18. Der Mondfleck

A white fleck of the bright moon

On the back of his black jacket,

Pierrot sets out into the pleasant evening,

Looking for luck, seeking adventure.

I want to go back to a point from “Parodie”: the idea that Schoenberg has made the duenna’s knitting needles tangible, in a sense, by pairing the viola and clarinet in a canon, with one part inverted to suggest needles crossing. And I want to go back to another point in “Die Kreuze”: the idea that the pianist is very nearly “crucified” through the Lisztian difficulty of the keyboard writing. And I want to go back to one more point in “Galgenlied”: the possibility that Schoenberg tasked himself with severe compositional restrictions that would reflect the self-negation present in the poem. These three ideas, in different ways, suggest an identification with material, an invitation to become something else, put on a costume, to embody some explosive property that blows up various proprieties surrounding both composition and performance. Each steps boldly over a line into a place of tremendous vulnerability and risk.

That’s the sort of fleck that might land on someone’s coat. (Photo by author.)

This leads us to the vulnerability and risk of “Der Mondfleck,” a devil of technical demands, dishing out constantly varied, frenetic levels of activity to the full ensemble. (How anyone could manage this movement without a conductor is a wonder to me!) It resembles its earlier neighbor, “Parodie,” in one crucial way: it starts canonically. But whereas in “Parodie” there’s a single canon, with the second part inverted, in “Der Mondfleck,” there’s a double canon – one between the piccolo and clarinet, and one between the violin and cello – making this the cycle peak of contrapuntal display. Nor is it quite enough to say that there are two canons going on. The canon between the violin and cello begins as a strict canon at the unison (like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”), with the violin leading by a bar; however, they switch places at m. 11, and now the cello leads by a bar. The handful of bars in which this trade-off is managed are just as wickedly complicated and compelling. Each bar is a palindrome, that perfect device for getting turned around and heading in the opposite direction. This same process, with duet partners locked in a canon where the leader keeps changing, also happens in the flute and clarinet, but at a much quicker pace. In other words, “Der Mondfleck” involves a double canon with palindromic pivot points that swap the canonic leader and follower and initiate (near perfect) retrogrades. And that’s to say nothing of the voice or piano!

Double canon, double jeopardy, “Der Mondfleck,” mm. 1-2.

That there’s nothing else quite like this is the cycle seems a bit obvious. More useful to say that this bit of compositional virtuosity, highly abstract as it is, also manages such a flurry of motion that it easily conveys Pierrot madly brushing at his back with first this hand, then that one, turning around, twisting himself in knots to get that blasted speck of moon off his coat. The irony, as it was with “Parodie,” is potent. Previously the duenna’s knitting needles got an inverted canon; now the ants-in-your-pants, cat-chasing-its-tail shtick gets a double canon with palindromes and cancrizans. How high and how low, simultaneously. And this feeling of being driven crazy by the stain you cannot catch, with its overtones of the Scottish play, might remind us of Pierrot-poet, of the everyman, once drawn from commedia and, in days to come, renewed by Wozzeck.

A palindromic bar in the violin shifts the leader role to the cello, “Der Mondfleck,” mm. 11-12.

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