An Acquired Taste: German Expressionism and Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”

In a move sure to incite riots akin to those that accompanied the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, I’m dedicating today’s post to the bizarre German Expressionist music of Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal vocal work Pierrot Lunaire.

Before my musically conservative readers begin rioting in the comments section, let me hasten to add that, as a rule, I do not like German Expressionism outside of film.  The art movement has its moments, and I appreciate weird absurdity, but the movement is, at its core, nihilistic and anti-Beauty.  It seems to be the bitter wellspring of postmodern art, much of which is meaningless trash.  But at least the German Expressionists had technique; they knew how to make good art, but chose not to, largely as a reaction to the absurdity of the First World War.

I’m also not much of a fan of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone composing system, and the organized atonality it represents.  I just love a good chord progression too much, and generally think there is more fun (and musicality) to be had tinkering with music inside the limits of traditional tonality, rather than abandoning them entirely.

In spite of all of that, I kind of like Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.

To be sure, it’s not the kind of thing I listen to when I’m trying to unwind, or while driving.  It’s not that kind of music—it’s not relaxing in the least.  It’s quite unsettling, in face, and I think that’s why I like it.

Take this performance, for instance, of two of the pieces from the song cycle, “Mondestrunken” (“Moondrunk”) and “Nacht” (“Night”):

Some of the creepiness comes from the cinematography.  Note the close-up on the conductor’s droopy, sorrowful eyes around 2:22.  Marianne Pousseur herself, with her bright red lipstick and crooked teeth, delivers an eerie performance.

And how can you not love the opening lines of “Nacht”:

Sinister giant black moths eclipse the blazing disk of the sun, like a sealed-up book of wizard’s spells.

Schoenberg did not write the text for this song cycle.  That dubious distinction goes to Belgian poet Albert Giraud, who wrote a collection of weird poems in 1884.  These poems were then translated from French into German by Otto Erich Hartleben, a friend of Schoeberg’s.

The title character, Pierrot, is a character from Italy’s commedia dell’arte.  I don’t know much about this movement, but Pierrot is the archetype of the tragic clown, and is often used in music and art to represent the struggling artist, or the artistic sentiment generally.

In “Mondestrunken,” Pierrot is obsessed with the moonlight, the silvery rays of which make him drunk with artistic inspiration.  This creepy film version really captures that best:

What I really appreciate about Pierrot Lunaire is the use of such an unusual ensemble.  Most art songs consist of vocals and a piano, but Schoenberg cleverly builds his work around flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, with musicians doubling on piccolo, bass clarinet, and viola at points.  I love unusual instrumentation (I once had a High School Music Ensemble class that consisted of two pianos, electric guitar, electric bass, alto saxophone, viola, euphonium, and ukulele, and it was some of the best fun I ever had arranging parts), and I particularly love the low, sonorous bass clarinet.

What I don’t care for much is the Sprechstimme, the vocal talk-singing that Schoenberg developed for this truly weird music.  While I’m not fond of the style, there’s no denying that it fits in this context.

Your mileage may certainly vary.  Unleash the dogs of war in the comments!

Happy (or Terrified) Listening!

—TPP

3 thoughts on “An Acquired Taste: German Expressionism and Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”

  1. I will have to listen to this in my own time Tyler. I have no opinion on Schoenberg as I have never listened to any of his compositions, note I do not use the word ‘music’. I suspect it will be too far out of my boundaries which are pretty elastic really but I think Schoenberg will be a stretch too far. I will let you know what I think.

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    • Yes, it is challenging to listen to. I do not like the vocal style that he created for this piece, but I think the instrumentation is interesting. I don’t suspect many people will like these pieces, but there is something about the two pieces I highlighted in particular that I find interesting.

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    • Alys—listen to the Marianne Pousseur video (the first video embedded in the post). It’s really more of a case of _watching_ than listening. I don’t necessarily like the music, per se, but there’s something so creepy (and very nihilistically German) about this performance that gives me the creeps—in a good way!

      Like

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