7. Der kranke Mond

You moon, nightly sick as death,

Up there on heaven’s black pillow,

Your gaze, so massive, fevered,

Captivates me like an unfamiliar song.

It may not seem much of a claim to say that “Der kranke Mond” is singular in a work that features a different deployment of instruments in each movement. Even so. . .it is singular – of twenty-one songs, it’s the only one for voice and a single instrument, and a linear one at that: the flute. (No. 14, “Die Kreuze,” which closes the second part of the cycle, starts with an art song texture of piano and voice, but at a crucial moment gains the full ensemble, on which more later.) Like each instrument in the cycle, the flute (doubling piccolo) has a unique role in Pierrot lunaire. It’s often enlisted, frequently in tandem with the piano in its upper range, to elicit various qualities of light, from beams to liquid light to flecks. And I’m afraid this brings us to the doorstep of a vast domain (Think Bluebeard’s Castle. . .), the question of to what extent the signification that adheres to timbre stays in place, takes part in a cosmogony of sound color, somewhere on an individual-to-cultural-to-universal continuum.

Surly satellite? (Photo by the author).

Hm. Maybe that isn’t perfectly clear. What I mean is: Is the flute, once linked with light, always or even mostly light? And is that because it’s light for Pierrot, for Schoenberg, for Vienna, for “Western concern music,” for humankind, for Rama, or, mutatis mutandis, ad infinitum? And why should that matter? Because it makes the light that might flow from the flute in “Der kranke Mond” a special kind of light, a relationship to a practice of flute-light, one color in a spectrum sparked by the prism of Pierrot. Here I think the case is easier than I’m making it. Yes, the flute in “Der kranke Mond” is light – a wan and morose light, as the poem explains. That moonlight could be this way isn’t surprising, is it? Oppressive, like the planet barreling inexorably toward Earth in Lars von Trier’s 2011 Melancholia. That film, incidentally, uses Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for much of its score – mostly the Prelude – which aligns with the longing for total annihilation that Kirsten Dunst’s character gives herself over to by movie’s end. Schoenberg does something very different, whittling down the ensemble to just one instrumental voice, as if the everyone else has jumped ship. This sense of abandonment and a consequent collapsing in on oneself is reinforced by some extraordinary expressive markings. I’m drawn to m. 15, where the flute is asked to play pppp, with the vocalist eking out that most Wagnerian of words, Sehnsucht (“longing”), in a counterintuitive ppp gesture that falls into subterranean realms. Listen to ten different recordings, and you’ll realize how unreasonable Schoenberg’s demand is, but it remains. . .an aspiration. How could you perform in that state of self-abnegation – all but absenting yourself as a performer from sound itself? Pierrot has many more surprises for us, but it won’t have anything like this again: a moon so large it fills the sky with its sickness, at the same time a pinprick of light in a field of unfathomable dark.

Schoenberg requests impossible quiet, “Der kranke Mond,” mm. 14-16.

Grotesquely, I’ve gone on too long in the first two paragraphs of my allotted three, so my last comment has to be brief. I hear “Der kranke Mond” in D phrygian, a strangely specific suggestion for what’s supposed to be atonal music. And I like the suggestion, because it is a duet of funereal signifiers: D, the final of the Requiem; Phrygian, the mode of finality.

I’d say it’s D Phrygian, wouldn’t you? “Der kranke Mond,” mm. 26-27.

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