Performed by Luna Nova New Music Ensemble


Online Recordings
ACS Pierrot Ensemble 2003

Pierrot in History
Pierrot in Art


Pierrot Lunaire

Pierrot in History

Pierrot by ComerreThe character of Pierrot (Pedrolino in his Italian incarnation) was a stock figure in the commedia dell’arte, 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 dell’arte. 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 Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Pulcinella, and Manuel de Falla’s 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 world.”

The source of the text for Schoenberg’s 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 Zehme’s 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 Pierrot’s return to the world of commedia dell’arte. 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 Sprechstimme.)

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.

Further reading:
Duchartre, Pierre Louis (trans. Randolph T. Weaver). The Italian Comedy. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1966.
Dunsby, J. Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire. Cambridge University Press, 1992.
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