With a capricious beam of light
The moon sets the crystal vials ablaze
On the sandalwood lavatory
Of our pensive dandy from Bergamo.
And just who is the “dandy from Bergamo,” listless at his toilette, rejecting first the red and then the green makeup in favor of moonbeam white? The German is elusive on this point, and English translations typically follow suit. Schoenberg’s title is “Der Dandy,” so the protagonist might arguably be another figure from the commedia dell’arte tradition – Arlecchino, perhaps? – who more neatly fits the descriptor. But Giraud’s poem leaves no room for doubt: his title is “Pierrot Dandy,” and that’s that. It’s a title that belittles its hero at every turn, emasculating him, making fun of him for imagining that makeup could make a difference. If we’re tempted to trace a narrative arc through Pierrot lunaire, “Der Dandy” follows “Colombine,” where Pierrot had longed to strew moon-petals over the object of his desire. Now, dejected, he paints on his mask. Passing over colors associated with his rivals in love, he will remain Pierrot, daub himself with his trademark cake, however painful that is. “Ridi, pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto,” as Canio has it in Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci.
This is a good time to mention that my plan to produce Pierrot lunaire was sparked by Opera San Antonio’s forthcoming production of Leoncavallo’s scorcher of a score. I thought it would be marvelous, frankly, to have Pierrot one weekend and I pagliacci the next, and as it turns out, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. The marvelous. For anyone attending performances of both works, I imagine that the redefinition of Pierrot – the “translation” of him by this assemblage of poets and musicians – will prove thought-provoking, especially since only two decades separate the works. This is one of the things that a tradition as rich as commedia permits: the possibility of infinite translations (even when temporally proximate), including willful and misleading ones.
Here’s one example to stand for the whole. I became a bit. . .obsessed about the “black sacrosanct washstand” (in Stanley Appelbaum’s translation from my trusty Dover score) in “Der Dandy.” What kind of thing must that be? Appelbaum did his best to accurately render Hartleben’s “schwarzen, hochheiligen Waschtisch,” although managing the explosion of hs and schs would give any faithful English translator fits. But take a look at Giraud’s original line: “Sur le lavabo de santal.” That’s santal as in sandalwood, a far cry from the ebony altar that Hartleben conjures. And when I’ve used “sandalwood lavatory” above, then I’m flying in the face of Schoenberg, whose piccolo-spiked, prism-sparking moonbeams doubtless derive from Hartleben’s black-and-white opposition: the washstand-as-abyss against the pale-as-moonlight face paint. To conclude these pensées on “translation,” take a listen to this: “Der Dandy,” in Erwin Stein’s arrangement of Pierrot for voice and piano, with Akane Kudo (voice) and Yumiko Meguri (piano) managing it all sans winds!