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Schoenbergs "Pierrot lunaire" - door to 20th century music

The creation of Schoenbergs Pierrot lunaire was made possible through the 20. centurys first marital scandal among the European crowned families: In 1903 Luise, the Habsburg princess and unhappy wife of the Saxon crown-prince (and later king) Friedrich August escaped to Geneva with the language teacher of her six children (being pregnant with a seventh one). At the catholic and bigot court divorce was almost impossible and moreover needed consent of the pope. These difficulties were navigated successfully by a Leipzig lawyer Dr.Felix Zehme, who subsequently became the most famous divorce attorney of Germany and very wealthy. He was a generous patron of the arts and friend of Max Reger. Luise after many other affairs was briefly married to pianist Enrico Toselli (1883-1926) of Serenade fame and died shortly after the second world war in utter poverty.


Charles Deburau as Pierrot by Nadar (1854)

Dr.Zehme married the talented and successful actress Albertine (1857-1946) who retired from stage after marriage. Only in ripe age she relaunched her career reciting melodramas or selected poems to Chopins music. 1912 she discovered Schoenberg and asked him to compose music for voice and piano to her choice from Albert Girauds cycle of poems "Pierrot lunaire" (1884) in Otto von Hartlebens translation (1892). These poems combine very strict form with an absurdly nightmarish, cruel and sometimes also comic content, an anticipation of expressionism and even surrealism. Pierrot appears only in some of the poems, often with the moon. Pierrot in the French-speaking culture of the time probably related to the famous mute, melancholic white clown and unhappy lover, created 1816 at the Théâtre des Funambules in Paris by Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796-1846) and later on also played by his son Charles (1829-1873). However the correspondence is not one-to-one because in Girauds poem number 19. "Moonfleck" Pierrot wears not a white, but a black coat. Like Kafka Giraud had a civilian occupation: He earned his living as chief accountant of the Belgian ministry of the interior.


Albertine Zehme (1905)

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) had some previous experience as a composer of literary cabaret in the Berliner "Überbrettl"-Theater. He was immediatly attracted to these poems and said he would also have composed without being asked. He however enlarged the ensemble step by step and his patrons finally had to consent to diverse combinations for five instrumentalists. For her performances Albertine wore a Pierrot-costume.

Zehme was not a singer, and the voice part is meant and written as "Sprechgesang", a mixture of speaking and singing, about which Mrs.Zehme had very clear ideas. In her own words: "The singing voice, that supernatural, chastely controlled instrument, ideally beautiful precisely in its ascetic lack of freedom, is not suited to strong eruptions of feeling…. Life cannot be exhausted by the beautiful sound alone. The deepest final happiness, the deepest final sorrow dies away unheard, as a silent scream within our breast, which threatens to fly apart or to erupt like a stream of lava from our lips. …We need both the tones of song as well as those of speech. My unceasing striving in search of the ultimate expressive capabilities for the "artistic experience in tone" has taught me this fact."


Announcment of the first performance 1912

And Schoenberg in his preface: "...Difference between singing tone and speaking tone: singing tone unalterably stays on the pitch, whereas speaking tone gives the pitch but immediately leaves it again by falling or rising. However, the performer must be very careful not to adopt a singsong speech pattern. That is not intended at all. Nor should one strive for realistic, natural speech. On the contrary, the difference between ordinary speaking and speaking that contributes to a musical form should become quite obvious. but it must never be reminiscent of singing."

There is no recording by Zehme, but one by Erika Stiedry directed by Schoenberg himself which shows the idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iW7.... Many interpretations by singers in their chastely controlled beauty fall short of the criteria formulated by Zehme and Schoenberg. Schönberg had used "Sprechgesang" already before meeting Zehme, namely in his monumental Gurrelieder (1903-11, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3Q...), whose first performance in Germany in 1914 was with participation of Albertine and financed by Dr.Zehme.

The novel content of the poems inspired Schoenberg, if not yet to twelve-tone technique, so to new freedoms, harmonic, formal and of minimalistic instrumentation. He wrote: "I feel that I reach here absolutely new forms of expression. The sounds become an almost animally immediate manifestation of sensual and psychic movements, as if everything would become transmitted directly."

One of the Songs is entitled "Galgenlied" (Gallows-Song). And indeed Christian Morgensterns (1871-1914) "Galgenlieder" from 1905 seem to be a direct continuation in their comic and absurd morbidity.

Therefore what Morgenstern wrote about his "Galgenlieder" might somehow also apply to Pierrot and his companions: "The poetry of the gallows is a special view of the world ("Weltanschauung"), the unscrupulous freedom of the eliminated, of the dematerialised. The gallows brother is an intermediary between human being and universe. One sees the world differently from the gallow hill."


Its quite surprising to become Pierrot oneself - Salt Lake City, Utah 2017

"Pierrot lunaire" became a landmark and an inspiration for generations. Indeed the breakdown of a royal marriage in a bourgeois society had facilitated a different musical view into a different musical world which was going to project widely into the next hundred years and beyond...

I have played the Pierrot many times as a violinist. But I always longed to do the speakers/singers part once. When, because of a painful arm condition I could practise less than usual I began to learn Pierrots Sprechgesang under the professional guidance of Esther de Bros. After a years work I took the plunge in October 2017 with musicians of the Utah Symphony and Thierry Fischer in the adventurous surroundings of the Sky Salt Lake City Nightclub. I wore a replica of Gaspard and Charles Deburaus original Pierrot costume, which really goes back to Beethovens times. Everything felt quite right and I hope to do it still many times. I thank Thierry Fischer and his musicians from all my heart to have given me this opportunity to enlarge my experience and my horizon.

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Text in English: http://ada.evergreen.edu/~arunc/tex...
Text in German and English (bad translation): http://www.lunanova.org/pierrot/tex...