With our Do we need a new compass? concert tour starting on the 10th of this month, our NEXT Project Manager, Miranda has written about the culturally significant (40 minute!) Pierrot Lunaire that her early career musicians will be performing, and how its origins have inspired musicians and visual artists alike. 

Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (Moonstruck Pierrot) is one of the seminal works of the last century, a landmark in both chamber music and musical drama. Although it was written almost a decade before Schoenberg began using the twelve-tone technique – perhaps the compositional contribution for which he is best known – Pierrot Lunaire still ushered in a new, modern type of music with its free atonal style and blended singing and speaking vocal technique, known as sprechstimme.

The central character, Pierrot, is essentially a stock character in Italian commedia dell’arte, an early form of Italian comic theatre, from which the English Harlequinade originated. Commedia dell’arte was a popular form of entertainment throughout Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries and featured a host of fixed characters who each represented social stereotypes. Il Dottore, the aged doctor whose goal is to thwart young love, the rich and greedy Pantalone, the coquettish Columbine, and, of course, the naïve, buffoonish servant, the sad clown, Pierrot. As a character, he has inspired artists over the centuries from Picasso to Placebo, Albert Bloch to Agatha Christie, David Hockney to David Bowie, Bob Dylan to Björk.

 Self-portrait by Schoenberg, 1910.


The text for Pierrot Lunaire comes from Belgian poet Albert Giraud’s 1884 cycle of 50 poems, titled Pierrot lunaire: rondels bergamasques (Moonstruck Pierrot: bergamask rondels). Giraud’s work was translated into German by poet and dramatists Otto Erich Hartleben, and it is from these translations that Schoenberg took three sets of seven poems to set to music for his piece. The work originated, not as a brainchild of the genius composer, but as a commission from the Viennese actor Albertine Zehme, who was known at the time for her performances of poetry recited to music. In fact, Schoenberg was not even the original composer. German composer Otto Vrieslander, best known for his Lieder compositions, had set some of Hartleben’s translations some eight years earlier, though Zehme was less than impressed with his offering and subsequently approached Schoenberg instead. Originally scored for just voice and piano, Schoenberg expanded the instrumental forces to include flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, with standard doublings; a line up that’s become standard in modern chamber music, now known as a Pierrot ensemble.

Schoenberg uses the instruments to illustrate the text, with the instrumental combinations varying between most movements. He uses the flute to depict the moon, and the lighter, brighter tones of the piccolo to highlight Pierrot’s facetiousness, while the more sonorous sounds of the strings illustrate the music’s more serious elements.

Of the vocal line, Schoenberg writes; “I must say one thing immediately and decisively: ‘Pierrot lunaire’ is not to be sung! Song melodies must be weighed and formed in a completely different manner than speech melodies. You would completely distort the work, if you were to sing it, and he is correct who says: this is no way to write for singing!” 

Sprechstimme had been used previously, by Schoenberg in his 1911 cantata Gurre-Lieder, and also by Engelbert Humperdinck in the first version of his 1897 melodrama Königskinder. Pierrot Lunaire though marks the first time this technique is used throughout an entire piece, and vocalists from a variety of backgrounds have performed the work over the years. German actor Barbara Sukowa made one of the most successful recordings of the work with the Schoenberg ensemble in 1988; Jazz singer Cleo Laine was nominated for a classical Grammy for her recording with the Nash Ensemble under Elgar Howarth in 1974; pop singer Bjork notably performed the work in 1996 (though decided against recording it as she felt she’d be “invading the territory of people who sing this for a lifetime”) and as recently as last year violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja released a recording on the Alpha label, after having learned the vocal role when a bout of tendinitis temporarily stopped her from playing the violin.

After over a century, Schoenberg’s intoxicating sound-world which envelops Giraud’s hallucinatory poetry continues to enthral and delight. The story of the sad clown, the paradoxical Pierrot – at once hero and fool, childlike yet depraved, peaceful yet tortured – seems to have an enduring poignancy, and one which penetrates far beyond his character’s pantomime-like beginnings.

© Miranda Heggie 2022

Cover image: Composition, VII, 1913 by Wassily Kandinsky whose work was deeply influenced by Schoenberg’s music. Both artists were part of the German expressionism movement and Kandinsky created many works visualising the atonality of Schoenberg’s music.

Want to hear this piece live?

Grab tickets to BCMG's Do we need a new compass? Birmingham Concert