The moon, a glinting scimitar
On a black silk cushion,
Ghostly great – glowers down
Through a night dark as pain.
The unlucky number. Schoenberg had no choice, did he, but to put Pierrot’s execution by crescent-moon-scimitar thirteenth in the cycle. Twelve lucky pitches in the chromatic scale, lined up in a row – thirteenth pitch out. One shy of a twice-seven cycle. Wouldn’t leave the house? Born on 13 September, died on 13 July. Would number measures 12a and 12b? Dreizehn. He’s for the chop. I’ve made too much of it? After all, Pierrot merely imagines that the moon-sword slices him: Er wähnt. And yet it’s all been building up to this in Part Two. The moon absents itself, obscured by the papillons noirs, after which laughter is slain, there’s a grave robbery gone wrong, Pierrot rips out his own beating heart, he debases himself in a gallows song, and now. . .this. The inevitable consequence. End of the line.
The surface of the movement is strikingly varied, its climax carefully prepared. I wonder things: Now the cello, swept up in deranged lyricism, reveals itself as the Schoenberg-protagonist. Male cello hero, Beethovenian Eroica of cellists, Straussian Quixote of the windmills. And, at the cello’s height, a hint of moon-blade falling – legato in the bass clarinet, not yet fierce enough: a prophecy. We return to a recitative-like strategy when the voice enters: We must hear these words, must get the joke, and yet Schoenberg can’t resist a queasy lurch to fff in the band for gespenstisch groß (“spectrally massive”? “ghostly great”?). Now the bass clarinet anticipates, eliding the last line of the first stanza with the next action: Pierrot darting about, restlessly, driving himself crazy as the instruments build up their densest layer of hyperactivity yet – leading-leading, straining-straining, pointing-pointing. Now violent, explosive, he falls to his knees, the vocalist spewing out a frantic stream of syllables until the scimitar of light falls, glissandi scattered over the accented descent in the piano, all of them traversing different distances, arrows pointing downward at skewed angles. Bounce-bounce. The head plops, like at the end of “March to the Scaffold.”
And now the head is separated from the body, without form and void, darkness upon the face of the deep. For the first time in the movement the flute enters, intoning a shortened version of “Der kranke Mond” (No. 7), this time with polyphonic dance partners. I’m reminded of a Renaissance mass movement – a paraphrase mass, the old familiar tune adopted, adapted, in the other voices. No. I’m reminded of Beethoven’s late quartets in what is, after all, a quartet epitaph, or else the vocal quartet in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony. No. I’m reminded of the funeral scene in Bruckner’s Seventh, the heart-in-your-throat farewell at the grave of Wagner. No. It’s the final page of Mahler’s Ninth. He’s launched us into space, Schoenberg. We’ve crossed the event horizon and passed through the black hole. The textless, headless moment has opened up a vaster field of reference than we can say. We can’t say. Grain of sand, note beyond the twelfth note, torso sans mouth, signifying statuary with smashed brow. It’s from here that we see the poet’s Golgotha.