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Music Review: Arnold Schoenberg/Pierre Boulez – ‘Pierrot lunaire’

Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (1912) is regarded by many as the first masterpiece of his illustrious career. Pierrot lunaire brought back the long, dormant musical form of the melodrama, and spoke directly to a German nation on the verge of World War I. There have been a number of versions of Pierrot lunaire available to the public since the advent of recorded sound. But the first (and perhaps finest) was released by the Wergo label in 1962. This Pierre Boulez-conducted cycle was actually the first-ever Wergo release, and is being released on compact disc for the very first time. Schoenberg…

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Reviewer's Rating

94/100

Summary : The first (and perhaps finest) of Arnold Schoenberg's masterpiece 'Pierrot lunaire' was released by the Wergo label in 1962, and is finally available on compact disc.

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Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (1912) is regarded by many as the first masterpiece of his illustrious career. Pierrot lunaire brought back the long, dormant musical form of the melodrama, and spoke directly to a German nation on the verge of World War I. There have been a number of versions of Pierrot lunaire available to the public since the advent of recorded sound. But the first (and perhaps finest) was released by the Wergo label in 1962. This Pierre Boulez-conducted cycle was actually the first-ever Wergo release, and is being released on compact disc for the very first time.

Schoenberg BoulezSchoenberg had shown an interest in the 18th century musical style of the melodrama earlier. But he got serious about it when he began putting the French poet Albert Giraud’s 1884 Pierrot lunaire series of poems to music. An important catalyst in this process was Otto Erich Hartleben, who did an  elegant job of translating the verses into German, as well as championing the poem to Schoenberg.

Hartleben’s translation of the original 50 poems was published in 1891. Before Schoenberg took it up, a number of his contemporaries worked on marrying the text to music. Schoenberg’s vision is considered definitive though. A big reason for this is his structuring of the cycle. Of the 50 poems, he chose 21, and set them in three sequences of seven. Each of these segments runs between 10 and 11 minutes.

The music is composed for a chamber orchestra consisting of piano, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, violoncello, plus “Sprechstimme” (narrator). As mentioned, the young Boulez conducted. He would return to Pierrot lunaire numerous times over his career.

Despite the fact that Schoenberg became famous as a pioneer of experimental music later on, his Pierrot lunaire is minimalism personified. Schoenberg’s intention was to have the poems spoken rather than sung over the music. He offered very specific notes in the preface to the score, including such admonitions as “the performers are in no way to determine the mood and character of the individual pieces from the meaning of the words, but always exclusively from the music.”

In reading the English translation of the poems while listening to the music, we can hear Schoenberg musically commenting on everything, sometimes hilariously so. In line with the concept that there are seven basic stories in Western literature, there is a universality to the themes Schoenberg highlights here.

What made this work so scandalous was the synchronicity of the verses with what was happening in Weimar Germany at the time. Giraud had written the original 50 poems as a scathing social indictment of France some 30 years earlier, yet they were prescient in describing the depravity of pre-World War I Germany as well.

The clown Pierrot is the protagonist, a literary archetype who showed up in many guises under various French authors. It is said that Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp was based on the legend of Pierrot. In English, “Pierrot lunaire” is “Pierrot in the moonlight.” It is in the moonlight where Pierrot reveals himself as something of an Everyman, and Schoenberg tightens up Giraud’s poems to tell his story in three parts.

The three cycles are titled by the first poem in each. The first is “Mondestrunken” (Moonlight), which is devoted to the magic of the moon, and by extension, the heroic aspect of the visionary Pierrot. “Nacht” (Night) is the second, and much darker side of the character. With its themes of violence, crime, and blasphemy, “Nacht” was the most controversial segment of the cycle. Having ventured far and wide during “Nacht,” Pierrot’s third act is “Heimweh” (Homesick), where he finds himself longing for the peace and comfort of home.

The accompanying music could broadly be described as following the themes of the three pieces – the first being somewhat dreamy, the second being relatively harsh, and the third evoking a sense of melancholy. But Schoenberg’s compositions were much more complex than those simplistic descriptions would indicate. Writing music for lines of poetry with a small chamber orchestra as his palette, he makes every note count. It is an extraordinary experience to listen to this music and reflect back on what this all meant to his audience over 100 years ago.

It is also rather “easy” listening, as the concept of atonal, and very challenging music had not yet come to define the cutting-edge of classical music in the way it would in later years. Another element of this recording that one cannot help but notice is how obviously it was designed to be performed on stage. This music is highly theatrical. While Pierrot lunaire has been recorded and performed countless times now, the one performance I would have liked to have seen was by Bjork in 1996, with Kent Nagano conducting. Unfortunately, it was not recorded.

I mention Bjork only to signify that Schoenberg’s work does indeed still resonate, that it is not some dusty 102-year-old relic. With the deep, rich tones of Helga Pilarczyk in the role of Sprechstimme narrating the poems, this recording would sit comfortably next to Desertshore by Nico, or next to Bjork herself for that matter.

The long-awaited compact disc release of this edition comes with a single disc, and a remarkable 76-page book which tells the whole story, and includes an essay by Boulez as well. While the historical significance of the set is undeniable, the artistic vision and incredible music are what make Pierrot lunaire so compelling. In every way, I believe that this Wergo edition, recorded in 1961 and released in 1962, is a masterpiece.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • David Gable

    The first recording of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire was made in 1940 with the composer conducting, and there were several other recordings of Pierrot before the recording that Boulez made with Helga Pilarczyk including two recordings with René Leibowitz conducting and one with Hans Rosbaud. There’s a link to a terrific Schoenberg discography below.

    Released in 1962, the Pilarczyk/Boulez/Domaine musical Pierrot was a joint production by Wergo and the French label Adès. It was simultaneously released on the two labels in 1962, on Wergo in Germany and on Adès in France. As an Adès recording, it has already been released on CD at least twice, first on an Adès CD and later within an extensive anthology of Boulez’s Domaine musical recordings. (The Adès label no longer exists as an independent entity, and all of the CD releases on that label are long out of print.)

    Here are URL’s for previous releases of Pilarczyk/Boulez and a Pierrot discography:

    Adès CD reissue:

    http://tinyurl.com/ogu346n

    Domaine musical compilation. Pierrot is in v. 2:

    http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Dec06/Boulez_Domaine_4769209_4768862.htm

    Pierrot lunaire discography:

    http://www.usc.edu/libraries/archives/schoenberg/as_disco/works/021.htm