Pierrot in History
character of Pierrot (Pedrolino in his Italian incarnation) was a stock
figure in the commedia dellarte, a type of improvised theatre
which flourished in northern Italy and elsewhere in Europe from the
sixteenth century forward. Some of the other familiar characters from
this genre were Harlequin, the sometimes sinister clown; Columbine,
the young, beautiful sweetheart; Pulcinella, ancestor of Punch; and
Scaramouche, the handsome cavalier. Each character dressed and behaved
in a stereotypical manner. Pierrot began as a kind of side-show comedian
who took part in the prologues to the regular performances, his specialty
being imitations and caricatures. He was also an acrobat and tumbler.
His garb was usually entirely white and included a large blouse, a high
hat, and a powdered face. In performances these characters were given
only a broad scenario and were expected to improvise according to what
was expected of the character. They appeared at private and public gatherings
and sometimes also in puppet shows such as Punch and Judy.
The late 19th and early
20th century saw a renewed interested in themes and figures from the
commedia dellarte. They appeared in widely varied locations,
in French Symbolist poetry, in Italian verismo opera , in the ballets
of Diaghilev and even in the films of Charlie Chaplin. Some particularly
famous examples are Leoncavallos I Pagliacci, Stravinskys
Petrushka and Pulcinella, and Manuel de Fallas El
retablo de maese Pedro.
The character of Pierrot
appeared frequently. According to Susan Youens, Pierrots were
endemic everywhere in late nineteenth/early twentieth century Europe
as an archetype of the self-dramatizing artist, who presents to the
world a stylized mask both to symbolize and veil artistic ferment, to
distinguish the creative artist from the human being. Behind the all-enveloping
traditional costume of white blouse, white trousers, and floured face,
the Pierrot-character changed with the passage of time, from uncaring
prankster to romantic malheureux to Dandy, Decadent, and finally,
into a brilliant tormented figure submerged in a bizarre, airless inner
The source of the text
for Schoenbergs Pierrot Lunaire was a cycle of poems in
French by Belgian writer Albert Giraud. In 1892 Otto Erich Hartleben
translated the poems into German and this version was championed by
Leipzig actress Albertine Zehme. Wealthy and socially prominent, she
was also trained both as a singer, having been coached in Wagnerian
roles by Cosima Wagner. She was particularly intrigued with the idea
of performing melodramas. Reciting dramatic poetry to music was fashionable
at the end of the 19th century and well suited Frau Zehmes tastes.
During 1911 she toured
Germany declaiming the Pierrot poetry as set to music by Otto Vrieslander.
However, she wanted more distinctive music. On March 9, 1912 she contracted
with Arnold Schoenberg to write voice and piano settings of some of
the fifty poems in the cycle. Schoenberg arranged twenty-one of the
poems into three groups of seven. He began writing immediately and had
the work virtually completed by the middle of July 1912. Part I introduces
Pierrot in his lonely, somewhat surreal world. Part II grows more sinister,
dominated by death and terror. Part III ends with Pierrots return
to the world of commedia dellarte. For instrumentation Schoenberg
moved beyond the original concept of a piano and used instead a chamber
ensemble with five members playing eight instruments. Each of the melodramas
introduces a different combination of instruments. (See Instrumentation).
Alan Lessem in Music and Text in the Works of Arnold Schoenberg:
The Critical Years 1908-1922 says on the whole instrumental
textures tend to become fuller as the work progresses and that
the piano is the leading protagonist of the melodramas.
The poems are largely declaimed in a style that is half speech and half
song, not a wholly new idea but one that Schoenberg perfected. (See
The premiere in Berlin
in October 1912 was prepared with twenty-five rehearsals. The work was
well received by professional musicians. One critic recorded: Dark
screens stood on the stage, and between them was Albertine Zehme in
the costume of Colombine. Behind the scenes a handful of musicians conducted
by Schoenberg played . . .The performance to the astonishment
of the critics resulted in an ovation for Schoenberg. The greater
part of the audience remained in the hall after the end of the performance
and forced a repeat. Among the composers who attended early performances
were Stravinsky, Ravel, and Puccini. Stravinksy later wrote that Pierrot
Lunaire was the solar plexus as well as the mind of early-twentieth-century
music. Pierrot Lunaire, with its combination of traditional
forms and techniques, and the almost entirely new approach to the arrangement
of sounds, became a window into the new century.
Duchartre, Pierre Louis (trans. Randolph T. Weaver). The Italian
Comedy. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1966.
Dunsby, J. Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire. Cambridge University
Rosen, C. Schoenberg. Glasgow: Fontana, 1976.
Shawn, Allen. Arnold Schoenberg's Journey. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 2002.
Simms, Bryan R. The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg 1908-1923.
Oxford University Press, 2000.
Stuckenschmidt, H. Arnold Schoenberg. London: Calder, 1959.
Youens, Susan. Excavating an Allegory: The Text of Pierrot Lunaire,
Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 8 (1984): 94-115.
Painting: Pierrot Plays
the Mandolin by Leon Comerre