The work originated in a commission by Zehme for a cycle for voice and piano, setting a series of poems by the Belgian writer Albert Giraud. The verses had been first published in 1884, and later translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben. Schoenberg began on March 12 and completed the work on July 9, 1912, having expanded the forces to an ensemble consisting of flute (doubling on a piccolo), clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet), violin (doubling on viola), cello, and piano. After forty rehearsals, Schoenberg and Zehme (in Columbine dress) gave the premiere at the Berlin Choralion-Saal on October 16, 1912. Reaction was mixed. According to Anton Webern, some in the audience were whistling and laughing, but in the end “it was an unqualified success”. There was some criticism of blasphemy in the texts, to which Schoenberg responded, “If they were musical, not a single one would give a damn about the words. Instead, they would go away whistling the tunes”. The show took to the road throughout Germany and Austria later in 1912. It was performed for the first time in the western hemisphere at the Klaw Theatre in New York City on February 4, 1923, with George Gershwin and Carl Ruggles in attendance.
“Pierrot Lunaire” consists of three groups of seven poems. In the first group, Pierrot sings of love, sex and religion; in the second, of violence, crime, and blasphemy; and in the third of his return home to Bergamo, with his past haunting him.
Schoenberg, who was fascinated by numerology, also makes great use of seven-note motifs throughout the work, while the ensemble (with conductor) comprises seven people. The piece is his opus 21, contains 21 poems, and was begun on March 12, 1912. Other key numbers in the work are three and 13: each poem consists of 13 lines (two four-line verses followed by a five-line verse), while the first line of each poem occurs three times (being repeated as lines seven and 13).
Pierrot Lunaire uses a variety of classical forms and techniques, including canon, fugue, rondo, passacaglia and free counterpoint. The poetry is a German version of a rondeau of the old French type with a double refrain. Each poem consists of three stanzas of 4 + 4 + 5 lines, with line 1 a Refrain (A) repeated as line 7 and line 13, and line 2 a second Refrain (B) repeated for line 8.
The instrumental combinations (including doublings) vary between most movements. The entire ensemble plays together only in the 11th, 14th and final 4 settings.
The atonal, expressionistic settings of the text, with their echoes of German cabaret, bring the poems vividly to life. Sprechgesang, literally “speech-singing” in German, is a style in which the vocalist uses the specified rhythms and pitches, but does not sustain the pitches, allowing them to drop or rise, in the manner of speech.
Pierrot Lunaire is a work that contains many paradoxes: the instrumentalists, for example, are soloists and an orchestra at the same time; Pierrot is both the hero and the fool, acting in a drama that is also a concert piece, performing cabaret as high art and vice versa with song that is also speech; and his is a male role sung by a woman, who shifts between the first and third persons.
It is also a work which can be interpreted through the sixth song “Madonna”. In this song the only person who could save Pierrot, Jesus, is presented as dead. After a brief period of sorrow in “Der kranke Mond” Pierrot in Part II of the song cycle becomes more depraved in his exploits and by the end is crucified for his sins in “Die Kreuze”. Hoping to redeem himself in Part III, Pierrot tries to go back to previous persona as the “old pantomime from Italy” but ultimately fails without much hope of redemption by the end of the work.
Notable recordings of this composition include:
|Sprechstimme||Ensemble||Conductor||Record Company||Year of Recording||Format|
|Erika Stiedry-Wagner||Arnold Schoenberg||Columbia Records||1940||n/a|
|Helga Pilarczyk||Members of the Conservatory Society Concert Orchestra||Pierre Boulez||Ades||1961||CD|
|Bethany Beardslee||Columbia Chamber Ensemble||Robert Craft||Columbia / CBS||1963||CD|
|Jan DeGaetani||Contemporary Chamber Ensemble||Arthur Weisberg||Nonesuch||1970||CD|
|Yvonne Minton||Ensemble InterContemporain||Pierre Boulez||Sony Music||1977||CD|
|Barbara Sukowa||Schoenberg Ensemble||Reinbert de Leeuw||Koch Schwann||1988||CD|
|Jane Manning||Nash Ensemble||Simon Rattle||Chandos||1991||CD|
|Phyllis Bryn-Julson||Ensemble Modern||n/a||BMG||1991||CD|
|Phyllis Bryn-Julson||New York New Music Ensemble||Robert Black||GM Recordings||1992||CD|
|Karin Ott||Cremona Musica Insieme||Pietro Antonini||Nuova Era||1994||CD|
|Christine Schäfer||Ensemble InterContemporain||Pierre Boulez||Deutsche Grammophon||1997||CD|
|Anja Silja||Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble||Robert Craft||Naxos||1999||CD|
Arnold Schoenberg himself made test recordings of the music with a group of Los Angeles musicians from September 24 to 26, 1940. These recordings were eventually released on LP by Columbia Records in 1949, and reissued in 1974 on the Odyssey label.
