, fürstliche Rubine,
Blutge Tropfen alten Ruhmes,
Schlummern in den Totenschreinen,
Drunten in den Grabgewolben.

Nachts, mit seinen Zechkumpanen,
Steigt Pierrot hinab - zu rauben
Rote, fürstliche Rubine,
Blutge Tropfen alten Ruhmes.

Doch da - strauben sich die Haare,
Bleiche Furcht bannt sie am Platze:
Durch die Finsternis - wie Augen! -
Stieren aus den Totenschreinen
Rote, fürstliche Rubine.

The wine which through the eyes we drink
Flows nightly from the moon in torrents,
And as a spring-tide overflows
The far and distant land,

Desires terrible and sweet
Unnumbered drift in floods abounding!
The wine which through the eyes we drink
Flows nightly from the moon in torrents.

The poet, in ecstasy,
Drinks deeply from the holy chalice,
To heaven lifts up his entranced
Head, and reeling quaffs and drains down
The wine which through the eyes we drink.

You ailing, death-awaiting moon,
High upon heaven's dusty couch,
Your glance, so feverish overlarge,
Lures me, like strange enchanting song.

With unrequited pain of love
You die, your longing deep concealed,
You ailing, death-awaiting moon,
High upon heaven's dusty couch.

The lover, stirred by sharp desire
Who reckless seeks for love's embrace
Exults in your bright play of light,
Your pale and pain-begotten flood,
You ailing, death-awaiting moon.

  10. LOOT
Ancient royalty's red rubies,
Bloody drops of antique glory,
Slumber in the hollow coffins
Buried in the vaulted caverns.

Late at night with boon companions
Pierrot descends to ravish
Ancient royalty's red rubies,
Bloody drops of antique glory.

But there, ever hair a-bristle,
Livid fear turns them to statues;
Through the murky gloom, like eyes --
Glaring from the hollow coffins
Ancient royalty's red rubies.

The Red Gaze, Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg, Hatred
16. Gemeinheit!
In den blanken Kopf Cassanders,
Dessen Schrein die Luft durchzetert,
Bohrt Pierrot mit Heuchlermienen,
Zärtlich - einen Schädelbohrer!

Darauf stopft er mit dem Daumen
Seinen echten türkischen Taback
In den blanken Kopf Cassanders,
Dessen Schrein die Luft durchzetert!

Dann dreht er ein Rohr von Weichsel
Hinten in die glatte Glatze
Und behäbig schmaucht und pafft er
Seinen echten türkischen Taback
Aus dem blanken Kopf Cassanders!

18. Der Mondfleck
Einen weißen Fleck des hellen Mondes
Auf dem Rücken seines schwarzen Rockes,
So spaziert Pierrot im lauen Abend,
Aufzusuchen Glück und Abenteuer.

Plötzlich stört ihn was an seinem Anzug,
Er beschaut sich rings und findet richtig -
Einen weißen Fleck des hellen Mondes
Auf dem Rücken seines schwarzen Rockes.

Warte! denkt er: das ist so ein Gipsleck!
Wischt und wischt, doch - bringt ihn nicht herunter!
Und so geht er, giftgeschwollen, weiter,
Reibt und reibt bis an den frühen Morgen -
Einen weißen Fleck des hellen Mondes.

21. O alter Duft
O alter Duft aus Märchenzeit,
Berauschest wieder meine Sinne;
Ein närrisch Heer von Schelmerein
Durchschwirrt die leichte Luft.

Ein glückhaft Wünschen macht mich froh
Nach Freuden, die ich lang verachtet:
O alter Duft aus Märchenzeit,
Berauschest wieder mich!

All meinen Unmut gab ich preis;
Aus meinem sonnumrahmten Fenster
Beschau ich frei die liebe Welt
Und träum hinaus in selge Weiten...
O alter Duft - aus Märchenzeit!

Through the bald pate of Cassander,
As he rends the air with screeches
Bores Pierrot in feigning tender
Fashion with a cranium driller.

He then presses with his finger
Rare tobacco grown in Turkey
In the bald pate of Cassander,
As he rends the air with screeches.

Then screwing a cherry pipe stem
Right in through the polished surface,
Sits at ease and smokes and puffs the
Rare tobacco grown in Turkey
From the bald pate of Cassander.

With a snowy fleck of shining moonlight
On the shoulder of his black silk frock-coat
So walks out Pierrot this languid evening,
Seeking everywhere for love's adventure.

But what! something wrong with his appearance?
He looks round and round and then he finds it --
Just a snowy fleck of shining moonlight
On the shoulder of his black silk frock-coat
Wait now (thinks he), 'tis a piece of plaster,
Wipes and wipes, yet cannot make it vanish.
So he goes on poisoned with his fancy,
Rubs and rubs until the early morning
Just a snowy fleck of shining moonlight.

O ancient scent from far-off days,
Intoxicate once more my senses!
A merry swarm of idle thoughts
Pervades the gentle air.
A happy whim makes me aspire

To joys which I too long neglected.
O ancient scent from far-off days,
Intoxicate me again.
Now all my sorrow is dispelled,

And from my sun-encircled casement
I view again the lovely world
And dream beyond the fair horizon.
O ancient scent from far-off days!

Self Portrait, 1911

A note on Schoenberg's painting
Schoenberg was also a well respected painter, whose paintings were shown with the famous Blaue Reiter, or Blue Rider, group which included, among others, Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky broke new ground with his series of Compositions, among the first abstract paintings.
Composition IV
Composition VII
Learn more at the webmuseum.

The quality is not the best, but this is the composer conducting some of the work; search youtube for many video versions.

All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.