Blue Gaze
Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire

By the time he wrote Pierrot Lunaire, (“Moonstruck Pierrot, Three Times Seven Poems by Albert Girard”) in 1912, Arnold Schoenberg was one of the most famous composers in Europe. He had achieved success with several of his pieces, including the hyper-Romantic tone poem “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”, 1899), and experienced notoriety upon first finding tonality inadequate to express what he wanted to express in music. The notoriety of his students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, clung to him as well.

Like any well-trained musician of the time (Schoenberg was an autodidact with a great teacher), it was difficult for him to conceive of music made without tonal centers. Tonality provided not just the harmonic and melodic framework for Western music from around 1600 on, it also implied rhythmic and structural frameworks.

Schoenberg’s early works, including “Verklärte Nacht”, expanded the frameworks in order to express the intense and complex emotions he wished to express.(1) In these pieces, the harmonies and melodies are so chromatic, and their implications so ambiguous, that the sense of tonality is either absent or fleeting. In addition, the contrapuntal web becomes so dense and teeming that individual voices often cannot be followed-an essential condition for coherent tonal counterpoint. For the music Schoenberg wished to write, the frameworks were essential.

Without these frameworks and conventions, after having stretched them to their limits and beyond, Schoenberg felt lost.

The feeling of dislocation comes almost immediately, right after the beginning of the first song, “Mondestrunken” (Drunk With Moonlight).

The piano plays a gentle repeated sixteenth-note figure in its upper register. The figure describes an ambling downward arc, with wide intervals that establish no particular tonality, but are not aggressively dissonant either. The piano is accompanied by languid pizzicato eighth-notes in the violin. We could be in a salon — or better still, a cabaret.

Then the soprano enters.

Schoenberg responded to the musical crisis brought on by his realization that tonality was no longer an adequate means of expression(2) by writing pieces with passages that relied on ambiguous harmonies lacking tonal implications. The intense expression heard in dense chromatic counterpoint (and sometimes at great length) in the tonal music became highly compressed in the new, pantonal pieces. The texture is stripped of many of the contrapuntal lines that had proliferated in the tonal pieces. Phrases became shorter — so did movements — and structures were simpler, if not exactly easier to follow. After composing several pieces in this style, Schoenberg came to believe that pantonality could not be used to make an extended musical argument.

The soprano enters with the words

The wine that one drinks with one’s eyes
Is poured down in waves by the moon at night,

delivered in a combination of singing and talking called Sprechstimme, (“speech-voice”)where the singer glides between the notes. The pitches of the singer’s part are noted with an “x” instead of a notehead, and are suggestions of a melodic contour rather than a melody. The result is a strange, disorienting, almost ghostly declamation of the text, expressive in the extreme. This hyper-expressivity of the vocal line is not always reflected or supported by the instrumental writing, or even by the text.

A couple of measures after the entrance of the soprano, the flute comes in, playing a melodic line of very similar content and contour. Pierrot is full of these canonic passages. In fact, “Der Mondfleck” (The Moon Spot, No. 18) is, according to Charles Rosen,(3) one of the most complex canons composed since the end of the fifteenth century.(4) The score is replete with learned devices (in addition to canons, there are fugues and passacaglias) and includes songs in such traditional forms as the rondo. There are no themes or melodies that tie the piece together as a whole, but there are characteristic melodic shapes that recur in more than one song.

Schoenberg’s deployment of highly refined, learned, and ancient techniques in pieces like Pierrot Lunaire came about in large part because of the need to provide a frame on which to build musical structures without tonality as a foundation. It was in part because of this impasse that the composer turned to painting.

Schoenberg believed that in painting he could find a way to make the (relatively) large-scale works of art he felt he could no longer make in music without the frame of tonality.

This Self-Portrait (1910) is one of many that the composer created during the three decades that he painted. If you accept this analogy

representation : tonality :: abstraction : pantonality

then it is possible to see the composer testing the balance between representation and abstraction in this and other contemporaneous paintings, just as he had balanced tonality and pantonality in his recent compositions. The distortion of the skin color in the painting and its extreme contrast with the background can be seen as analogous to the distortions of the vocal line and the stark contrast between it and the instrumental accompaniment in “Mondestrunken”

There is another balancing act here, one that animates Pierrot and much of the music and art of the twentieth century. In broad terms we can call it the balance between conflicting factors in everyday human experience that hovered over life in the past century and continues to guide life in this one. In Self-Portrait we can see the balance expressed in the realistic depiction of the subject’s features just as the color of the skin is rendered in a blue pallor. The pallor suggests the macabre as well, and it is this contrast between the “normal” and the macabre that is at the heart of the hold Pierrot the puppet and Pierrot Lunaire the piece has on us even today.

Pierrot Lunaire has no story, no plot, and certainly no lesson to teach us. Many, but not all, of the 21 poems are in first person. The voice in these poems is male, the singer of the songs female. The tone of the music is light and satirical, mostly, the words dark and morbid, mostly. The overall effect is, as indicated above, one of dislocation and distance. The piece compels, through its force of personality and through its very strangeness, as it repels, for the very same reasons.

Novelist and music critic Jessica Duchin reviewed a performance by the Royal Ballet of Covent Garden on 28 October 2005:

Second up was Pierrot Lunaire — a Glen Tetley masterpiece, danced for a long time by Rambert but currently in the Royal“s repertoire for the first time. This choreography is absolutely stunning and a humungous tour de force for the dancers, especially Pierrot (in this case the gorgeous Federico Bonelli). The ensemble in the pit managed the score superbly, which was a relief since the Faure had sounded dreadful. But even today most people in the audience absolutely can’t stand this music. That also goes for professional violinists being dragged along by their balletomane wives. It’s phenomenal to think that Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire will soon be a hundred years old. Nobody has ever LIKED it. Nobody is EVER GOING to LIKE it. However much we admire it, however much we’re forced to study it at school, however “important” it’s supposed to be — was it really? was it not rather a path into an unusually blind alley? is it not desperately dated today? — the miserable fact remains: this stuff SOUNDS ghastly. Bluster away, ye purists: it's true. There were people in Covent Garden last night who walked out, despite the astonishing things that were taking place on stage.(5)

Pierrot has worked his magic again. The oppositions embodied in the piece are replicated in reaction to it. Ms. Duchin was clearly compelled by the dance that was created in response to Pierrot, while she was even more clearly repelled by the music itself. The “blind alley” the piece goes down includes this ballet, a “masterpiece.” The piece gets to her, as it does to anyone who hears it.

I conducted a performance in the early 90s on a Friday evening on a college campus. I recognized almost no one in the audience as being from the music school. A composer whose music and teaching I admire very much came to me after the performance and said “You almost convinced me. Almost.” Ms. Duchin writes that “nobody has ever liked” Pierrot Lunaire. I don’t know about that. I don’t know if I like it. True enough, it’s not a very likable piece, in the sense that many pieces are. But I do love it, and it is a part of me.

But like him or love him or not, Pierrot is with us, and if Pierrot Lunaire discomfits us, it may be in part because of the mirror it holds up to modern life. Pierrot made the twentieth century, and the twentieth century made us.

When I look at another Schoenberg painting from the period just before he wrote Pierrot, Blue Gaze (1910), the mirror gets complicated.

The profile on the left may or may not be Schoenberg, but it looks enough like him for me to see it as a self-portrait. His gaze is anything but blue as it probes straight ahead, and his breath fills the space, much as his thought and music filled much of the century.