explanatory notes Pierrot lunaire

Pierrot lunaire_300x450 (22)THE SICK MOON
You dark moon, deathly ill,
Laid over heaven’s sable pillow,
Your fever-swollen gaze
Enchants me like alien melody.
You die of insatiable pangs of love,
Suffocated in longing,
You dark moon, deathly ill,
Laid over heaven’s sable pillow.
The hotblooded lover
Slinking heedless to the tryst
You hearten with your play of light,
Your pale blood wrung from torment,
You dark moon, deathly ill.

Mimmi Fulmer, Ric Merritt
after Albert Giraud 

Lua doente (‘Ailing Moon’)

Pierrot lunaire is about the titular character’s wandering years. Together, we all set out on a journey, all of us, the entire room. As it says in Poem 20, Journey Home: ‘The moonbeam is the oar, The water lily the boat’. We accompany Pierrot on his journey, for the Pierrot in all of us needs the others in this joint ceremony. It is, indeed, our own quest. And instead of coming together to listen to and watch Pierrot lunaire, we all become part of this journey. 

Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire, Op. 21 is based on three times seven poems by Belgian author Albert Giraud. The poem cycle Pierrot lunaire: Rondels Bergamasques, published in 1884, comprises far more text; Schönberg’s decision to focus on 21 poems was probably more than sheer coincidence. In 1892, the poet Otto Erich Hartleben published a German translation of the French poems, regarded as a poetic work in its own right. This in turn provided the source material for the composition commissioned from Arnold Schönberg by the singer and recital artist Albertine Zehme for a musical melodrama, an instrumentally accompanied recitation theatre. Albertine Zehme herself wrote about the project of a new tonal speech: ‘I am not asking for freedom of thought, but for freedom of sound! [...] To convey our poets, to convey our composers, we need both, the vocal tone as well as the speech tone. The unrelenting work of searching for the ultimate possibilities of expression for “artistic experiences in sound” has taught me this necessity.’ (1911 programme booklet for a recitation evening featuring the Pierrot lunaire poems). 

This evening, we will see all the participants in equal measure as visible, choreographic bodies on stage, which was not the case at the premiere in 1912. Eduard Steuermann, a pianist and student of Schönberg, describes how Albertine Zehme, who had commissioned the work, insisted on ‘being alone on the stage’. His sister Salka Viertel even added an anecdotal detail: ‘As the flautist was bald, Ms. Zehme implored Schönberg that no one other than herself be visible to the audience. And so Schönberg proceeded to design an elaborate system of screens to conceal the musicians while allowing Ms. Zehme to see his baton.’ The musicians became merely opaque silhouettes, hidden reflections, conceits, like the hidden man in the Moon. By contrast, we are able to see all the performers on the stage set in the middle of the room, as if under a microscope that magnifies everything and makes every detail visible. Are they all Pierrot? Are we all Pierrot? This evening there is nowhere to hide; indeed, even the audience is at the mercy of its own reciprocal observation. What’s more, the layout of the seating arrangements around the stage set is conducive to a highly personal visual and sound experience. Each and every member of the audience sees something different. All will miss something in order to be able to hear and see something special. 

With Schönberg’s cycle as our starting point, but also our map, so to speak, we will set off in search of a world subject to its own rules. But this entire universe is already inscribed in the starting point! We prefer to search for what can be found in Pierrot lunaire, what lies hidden within waiting to be discovered. So it is not about adding something incidentally, but about delving deep into the material and translating our discoveries into the different languages of costume and set design, music and choreography. So how does one go about immersing oneself in the world of Pierrot lunaires? Who is Pierrot? Extensive associative visual research in the run-up to the rehearsals conjured up all sorts of images: Pierrot lunaire as a space traveller? A reflection? A priest? Dozens of image finds provide the starting point for a game of visual imagination that sparks the choreographic imagination for the music. 

