Music history is littered with stories of masterpieces condemned at their premieres. But even against this backdrop, Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” which turned 100 in March, is legendary for the outrage it provoked — and can provoke still.
“The most ear-splitting combination of tones that ever desecrated the walls of a Berlin concert hall,” complained one critic after attending the premiere. Thirty years later a WNYC broadcast of the first recording so incensed Mayor Fiorello La Guardia that he phoned the head of the station to get it taken off the air.
Recent comments on YouTube performances are decidedly mixed, with many calling it “weird,” “creepy,” and “depressing,” while others are mystified: “Thumbs up if you're listening to this while you're high.”
And yet there is something about “Pierrot” that keeps musicians, composers, scholars, and audiences coming back to its dissonant harmonies, its kaleidoscopically shifting instrumental colors, and its strange little poems about the comic-sad character Pierrot. Along with centennial performances around the world, ensembles have recently tackled the formidable score at the New England Conservatory, the Boston Conservatory, and in the new Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
On Saturday it will be featured at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. This past semester both Tufts University and Boston University have undertaken interdisciplinary “Pierrot” projects, plumbing its origins and implications through academic courses, performances, gallery exhibits, and new compositions.
So what it is that makes “Pierrot” not only still matter a hundred years later, but manage to sound so new? The answer surely has to do with the astonishing range of influences and ideas that Schoenberg fused together in this score, but it begins, like so much of Schoenberg's art, with his own commitment to new possibilities of musical expression.
“I believe it turned out very well,” Schoenberg noted in his diary after composing — apparently at one sitting — the work’s movement “Prayer to Pierrot” on March 12, 1912. Uncharacteristically for the fiercely independent composer, the idea for “Pierrot Lunaire” was not his, but arose from a commission by the singer-actress Albertine Zehme. From her handwritten copies of German translations of poems by the Belgian symbolist Albert Giraud, the numerologically obsessed Schoenberg selected 21 movements, organized three times seven, for what would be his Op. 21. (This manuscript, along with a vast collection of sketches, films, and photographs, is viewable on the web page of the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna: www.schoenberg.at.)
The commission came at a good time. After a remarkably productive period that culminated in the summer of 1909 with a series of important works including his opera “Erwartung” (Expectation), Schoenberg hit a roadblock. In 1910, for the first time in many years, he finished nothing, and 1911 was scarcely better. Amid fears he might never be able to compose again, he turned his attention to writing a massive treatise “Theory of Harmony” (1910-1911). He explained his goals as silencing those who regarded him as a musical wild man, while also trying to make things clear to himself. He also tried to establish himself as a painter, producing a series of self-portraits and abstract "visions." These failed to attract many patrons willing to commission portraits, but they did impress Wassily Kandinsky enough to include in the 1912 Blue Rider Exhibition.
Then the “Pierrot” poems emancipated Schoenberg’s imagination, and he began jotting musical ideas into the margins of the manuscript as he read. The last movement “O Alter Duft aus Märchenzeit” (“O ancient scent from fabled times”), ends with Pierrot gazing out at the world from his sunny window day as his daydreams float off into the distance. Schoenberg responded with a transcendent passage in which familiar tonal triads seem to come loose from their moorings, opening out into a new musical world in which every nuance of feeling finds its own sound and harmony.
Zehme had requested settings for voice and piano, but as Schoenberg composed, the poems suggested other tone colors. He began adding and recombining various instruments for each movement, devising, for instance, the fantastical piccolo flourish for “The Dandy,” which depicts Pierrot at his washstand, painting his face with a moonbeam. He ended with five players performing, over the course of the work, on eight instruments: piano, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, viola, and cello — a combination that has since become the core of many new-music ensembles.
A mountain of scholarly research has attempted to dissect the piece by tracing its origins to a craze for the centuries-old Commedia dell’Arte street theater and puppet show characters (featured around the same time in works by Verlaine, Stravinsky, Picasso, and many others); the performance styles and mocking wit of cabaret; Decadent and Expressionist poetry and painting; and to notions of hysteria and the writings of Freud.
Many composers have likewise been fascinated and provoked by “Pierrot” and its ability to seemingly peer at once into music's past and future. The score brims with historical allusions to works of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Brahms, and Johann Strauss Jr.
The work also prompted others to explore the new musical landscapes. After hearing “Pierrot” in December 1912, Stravinsky composed the eccentric second and third movements of his Three Japanese Lyrics for a similar ensemble; Stravinsky’s astonished descriptions of “Pierrot” one month later inspired Ravel to write his ”Three Poems of Stéphane Mallarmé.”
The score’s influence just kept rippling outward, influencing major pieces from the ’50s and ’60s like Boulez’s Le Marteau san Maître and Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King. Its fingerprints continue to be spotted on recent works by Tristan Murail and Shulamit Ran.
Meanwhile, there are more than three times seven recordings available, featuring such vocalists as Christine Schäfer (who also appears in a hallucinogenic R-rated film version), Lucy Shelton, who sings both the original and an English translation, and jazz vocalist Cleo Lane. Phyllis Bryn Julson, who coauthored the important book “Inside “Pierrot Lunaire,’ ” is only one of many who have proposed solutions to the hotly debated issue of just what Schoenberg had in mind for the half-speaking/half-singing Sprechstimme vocal technique.
Other versions circulate unofficially, including the rare fragments of pop singer Björk’s performance at the 1996 Verbier festival, and even a recent cyborg “Pierrot” from Japan, featuring Hatsune Miku, a singing vocaloid synthesizer program and popular anime figure.
One might go so far as saying that the score’s openness to new interpretations is one of its most essential qualities. What I hear in “Pierrot” is precisely this questioning sense of possibility, a daring insistence that things might be very different than we imagine them to be.
With music bent on expressing intoxicating freedoms, it’s no wonder “Pierrot” continues to be unsettling. In November 1912 a critic in Augsburg wrote that, in order for us to “understand, enjoy, or at the least to feel” the work we would need to grow “ears of the future.”
As is clear from “Pierrot” ’s remarkable first century, Schoenberg had them already.
Joseph Auner is chairman and professor of music at Tufts University.
He can be reached at Joseph.Auner@