The avant-pop star Björk, known for her interest in avant-garde music, performed Pierrot Lunaire at the 1996 Verbier Festival with Kent Nagano conducting. According to the singer in a 2004 interview, “Kent Nagano wanted to make a recording of it, but I really felt that I would be invading the territory of people who sing this for a lifetime.” Only small recorded excerpts (possibly bootlegs) of her performance have become available.
The jazz singer Cleo Laine recorded Pierrot Lunaire in 1974. Her version was nominated for a classical Grammy Award. Another jazz singer who has performed the piece is Sofia Jernberg, who sang it with Norrbotten NEO.
In March 2011, Bruce LaBruce directed a performance at the Hebbel am Ufer Theatre in Berlin. This interpretation of the work included gender diversity, castration scenes and dildos, as well as a female to male transgender Pierrot. LaBruce subsequently filmed this adaptation as the 2014 theatrical film Pierrot Lunaire.
Legacy as a standard ensemble
The quintet of instruments used in Pierrot Lunaire became the core ensemble for The Fires of London, who formed in 1965 as “The Pierrot Players” to perform Pierrot Lunaire, and continued to concertize with a varied classical and contemporary repertory. This group performed works arranged for these instruments and commissioned new works especially to take advantage of this ensemble’s instrumental colors, up until it disbanded in 1987.
Over the years, other groups have continued to use this instrumentation professionally (current groups include Da Capo Chamber Players, eighth blackbird) and the Finnish contemporary group Uusinta Lunaire, and have built a large repertoire for the ensemble.
- Bryn-Julson, Phyllis, and Paul Mathews. 2009. Inside Pierrot lunaire: Performing the Sprechstimme in Schoenberg’s Masterpiece. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-6205-0 (pbk); ISBN 978-0-8108-6225-8 (ebook).
- Byron, Avior. “The Test Pressings of Schoenberg Conducting Pierrot Lunaire”. accessed May 1, 2008.
- Byron, Avior. 2006–07. “Pierrot Lunaire in Studio and in Broadcast: Sprechstimme, Tempo and Character“. Journal of the Society of Musicology in Ireland 2:69–91. (accessed October 29, 2008).
- Dunsby, Jonathan. 1992. Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire. Cambridge University Press.
- Goodwin, Noël. ” Fires of London”, Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed November 11 2007), grovemusic.com (subscription access).
- Hazlewood, Charles. 2006. Discovering Music. BBC Radio 3 (June 24).
- Neighbour, Oliver W. 2001. “Schoenberg, Arnold (Franz Walter)”. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
- Winiarz, John. Schoenberg – Pierrot Lunaire: an Atonal Landmark April 1, 2000 accessed July 23, 2006.
- Gingerich, Katrina (2012). “The Journey of the Song Cycle: From ‘The Iliad’ to ‘American Idiot‘“, Musical Offerings: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 3. Available at http://digitalcommons.cedarville.edu/musicalofferings/vol1/iss2/3.
- Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Manuscript of the score at the Arnold Schönberg center
- Luna Nova New Music Ensemble: Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire A Study Guide featuring a complete performance
- Pierrot Lunaire Ensemble Wien Austrian ensemble for contemporary music
- The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive Created and maintained by Emily Ezust: the original text and translations in English and other languages.