Royal red rubies,
Bloody drops of faded glory,
Slumber in sarcophagi,
Down there in the crypts.
Now Pierrot embarks on the series of misadventures that will propel him toward the guillotine of No. 13 (“Enthauptung”). In the darkness – the obscuration of light brought about by the monster moths of No. 8 (“Nacht”) – we have a cluster of “crimes”: the loss of laughter (No. 9), an attempted grave robbery (No. 10), the infamous “red Mass,” a pre-execution visit to the brothel. I’m characterizing this string of movements in this way to try to get inside the narrative implications of the ordering of the poems, one of many magnificent things Schoenberg accomplished when he wrote Pierrot lunaire. The moral light snuffed out, this series of crimes leads to punishment and a vision, in No. 14, of the poet-martyr on the cross. To have pieced together this Ming vase from Albert Giraud’s original set of fifty shards and fragments is at least as willful as various slightly dubitable translations offered up by Hartleben (or, more recently, by me)!
One of the most fascinating things about this particular crime – “Theft” – is its radical shifts of texture, and how those shifts serve, surprisingly, to clarify what the vocalist is saying. Take a look at m. 5, the first moment of its kind in the cycle, where flute, clarinet, and violin sustain a sonority, pianissimo, so that the vocalist can be easily heard in her opening phrase. No such clearing of the air has happened in any of the previous nine movements. And why? Is it because this botched grave robbery – Pierrot and his mates are too spooked to steal anything, it seems – is so much more worthy of attention than what’s happened before? A risible suggestion. For the sake of textural variety alone? I admit that this is an attractive solution in a work of such limitless creativity. Is there a third way? Perhaps by using recitative and making way for the singer-actor to tell her story, a quasi-operatic ploy, Schoenberg is drawing attention to the larger narrative element he has imposed on the whole: emphasizing, through the long history of recitative, the inherited musical language of story.
Something else makes me think so, though the proof is a touch more difficult. “Raub” has an instrumental refrain – not merely a motive that returns and is transformed, but a section that features certain behavioral tics and that keeps coming back to anchor and emblematize the story. This “section with certain tics” can be identified by its stream of repeated sixteenth notes, either on a single pitch or toggling between two of them. Were this opera of the 1730s we would call this section a ritornello – an instrumental refrain – and in Handel’s capable hands, for example, it would both give us a hook and capture some central image or emotional posture of the aria text. And so it is in “Raub”: We hear Pierrot and companions’ chattering teeth or knocking knees as they creep into the crypt. But my favorite moment is the final, accelerando version of the ritornello where, along with the shaking and shivering, the strings provide a duet of marvelous Psycho-like screams in harmonics. Are we laughing? Are we horrified? Both?