Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire
Arnold Schoenberg

No. 8 Nacht

No. 13 Enthauptung

Historical and Cultural Context

Arnold Schoenberg wrote Pierrot Lunaire in the spring of 1912, after moving with his family from Vienna to Berlin. The full title of the work is: "Three times seven poems from Albert Giraud's Pierrot lunaire." The work was commissioned by an actress and cabaret singer Albertine Zehme, who had asked Schoenberg for a piano accompaniment over which she could recite the poetry. As Schoenberg worked on it, he added other instruments, and the result was a piece scored for a speaker and five musicians, some of whom double on a second instrument: flute (piccolo), clarinet (bass clarinet), violin (viola) cello and piano. Schoenberg conducted the premiere with Zehme in October, 1912, and then they took the work on tour through Germany and Austria. The work was incredibly popular and well received and helped to establish his reputation as a leading modernist composer of his generation.
At the premiere of Pierrot in Berlin. Schoenberg is 3rd from left, Albertine Zehme, center

For the text, Schoenberg selected poems from a collection of 50 poems written in 1884 entitled Pierrot lunaire: rondels bergamasques by Albert Giraud, a Belgian "symbolist" poet. This poetry had been recently translated from French into German by German poet Otto Erich Hartleben. The symbolist movement flourished at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century as a reaction against 19th century Romantic movements of naturalism and realism. Instead of elevating the humble and ordinary over the ideal, the symbolists sought to disposed of art that indulged, as one of the movements chief advocates Jean Moreas put it, "plain meanings, declamation, sentimentality and matter-of-fact description." Art, the symbolists argued, should engage in the indirect description or representation of absolute truths. Towards achieve this end, symbolist poets like Giraud wrote in a highly metaphorical and onomatopoeic language, with descriptions that bordered on obscure and disjunct and endowed particular images or objects with symbolic meaning. Symbolist poets often rejected the basic techniques of versification in favor of fluidity and free verse form, or recycled old archaic poetic forms. They were also interested in investing language, vowels, consonants and even phonemes with potential symbolic value. For these poets, "The physical universe, then, [was] a kind of language that invites a privileged spectator to decipher it, although this does not yield a single message so much as a superior network of associations."

Artists of other media, namely the visual arts, also reacted against Romanticism and realism at the end of the 19th century. In Germany in particular, painters, photographers, filmmakers, writers and other artists in the early decades of the 20th century, pursued an "expressionist" style, one that reflected reality through highly dark, distorted and disturbing representations of real objects and people. The imagery in their works was often macabre and meant to reflect a hidden or repressed abnormality or psychosis that lurks beneath the superficial artifice of everyday people and objects. Painters like Oskar Kokoshka, Egon Schiele and Wassily Kandinsky were important advocates of expressionism and deeply and closely connected in purpose and in technique to the symbolist movement in literature. Both movements were popular in Germany at the turn of the century and into the 1910s, especially in the increasingly difficult and desperate economic conditions taking over most areas of Europe at that time. These conditions would eventually lead to the assassination the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire by Bosnian-Serbs nationalist seeking independence, political freedom and improved economic opportunities, and the beginning of the Great War, or World War I which would soon consume most of the globe in the most horrific and dehumanizing wars the planet had seen at that point. The German expressionist and symbolists movements and much of the visual and musical art of the period resonated with these political undertones of darkness and despair.


"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.
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 thirteen: each poem consists of thirteen 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 thirteen)

The instrumentation and unusual techniques required of the performers of the song cycle, are noteworthy. By using a different combination of instruments for every song in the cycle, Schoenberg achieves a maximum variety of color. Throughout the cycle, the voice declaims the text in what Schoenberg called sprechstimme (speaking voice), following the notated rhythm exactly but only approximating the written pitches in gliding tones of speech. He indicated this effect--an innovative synthesis of melodrama and song--with an x through the stem of each note. Giraud imagined Pierrot, the stock comic character from the improvised theatrical tradition of the commedia dell-arte, pursued by fantastic threatening visions of the moon. The extremely dark and disturbing imagery of the poetry encouraged Schoenberg to use an intense and dissonant musical language in the instruments, heightened by the eerie effect of the gliding, inexact pitches of the voice. The poems in the cycle are unrhymed but follow a strict form. Each poem is thirteen lines long, divided in two quatrains and a quintain. Schoenberg reflects this form by including instrumental interludes after each quatrain and by highlighting repeated lines of text with an allusion to the original music at the same pitch level. The song cycle is also atonal, meaning that no pitch serves as a tonal center. Instead Schoenberg relies on motivic development to give is music coherence and shape using the method he called developing variation, presenting a basic idea at the outset and then continuously drawing out new variants of that idea. Many of the songs evoke old forms or genres or rely on traditional techniques--such as canons--to ensure unity and give the listener something familiar to hold on to.

In No.8 Nacht (Night), Pierrot is hallucinating. He sees sinister giant black moths casting gloom over the world, shutting out the sun. A basic motive, a rising minor third followed by a descending major third, reappears constantly in various not values throughout the parts. At the beginning for example, the first three notes--E--G--Ed form a statement of the motive, but the second note initiates another statement--G-Bb-Gb, whose second note in turn initiates another statement of the motive, overlapping and entwining until six interactions of the motive.

In No. 13, Enthauptung (Beheading), the first five measures of music encapsulate the poem and include a cascade of notes in the bass clarinet and viola—using both whole-tone scales one after the other—that illustrate the sweep of the scimitar referred to in the text. The next ten measures depict the atmosphere of the moonlit night and Pierrot scurrying to avoid the moonbeam. Even though it may appear to the listener that thematic development has been abandoned, the ideas present at the outset return frequently in new guises. When the opening lines of the poem return, they are declaimed using variations of the original rhythm (compare mm. 5-7 with mm. 14-16 and mm. 20-21.) As the voice declaims the final refrain, the piano performs the downward runs played by viola and bass clarinet in mm. 3-4, at the same pitch level as before, while the other instruments now play glissandos.

For more information, see:

Enhanced Listening Excerpts:

No. 8 Nacht

No. 13 Euthauptung

Images—German Expressionism (Painting and Film)

Kokoschka, Murder Hope of Women (1922)

Kandinsky, Composition IV, (1911)

Schiele, Nude Self Portrait with Webbed Fingers (1917)

Kirchner, Self portrait as Soldier, 1915

Schoenberg, The Red Gaze, (1910)

Robert Weine (dir.), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1922)
Munch, The Scream (1893)