4. Eine blasse Wäscherin

The waxen laundress

Washes her pale load in the night

Her bare arms, silvery white,

Plunges it deep in the current.

It is a deep current, a high-tide of interpretive possibility, that Schoenberg invites us to in Pierrot lunaire. I was reading Jonathan Dunsby’s brief comments about the “pallid laudrymaid” (from his 1992 Cambridge Guide), which, despite the concision, introduce important points. For example, people in German musical circles in the 1910s likely would have seen the opening of the movement as an example of Klangfarbenmelodie (sound-color melody), because the flute, clarinet, and violin don’t follow the voice-leading that the part-writing seems to demand. Look at m. 2 below, where the three sonorities share a common tone, B, which Schoenberg gives to each instrument in turn, so that if you train your ears on the B, your experience will be one of shifting instrumental color. For the rest of his commentary – it is brief! – Dunsby explains that Schoenberg would probably have heard “Eine blasse Wäscherin” as tonal, cadencing in G minor, that stable sonority (with an added ninth, A) repeated four times in the closing bars.[1]

Klangfarbenmelodie in the shift of B from flute to violin to clarinet, “Eine blasse Wäscherin,” mm. 1-3.

The question of when and how tonality is or isn’t present in Schoenberg is significant, of course, but 110 years after Pierrot was written, other thoughts top my list. One has to do with instrumentation. This is the first movement without piano, and it’s the first that lands us in a natural environment – in and around a river, as the laundress washes her bleiche Tücher (bleached towels? faded linens?). Schoenberg’s gone pastoral, aligning what Dunsby called a clear example of Klangfarbenmelodie with the old historical mode of using wind instruments to call to mind the countryside. But this is not a rustic dance or a mock-pastoral mode – nary a trace of rib-pokery in this movement. Instead, its opening hints at a chorale, reverential. The effect is very different, but it reminds me of the opening of the third movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. Nature is holy here, or something is.

That something brings me back to the narrative dogging Pierrot’s steps, the promise of a tale told, where what appear distractions are actually essential elements of its unfolding. I’m thinking about how “Colombine” and “Der Dandy” work together – lovestruck and lovelorn – and how “Eine blasse Wäscherin,” which might seem like it comes from outer space and does indeed shift us to the outer space of a rural reality, both begins and prefigures a new focus on an older feminine presence, eventually revealed as a mother. Mary, moon mother; Pierrot as Christ-like martyr. Is she there with her holy chords, washing the funeral wrappings, adumbrating Pierrot’s beheading in No. 13? What shift has taken place in Pierrot’s mind that he has stopped thinking of Colombine and started thinking of that crouched figure, laboring over rags in the dark?

die saufte Magd des Himmels?

[1] Jonathan Dunsby, Schoenberg: Pierrot lunaire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992): 37-40.

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