In Pierrot lunaire Schönberg creates an exacting and meticulous score. Repeated listening to the sound cycle allows new discoveries while revealing the musical and thematic density of the composition. Small windows are needed to get closer to the narrative, and this evening we must find them and open them together – the experience can therefore only be subjective and open. During the rehearsal process it was particularly important to explore the precision of the composition. Indeed, it is only from such detailed work that worlds can be created. It is only from an overall view of all the details – the looks, gestures, bodies, objects, colours, and sounds – that a universe can emerge. A performance with all the details that creates a multitude of worlds that are accepted side by side without needing to be deciphered. Instead, all manner of observations complement one another: a spaceship? A recording studio? A hospital for instruments? There is no prevailing desire for camouflage or confusion, no resistance to clarity; rather, a desire for a richness of imagery and precise detail. It is not a matter of evading interpretation, but of an interest in ambiguity, of enabling multiple interpretations, adding new layers to the work, and creating options for seeing and hearing. Everything can be more than one thing at a time, ourselves included. 

What is so remarkable about Schönberg’s composition is the precision with which he thinks the texts and the accompanying music! You have to follow the notations very closely to realise how the music echoes the onomatopoeia and rhythm of the words. Figures of speech, word sounds, music, and rhythm commingle into a tonal world. Wouldn’t the text be understandable even without words? Schönberg makes it easy for us if we trust his precision; after all, he himself wrote the intentions and emotions into the music, as he noted in his Berlin diary (March 1912): ‘Here the sounds become an almost animalistic and direct expression of sensual and spiritual movements. Almost as if everything were transmitted directly.’ A tremendous freedom is to be enjoyed from obeying Schönberg’s notations – not to mention the magnificent overall dramaturgy – and exploring the free spaces around them. In the pauses, he offers us all the freedom we need. Who now is pausing, at a given moment? Equally crucial in the composition also the pauses between the pieces, precisely specified by Schönberg; all we have to do is observe them. 

The stock character of Pierrot has, over the centuries, acquired more and more new traits, especially in the French and Italian repertoires. It has a long tradition in the commedia dell’arte and originates from carnival and street theatre, with derivative figures to be observed worldwide even today. Pierrot features as the social figure of the radically independent nomad who defies disciplinary observation and chooses to move on the minute he is to be confined. It was not until the 19th century that the mime Jean-Gaspard Deburau created Pierrot lunaire as a melancholy figure in white make-up and dressed in light, flowing garments. But what is Pierrot beyond that tradition? In Pierrot lunaire, Pierrot is trapped, as if the desire to fulfil his true nature were inflicting him pain and suffering. As if he had to confirm a form he is no longer able to fulfil. Perhaps Pierrot is a dream-like figure, a notion of ourselves that we evoke in order to be able to break out? 

Pierrot wears a mask of contradictions, namely a smile with a tear. Is this façade in fact an externalisation of his inner self? For whom does he wear the mask? For himself? We can all be observers of ourselves – and this evening we will become one another’s audience. We can find Pierrot reflected in our own faces, in our own existence. Who is Pierrot when he is not Pierrot lunaire, when he is wearing white? Have you ever seen Pierrot lunaire’s back? You could easily imagine him having two identical fronts. With his back as hidden as the dark side of the Moon. Likewise there are probably no images of a Pierrot out of make-up: for then, Pierrot would cease to be. 

In the third poem, The Dandy, Pierrot ‘Rejects the vegetal red, And the oriental green, Paints his face with the strange make-up, Of a fantastic ray of moonlight’. But by the end, these colours return – if only in the description of the landscape. In the music, too, Schönberg’s atonal music references earlier works and traditions; not just the recourse to older forms (fugue, canon, polka, waltz), but above all the musical quotations (proven are the references to Bach, Wagner and Strauss, among others). Is there a connection to the very last text in the song cycle, O Ancient Scent!? In any case the ‘Journey Home’ described as a Barcarole (Poem 20) tells of Pierrot’s return ‘home’, ‘the orient green of dawn’. Pierrot makes his peace after facing up to (his) monsters, to the Other (within himself?) – and the other colours. After all, the white itself can become a stain or a stigma, an oppressive Moonfleck as in Poem 18: Pierrot lunaire ‘Rubs and rubs full of futile rage!’. 

Pierrot achieves a fuller existence and is able to return as an adult, having accepted all his traits – including his repressed and childlike propensity to violence. It is telling that in Poem 19, Serenade, he creates a new musical instrument from the ‘bald head’ of Cassander, who in the commedia dell’arte stands for seriousness and tradition, and does so ‘with a giant bow discordantly’. And so, in the last poem, an ‘ancient fragrant scent’ is finally reconciled with ‘sweet and mad delight’. 

Martín Valdés-Stauber, Marlene Monteiro Freitas


Pierrot lunaire
25 - 26 June, ITA
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