Thursday, January 24, 2013

Schoenberg and Pierrot Lunaire

I was talking about Schoenberg with a friend yesterday and mentioned that a) he is a very important figure historically and b) that his music has often been known to drive away audiences. My friend clearly had difficulty reconciling these two things! The reason is that the role of music in society in the early 21st century is radically different than it was at the beginning of the 20th century. What with all the fuss over the 100th anniversary of the Rite of Spring this year, I'm almost surprised that more mention has not been made of this. "Almost" surprised because it is pretty clear that we live in a time that has little historical awareness.

The 'a' and 'b' of Schoenberg are difficult to reconcile for us because we can't really imagine someone being musically important who doesn't sell a lot of records. This has largely been the standard since the Beatles. I love their music, most of it, but I recognize that they were instrumental in shaping the changed musical world we live in where popularity is the most important criteria for the evaluation of musical quality. If you don't have a 'hit', your aesthetic worth is seriously in question. Stravinsky knew this and made sure to have some 'hits' including the Rite of Spring. But Schoenberg was coming out of a quite different aesthetic tradition. Born in Vienna, he felt the great weight of the Viennese tradition in music. He carried on his back, his entire career, the burden of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and before them, Bach.

For these figures, music was an important aspect of society. It expressed important things about humanity and God and the nature of reality. All through the 19th century this was heightened by philosophers and thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer. Music became the highest of the arts, most able to express the deepest inner feelings of humanity. As the century wore on, enormous, world-encompassing musical compositions like Wagner's operas and Mahler's symphonies were written to embody the profound significance of music.

In my last post I excerpted two pieces by Schoenberg in which he more or less extends this tradition. But he was fated to be one of those to break decisively with the past. Instead of more gigantic orchestral works, he was going to go on a different direction and this was signaled by choosing smaller instrumental forces and by writing music that no longer had a clear tonality.

Perhaps the most unusual piece Schoenberg wrote was his setting of 21 poems by Albert Giraud for singer and small instrumental group (piano, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola and cello) called Pierrot Lunaire, completed in 1912. Pierrot is often described as a melodrama, a recitation with musical accompaniment, as the voice uses an odd sort of half-sung, half-spoken style called sprechstimme. The instrumental group is ironically and intentionally modeled on a cabaret orchestra. Some of the devices of modernism used to separate itself from the idealistic, naturalistic romantic tradition were irony, pastiche, detachment and incongruity--Pierrot has these in spades!

Here is the English translation of the text of the poem used for the first piece:

The wine that through the eyes is drunk,
at night the moon pours down in torrents,
until a spring-flood overflows
the silent far horizon.

Desires, shuddering and sweet,
are swimming through the flood unnumbered!
The wine that through the eyes is drunk,
at night the moon pours down in torrents.

The poet, whom devotion drives,
grows tipsy on the sacred liquor,
to heaven turning his enraptured gaze
and reeling, sucks and slurps
the wine that through the eyes is drunk.

Each song uses a different instrumentation. For the first one, apart from the voice, there is flute, violin, cello and piano. Now let's listen:

That little piano ostinato figure that we hear at the beginning is the material that ties the whole piece together. This figure outlines a whole-tone scale which is completed by the violin. This is not tonal music, but rather atonal music. But that certainly does not mean unstructured music! Indeed not. Part of Schoenberg's burden was to find a way of writing music that would live up to the high standards of coherence set by his predecessors, Bach and Beethoven. At this stage, still searching for a method, he would write music from pure intuition then struggle mightily to analyze how it was put together!

There is a kind of unique eeriness to the music of Schoenberg and his circle from this time that I savor. It slides around with ambiguous murkiness, giving one chills as each new strange facet is revealed. For this kind of music, the best approach is to listen several times until you start to feel familiar with the music. It has a density that takes time to absorb. Here is all of the first group of seven songs of Pierrot with the score. Have a listen.

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