Pierrot in History
character of Pierrot (Pedrolino in his Italian incarnation)
was a stock figure in the commedia dellarte,
a type of improvised theatre which flourished in northern
Italy and elsewhere in Europe from the sixteenth century forward.
Some of the other familiar characters from this genre were
Harlequin, the sometimes sinister clown; Columbine, the young,
beautiful sweetheart; Pulcinella, ancestor of Punch; and Scaramouche,
the handsome cavalier. Each character dressed and behaved
in a stereotypical manner. Pierrot began as a kind of side-show
comedian who took part in the prologues to the regular performances,
his specialty being imitations and caricatures. He was also
an acrobat and tumbler. His garb was usually entirely white
and included a large blouse, a high hat, and a powdered face.
In performances these characters were given only a broad scenario
and were expected to improvise according to what was expected
of the character. They appeared at private and public gatherings
and sometimes also in puppet shows such as Punch and Judy.
The late 19th
and early 20th century saw a renewed interested in themes
and figures from the commedia dellarte. They
appeared in widely varied locations, in French Symbolist poetry,
in Italian verismo opera , in the ballets of Diaghilev and
even in the films of Charlie Chaplin. Some particularly famous
examples are Leoncavallos I Pagliacci, Stravinskys
Petrushka and Pulcinella, and Manuel de Fallas
El retablo de maese Pedro.
of Pierrot appeared frequently. According to Susan Youens,
Pierrots were endemic everywhere in late nineteenth/early
twentieth century Europe as an archetype of the self-dramatizing
artist, who presents to the world a stylized mask both to
symbolize and veil artistic ferment, to distinguish the creative
artist from the human being. Behind the all-enveloping traditional
costume of white blouse, white trousers, and floured face,
the Pierrot-character changed with the passage of time, from
uncaring prankster to romantic malheureux to Dandy,
Decadent, and finally, into a brilliant tormented figure submerged
in a bizarre, airless inner world.
The source of
the text for Schoenbergs Pierrot Lunaire was
a cycle of poems in French by Belgian writer Albert Giraud.
In 1892 Otto Erich Hartleben translated the poems into German
and this version was championed by Leipzig actress Albertine
Zehme. Wealthy and socially prominent, she was also trained
both as a singer, having been coached in Wagnerian roles by
Cosima Wagner. She was particularly intrigued with the idea
of performing melodramas. Reciting dramatic poetry to music
was fashionable at the end of the 19th century and well suited
Frau Zehmes tastes.
During 1911 she
toured Germany declaiming the Pierrot poetry as set to music
by Otto Vrieslander. However, she wanted more distinctive
music. On March 9, 1912 she contracted with Arnold Schoenberg
to write voice and piano settings of some of the fifty poems
in the cycle. Schoenberg arranged twenty-one of the poems
into three groups of seven. He began writing immediately and
had the work virtually completed by the middle of July 1912.
Part I introduces Pierrot in his lonely, somewhat surreal
world. Part II grows more sinister, dominated by death and
terror. Part III ends with Pierrots return to the world
of commedia dellarte. For instrumentation Schoenberg
moved beyond the original concept of a piano and used instead
a chamber ensemble with five members playing eight instruments.
Each of the melodramas introduces a different combination
of instruments. (See Instrumentation).
Alan Lessem in Music and Text in the Works of Arnold Schoenberg:
The Critical Years 1908-1922 says on the whole instrumental
textures tend to become fuller as the work progresses
and that the piano is the leading protagonist of the
melodramas. The poems are largely declaimed in a style
that is half speech and half song, not a wholly new idea but
one that Schoenberg perfected. (See Sprechstimme.)
in Berlin in October 1912 was prepared with twenty-five rehearsals.
The work was well received by professional musicians. One
critic recorded: Dark screens stood on the stage, and
between them was Albertine Zehme in the costume of Colombine.
Behind the scenes a handful of musicians conducted by Schoenberg
played . . .The performance to the astonishment of
the critics resulted in an ovation for Schoenberg.
The greater part of the audience remained in the hall after
the end of the performance and forced a repeat. Among
the composers who attended early performances were Stravinsky,
Ravel, and Puccini. Stravinksy later wrote that Pierrot Lunaire
was the solar plexus as well as the mind of early-twentieth-century
music. Pierrot Lunaire, with its combination
of traditional forms and techniques, and the almost entirely
new approach to the arrangement of sounds, became a window
into the new century.
Duchartre, Pierre Louis (trans. Randolph T. Weaver). The
Italian Comedy. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1966.
Dunsby, J. Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire. Cambridge University
Rosen, C. Schoenberg. Glasgow: Fontana, 1976.
Shawn, Allen. Arnold Schoenberg's Journey. New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
Simms, Bryan R. The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg 1908-1923.
Oxford University Press, 2000.
Stuckenschmidt, H. Arnold Schoenberg. London: Calder,
Youens, Susan. Excavating an Allegory: The Text of Pierrot
Lunaire, Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute
8 (1984): 94-115.
Plays the Mandolin by Leon Comerre