One Hundred Years of Pierrot Lunaire

I’m a bit annoyed with myself for having forgotten to mark the centenary of the first performance of Arnold Schönberg’s extraordinary work Pierrot Lunaire, which took place on October 16th 1912, in Berlin. Here’s a hasty reworking of an old post to make up for my lapse.

It’s hard to know exactly what to call Pierrot Lunaire. It’s basically a musical setting of a series of poems (by Albert Giraud, but translated into German) so you might be tempted to call it a song cycle. However, it’s not quite that because the words are not exactly sung, but performed in a half-singing half-spoken style called Sprechstimme. Moreover, they’re not really performed in the usual kind of recital, but in a semi-staged setting rather like a cabaret. It’s not really an opera, either, because there’s only one character and it doesn’t really have the element of music drama.

The whole thing only lasts about 40 minutes so the 21 individual pirces are quite short, and they’re arranged as three groups of seven with the narrator Pierrot dealing with different themes in each group. The work was written in 1912 and is his Opus 21, so it’s a relatively early example of  Schönberg’s atonal music but before he turned towards full-blown serialism. Atonalism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it can (and does in this case) allow a hugely varied musical landscape to be constructed by a small group of instruments.

I’ve heard this work before, on the radio, and found it very intriguing but then I saw a youtube clip of the film version made in 1997 with Christine Schäfer as Pierrot. This is not a film of a concert or a recital, but an extraordinary visual response to the remarkable music and words. The director, Oliver Hermann, creates a grotesque dreamlike urban setting through which Pierrot wanders like a ghost, with emotions alternating between desperate alienation and amused reflection. I think music and film together create a wonderful work of art, which has gone right to the top of my list of favourite music DVDs.

Atonal music is very good for communicating a sense of disorientation and loneliness, course. The lack of tonal centre (or key) means that the listener is denied the usual points of harmonic reference. Hum doh-ray-me-fah-soh-la-ti and you’re drawn very powerfully back to the tonic doh. Deny this framework and the listener feels discomforted, but also, at least in my case, gripped.

Miles Davis’ classic album Kind of Blue – arguably the greatest jazz record of all time – was the first record I heard in which jazz musicians experimented with atonalism, and it has the same effect on most listeners: a spreading sense of melancholia and introspection. Perhaps not great for party music, but, in its own way, extremely beautiful.

Here’s the clip I saw on youtube that started me off on this. It’s the eighth item of Pierrot Lunaire (or, more accurately, the first of the second group of seven; Schönberg was quite obsessed with the number 7, apparently). It’s quite short, so hopefully won’t upset those who can’t stand atonal music for more than a few seconds, but it nicely exemplifies the extraordinary surreal imagery conjured up by the director as a response to the equally extraordinary music. Fantastic.

3 Responses to “One Hundred Years of Pierrot Lunaire”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I found this a perceptive analysis of Schoenberg’s atonality:

    What is beyond doubt is that people who lead culture shifts, whether for good or ill, are likely to face riots from people who don’t like it. This was one. The opening night of Bunuel’s remarkable film L’Age d’Or was another. The reaction to Rodin’s statue of Balzac with people shaking their fists at it is another. And the fight that you (Peter) referred to earlier on this blog, taking place after an early modern jazz concert, is a further example. People who seldom write their emotions are clearly deeply stirred by cultural currents.

    • telescoper Says:

      Pierrot Lunaire also got a very mixed reaction at its first performance.

      I remember reading an interview with Charlie Parker who bemoaned not the fact that some were hostile to his music, but that he generated so many people who simply wanted to copy him. That, he said, wasn’t the idea at all. It’s deeply ironic that orthodoxies take hold so quickly.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    Incidentally, there was a musical centenary yesterday: that of the birth of the great conductor Sir Georg Solti.

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