Pierrot Lunaire

Pierrot Lunaire is a song cycle. It is written in three parts with each part containing seven songs. The piece on our playlist, “Madonna,” is song number 6 from Part One. It was composed during Schoenberg’s second period after the composer had turned to atonality but before he developed his twelve-tone method. The inward psychological focus of the text and the eerie combination of atonality and sprechstimme mark this as a clearly expressionist work. Sprechstimme is an expressionist technique in which the singer performs the musical line in a half-sung, half-spoken style. The written notes on the page are used as a guide but are only approximated by the singer.


Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds “Pierrot lunaire” (“Three times Seven Poems from Albert Giraud’s ‘Pierrot lunaire'”), commonly known simply as Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (“Moonstruck Pierrot” or “Pierrot in the Moonlight”), is a melodrama by Arnold Schoenberg. It is a setting of 21 selected poems from Otto Erich Hartleben’s German translation of Albert Giraud’s cycle of French poems of the same name. The première of the work, which is between 35 and 40 minutes in length, was at the Berlin Choralion-Saal on October 16, 1912, with Albertine Zehme as the vocalist.

The narrator (voice-type unspecified in the score, but traditionally performed by a soprano) delivers the poems in the Sprechstimme style. Schoenberg had previously used a combination of spoken text with instrumental accompaniment, called “melodrama,” in the summer-wind narrative of the Gurre-Lieder, and it was a genre much in vogue at the end of the nineteenth century. The work is atonal but does not use the twelve-tone technique that Schoenberg would devise eight years later.


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 onviola), 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.

Part One Part Two Part Three
  1. Mondestrunken (Moondrunk)
  2. Columbine
  3. Der Dandy (The Dandy)
  4. Eine blasse Wäscherin (An Ethereal Washerwoman)
  5. Valse de Chopin (Chopin Waltz)
  6. Madonna
  7. Der kranke Mond (The Sick Moon)
  1. Nacht (Passacaglia) (Night)
  2. Gebet an Pierrot (Prayer to Pierrot)
  3. Raub (Theft)
  4. Rote Messe (Red Mass)
  5. Galgenlied (Gallows Song)
  6. Enthauptung (Beheading)
  7. Die Kreuze (The Crosses)
  1. Heimweh (Homesickness)
  2. Gemeinheit! (Vulgarity)
  3. Parodie (Parody)
  4. Der Mondfleck (The Moonspot)
  5. Serenade
  6. Heimfahrt (Barcarole) (Homeward Bound)
  7. O Alter Duft (O Ancient Fragrance)

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 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.


Pitch Structures

Everything in “Nacht” is generated from a ten-note motif, introduced in canon starting in the fourth bar. This piece predominantly uses the pitch collection (014). This collection gets introduced in the very first measure with the piano. If you take into account every note the piano plays in the first three measures you get an octatonic scale (0134679T). This is just four groups of (014) transposed by T3. In measure 4, we see one set of (014) in the bass clarinet line. Whenever we see this pitch collection it is usually in one of two rhythms. The first, as illustrated by the bass clarinet in measure 4, is three half notes. Later it shows up as three quarter notes, simply a compressed version of the original. The other rhythm is three eighth notes, usually this comes in groups of three. For example, in measure 8 the bass clarinet has the collection three times, each time as an eighth note rest followed by three eighth notes. If you look at that measure as a whole, and any other time this pattern shows up, we see that the second group is transposed from the first by T4. The third group of notes is transposed from the first group by T1. Thus, the entire measure is actually using (014), not just in each group, but within each group. In other words, if you take the first note of each three you get (014), if you take the second note of each you get (014), and if you take the third note you also get (014). For the first two stanzas of text, we only ever see (014) transposed by various Tx. Starting in the third stanza, we begin to see inversions of (014). In measure 19, the right hand in the piano starts off with an inversion of (014) and then goes to a transposition of (014). This continues on for the entirety of the run in both hands of the piano.

Formal Structure

Following a brief introduction, the movement falls into three strophes of seven, six, and seven bars, with section breaks occurring at measures 11 and 17, articulated by a change of tempo to etwas rascher for the second strophe, and back again to the initial tempo for the third. These follow the stanzas of the poem, and are followed by a coda. The first strophe is canonic in four voices; the second is also canonic, but in just three voices; the third strophe consists of a rapid succession of ambiguous canonic fragments.

Although the pitch-class sets are virtually the same throughout the whole movement, each section has distinct musical elements that differentiate them from each other. When looking at the transition from the first section to the second section, a couple important changes take place. First, the tempo marking “Etwas rascher” marks an increase in speed and rhythmic energy. This is further exaggerated by the increased rhythmic density in the piano, clarinet, and cello parts. In addition to the rhythmic changes, the registers of the cello, piano, and vocal lines are notably higher in the second section. The third section returns to the original tempo, and the register and rhythmic density change again to closely resemble the first section. This analysis provides evidence for organizing the piece into an ABA’ form, as the first and last sections have many similar elements while the middle section differs substantially. However, because of the pitch-class set similarities, the argument could be made for a quasi theme-and-variation organization, with A, A’, and A sections.

Musical Structure to Extramusical Elements

Expressionism is a modernist movement that began in Germany and Austria in the early twentieth century. Schoenberg, Austrian in descent, was associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art. Being from Austria at this time, his music was often labeled as degenerate music since Schoenberg is Jewish. Expressionistic music is dominated by dissonance rather than consonance, and can create an “unsettling” feeling among its listeners For many, expressionistic music meant a rejection of the past and an acceptance of the innovative, unfamiliar future. The text of “Nacht” can be described as ominous, and depicts the wings of black moths covering the sun. These views are characteristic of expressionistic poetry.

“Nacht” also employs the occasional use of word painting through his music where he uses the music to illustrate the literal meaning of a particular word [4]. These text expressions make general associations between the text and musical setting. This can be seen with the word “duft” translating to “scent” in measure 12. The full poetic phrase “Steigt ein Duft” means “arises a scent,” and this is depicted by a leap upwards in voice from A to G. Likewise, the word “verschwiegen” loosely translates to “mutely” or “hushed”, and is performed by conventional singing rather than Sprechstimme, along with prolonged silence with a fermata, though the word more precisely means “discreetly” or “closed-mouthed.”

Notable Recordings

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[11]
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[12]
Anja Silja Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble Robert Craft Naxos 1999 CD[13]

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 Naganoconducting. 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.