Pierrot! My laugh,
I’ve lost it!
That shining image
Has melted away – melted away!
Are you reminded of the Wicked Witch of the West? “What a world, what a world!” There’s so much to this connection – in my mind – that it would take novels to unpack it all. Makeup? Cosplay? To Oz and home again in a big moon-balloon? How much time do you have? All that to say that I wanted to be more. . .willful in my translation of the first stanza above, using “sense of humor” for Lachen, because I weary of Lachen always being translated laugh, although that’s clearly what it is: an action, a thing you do and not the underlying thing that motivates it. Maybe that’s better in Part Two of Pierrot lunaire, which moves from the personal world of Part One to a series of scenes and activities that Pierrot is a participant in. Another way to think of Part Two is as a set of skits, an album of Pierrot’s greatest hits gone wrong. Can you see him in this one? Mock-praying? (“Prayer to Pierrot,” after all. . .) Contorting his face to force a stagey smile, winding up for a guffaw only to collapse in extravagant boo-hoos? Is it funny, this lament for lost humor? Mime-funny, at least?
Schoenberg pulls faces, too. He’s performing in every song, each time a new mask with new rules, and hanging over the proceedings is always a question about his own relationship to these words. How funny does he think them? How funny does he want us to think them, given the earnestness of his larger project to “emancipate dissonance”? Where does irony lie? When the clarinet squeaks out – an unforgivable description; I’m sorry – its opening phrase, isn’t it shrieking with laughter, play-acting at the thing that’s supposedly gone missing, like some second character tiptoeing behind you, giving you bunny ears and cutting up for the benefit of the crowd? Or here’s another one, more elusive, that gets me. When the poem turns to the black flag now waving on its mast, what is that curious music going on in the piano? A trumpet tattoo, the back-and-forth flutter of cloth in the breeze, its rippling sent up and down in the clarinet? So much activity, and so varied, for one little mention of a black flag, and Schoenberg gives us an entire maritime scene in mickey-mousing detail. . . He’s mocking himself, or us, or both. Here’s a place where I find myself wanting to see what a singing actor does. Is she tempted to raise a hand, fist clenched around an invisible mini-flag, and wave it like on the Fourth of July? Surely she hasn’t the time to busy herself with such antics. Not with such poetic compression.
Compression itself is another fascinating topic in “Gebet an Pierrot,” because Hartleben’s translation loses a great deal of poetic real estate. That last line of the first stanza? “Zerfloss–zerfloss!” which I’ve translated as “melted away,” but the original French fourth line, which doesn’t even contain the verb, is “dans un mirage à la Shakespeare.” Hartleben lops off half the syllables! Schoenberg has been keen in his musically compact response, but the concision – rushed through, barked and whispered – exists in tension with the “prayer” promised in the title. Here the French title, “Supplique,” might have supplied something more pressing.