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“I believe I am approaching a new way of expression,” wrote Schoenberg in his diary on March 12, 1912. After a period of hesitation, he had just found his way into composing Pierrot Lunaire. The rest of the score would rapidly follow in an onrush of inspiration, later to be canonized as a crucial moment in modernism. Apart from its familiar place in music history, however, Pierrot Lunaire remains an inexhaustibly fascinating creation: visionary and experimental, yet somehow timeless.

The piece, for all its novelty and inspiration, originated as a good old-fashioned commission (just one in Pierrot’s treasury of paradoxes). Schoenberg was working through his first feverish period of free atonality – the disciplined restraint of his twelve-tone method was still in the future – and found himself badly in need of money. Enter Viennese actress Albertine Zehme, who commissioned Schoenberg to compose fresh settings of poetry she had been performing as part of her repertoire. Zehme’s performances featured an exaggerated recitation style with accompaniment – a variant of melodrama – but she felt the poems needed a bolder musical personality.

Trained as an actress, Zehme also had a background in singing. In their recent and insightful close study, Inside Pierrot Lunaire, Phyllis Bryn-Julson (a famous interpreter of the work) and Paul Mathews draw attention to Zehme’s usually unsung role (so to speak) in Pierrot’s genesis. Her specifications had some influence on the famous style of declamation Schoenberg conceived for his text settings, Sprechstimme (i.e., “speech-song”). There were long-standing precedents for this approach in the history of opera as well as cabaret, and Schoenberg (who uses the device in several other works) gave contradictory explanations of precisely how the indicated pitches are to be performed. Bryn-Julson and Mathews arrive at the conclusion that the vocal line should be delivered “as heightened speech but never as degraded singing.”

Belgian poet Albert Giraud (1860–1929) published Pierrot Lunaire in 1884. This collection of 50 poems in French dips into a Symbolist aesthetic of super-saturated imagery. Giraud’s Pierrot is a moonstruck, jilted clown borrowed from the late-Renaissance world of Italian commedia dell’arte but reimagined as a figure for the modern alienated artist. The Pierrot character cast a wide spell over writers, painters, and composers of the early twentieth century (film, too, if you include Charlie Chaplin). Using the German translation by Otto Erich Hartleben, Schoenberg culled a selection of 21 of Giraud’s poems and divided them into three groups of seven each. The score’s title page pointedly refers to this grouping of “three times seven poems” and calls the individual settings “melodramas,” not “songs.”

While each melodrama inhabits a remarkably distinctive world, Schoenberg’s traces an overarching three-part narrative structure. (The final sequence chosen for the melodramas differs from the order in which he composed them.) We first see Pierrot in the ecstasy of inspiration, obsessed with his beloved Colombine and with his own image. But the atmosphere becomes more obsessive, sickly, “loony.” The second part (Nos. 8-14) plunges into a grotesque night of sacrilege and madness, reaching a climax with Pierrot’s hallucinatory decapitation by the moon. At last the sense of oppression lightens as the final seven melodramas bring Pierrot homeward to his native Italy and to memories of the past.

Schoenberg’s expressionistic use of Sprechstimme and free atonality are two of the signatures of Pierrot Lunaire. A third, which has had a particularly wide-ranging influence, is its novel chamber-style instrumentation. The “Pierrot ensemble” is usually thought of as a quintet (with or without an additional singer), but Schoenberg uses doublings to draw on a palette of eight instruments, deploying combinations of winds, strings, and keyboard that change from number to number – and even within numbers. Pierrot’s kaleidoscopic variety of timbres includes the all-important interplay between the instruments and the voice. Schoenberg is as much a genius of texture and color as he is of harmony or motivic development. His instrumentation reflects Giraud’s phantasmagorical imagery with cinematic detail: take the piecing register in No. 3 (where Pierrot is named for the first time), in contrast to the sepulchral depths of No. 8, beginning the descent into night’s madness.

Yet the score brims with invention in every parameter. Giraud’s poems are cast in thirteen lines, with two four-line stanzas followed by a third of five lines (the first two lines are repeated in lines seven and eight, and line one returns as the last line – the so-called “rondel” form). As with timbre, Schoenberg uses a constantly varying arsenal of forms, in counterpoint to the stable form of the text. Pierrot Lunaire is an encyclopedia-in-miniature, encompassing such traditional elements as a waltz (Nos. 2 and 5), a passacaglia (No. 8), opera buffa (No. 10), patter-song (No. 12, sounds like a kind of atonal rap), a minuet (No. 16), a concerto (No. 19), a barcarolle (No. 20), and German art song itself (No. 21). Schoenberg superimposes forms as well, as in the astonishing overlay of two fugues and a canon of No. 18 – played simultaneously and then reversing midway through. Meanwhile, motivic elements weave continual cross-references throughout the work. The very first music you hear is a whole-toneish figure of seven notes (one of the score’s magic numbers). This “Pierrot motif” pops up in numerous but recognizable variations as a unifying device.

Yet, for all its ingenious, highbrow intricacy, Pierrot Lunaire breathes the world of cabaret and is a prototype of performance art. (Zehme first performed the reciter costumed as an androgynous Pierrot, with the players hidden behind scrims.) Ambiguity is its ultimate signature, for it exists between speech and song, comedy and tragedy, irony and hysteria, tradition and the avant-garde.

Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater and contributes to the Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.