Pale petals of moonlight,
roses of translucent white,
flourish in the summer night –
how I yearn to pick just one!
A wonder. A miracle? Wunderrosen. That’s how Hartleben translates Giraud’s original “roses de clarté.” I’m trying something a bit different above – “roses of translucent white” – in the direction of the miraculous. The poet pines, longing to collect petals of moonlight, proclaiming that he can be assuaged only by scattering them over Colombine’s brown tresses. Double entendre? Perhaps. But it doesn’t have to be. I was reminded of those petals today, walking along the creek that runs next to Mission San Juan Capistrano, the air alive with migrating American snout butterflies (Labytheana carinenta), the dance of their multitudinous wings a minor miracle.
But another minor miracle has always captivated me in “Columbine.” Scored for flute, clarinet, violin, reciter, and piano – a unique gathering, as with each of Pierrot lunaire’s twenty-one movements – it features neither wind instrument until m. 33, the moment when Pierrot fantasizes about scattering the petals. To suggest this, Schoenberg loops three sonorities, the record skipping ten times to end where it began – the clock’s hand stilled, an image of petal-counting, eyes-glazed-over, lovestruck bliss. The violin meanwhile carries on in lyrical abandon, dolce espressivo, as it has for much of the movement, in parodic heartache as the poem describes. Those chords, though. . .a minor seventh chord (without its fifth) in the piano, descending; ascending perfect fourths in the flute and clarinet (in A). I’ve loved those blissed-out, petal-plucking chords since the first time I heard them, since the first time I sat down and listened to all of Pierrot. So much went over my head, I’m sure, but those three chords lodged in my ear for good.
When the opportunity arose to produce a performance of Schoenberg’s masterwork, my colleague Ken Metz and I thought we should invite composers to submit new “preludes”: inspired by any aspect of Pierrot lunaire, written for subsets of the Pierrot ensemble (vocalist, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, cello, piano), and under three minutes in length. The timeline was short, but dozens of composers submitted. We were able to program twelve pieces, one of them mine: an ode to those three chords, with textures and gestures that point to other favorite moments here and there. It’s a way to pick petals along with Pierrot and to scatter them, too. You can hear what grew from Pierrot in eleven other composers’ sound gardens on October 28 and 29 in San Antonio.