21. O alter Duft


O fairyland fragrance of long ago,

Once more you cast your spell on me!

And a horde of roguish knaves

Drifts weightless on the air.

That “ancient scent,” “fragrance of long ago,” the unforgettable perfume of the land of fairy tales – I suppose Schoenberg uses tonal artifacts to suggest it, as everyone else says and writes. He does frequently enough draw on E major. Look at the right hand in m. 1 of the piano with its descending thirds taken from the key of E major or the chord in m. 3 (E major) that closes the vocalist’s phrase on the word Märchenzeit. There’s another telltale moment in m. 16, where the right hand of the piano has the E major chord again, albeit rhythmically activated. And in the penultimate bar of the piece, there’s a sort of landing on E in the bass (in octaves, that rarest of rare intervals in Pierrot), again on the word Märchenzeit. Here it is, then: whenever that word appears, in its three ritual statements over the three stanzas of the poem, the music holds up its E major card. But it’s crucial, I think, to realize that this E major chord, figure, or bass note is always presented as one layer in a multilayered texture that is layered vertically, yes, and also horizontally. The left hand in m. 1, for instance, undercuts E major and is also fascinating: a much better candidate than the right for the wafting scent of fairyland, moving smoothly, gently, in a way that is strikingly linear for Pierrot.

E major as a layer, the ancient scent wafts in the left hand, “O alter Duft,” mm. 1-5.

This sort of text painting, bringing images and ideas from the poem to new life through musical figures, is relatively understated in “O alter Duft.” Here Schoenberg seems to take a step away from the musical “performance” of the poetry to focus on a deeper through line. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that he’s willing to repeat the music of mm. 1-2 in mm. 14-15, only slightly altered, and again in mm. 26-end, though here it is subjected to greater change. The idea of refrain, so familiar to the poetry, has been meticulously avoided through most of the cycle, and now, we have it in such clarity that a first-time listener can hear the “tune” that returns. Inevitably, this is a way of cultivating the sensation of nostalgia within the movement itself. Schoenberg makes the tune so clear, by making it a tonal artifact and linking it to a certain word, Märchenzeit, that we are invited to long for its return. But there’s also the possibility of us hearing the cultivation of nostalgia more globally – and I think many people have suggested as much – because by linking tonal artifacts and nostalgia, Schoenberg might lead us to long for the tonal system as a whole, to see the common practice period as a prelapsarian age of innocence.

That undiscovered country where Pierrot performed. . . (Photo by the author, courtesy the real moon.)

In its last movement, Pierrot lunaire asks us who we are. Are we people who long to turn back the clock, to return to an imagined time when we “thought as a child”? Or do we understand the place we long for, the Märchenzeit, as that undiscovered country where Pierrot performed: those extraordinary movements that passed by so quickly, like dreams, each a little miracle of craft and intelligence, wit and jest, horror and delight? Who are we when we yearn? What ancient scent lingers for us after the vocalist, alone, intones her final Märchenzeit? One thing we must allow Pierrot is that it has the power to change our answer. We grow up through it.

Which Märchenzeit would you prefer? “O alter Duft,” mm. 24-30.

20. Heimfahrt (Barcarole)

With moonbeam as a rudder,

His boat a water lily,

Pierrot sets sail for the South,

A gentle breeze at his back.

Schoenberg tells us it’s Italian by subtitling it “Barcarole,” only the second time he has appended a musical term to one of the poem’s titles – the first was for “Nacht (Passacaglia).” But “Hemifahrt (Barcarole)” is also the last in a series of movements that makes use of very specific historical musical techniques or genres: the canon in “Parodie,” the double canon in “Der Mondfleck,” the serenade in the previous movement, and now the Venetian boat song, or barcarole. This highlights a tension in Schoenberg between the system crash he wrought on tonality and his abiding fascination with his place in history and with historical forms. It’s possible to understand the persistent focus on those music-historical artifacts as crucial to the narrative of Pierrot’s Part Three, concerned as it is with nostalgia and homecoming. Not that Schoenberg abandons his restless creativity – the addition of these artifacts acts as a refining lens, perhaps shifting the focus from evoking atmosphere through timbral and textural invention to evoking it through historical referent, spiked by timbral and textural invention.

Illustration by Paul Mercuri from Costumes historiques (Source: Wiki Commons)

It always seems to me that this is the real ending of the cycle and that “O alter Duft,” the twenty-first movement, happens after the performance is over, in the twilight glow as we leave the theater. For it is in “Heimfahrt” that Pierrot departs, sailing off in his water-lily boat, steering toward his homeland Bergamo with a rudder made of moonlight. This is already the stuff of fairy tales and children’s stories, the “Märchenzeit” that the poet longs for in “O alter Duft.” It makes me think of The Golden Book of Poetry, an old family favorite, and of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “The Little Land,” about a boy imagining his home garden a vast domain: “And the leaves, like little ships, / Sail about on tiny trips.”What sort of place is this, then, that occupies this poet’s dreams, the place where Pierrot comes from?

Just some lily pads! (Photo by the author)

The opening bars with their rolling, lolling figure in the pizzicato strings are enough to establish the barcarole, along the lines of those found in Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte. (Here’s the Op. 19, No. 6 in G minor, for example.) And the clarinet in m. 3 gives us the gondolier’s lugubrious song with the requisite vocal ornamentation. The piano even joins in thirds for the first three notes, “sweetly” (“zart”), another evocation of the barcarole, where the melody is often harmonized in thirds. None of this is snarky, though, or at least I don’t hear it that way; it is, like “Serenade,” strangely beautiful. Into this beautiful barcarole, Schoenberg also weaves various sounds of water, perhaps as it laps against the gondola-water-lily. Schoenberg even marks the right hand of the piano at the end of m. 3 wie Tropfen (“like drops”). It’s an almost Schubertian evocation of environment, particularly when one thinks of the gondola/coffin association explored by Thomas Mann in his Death in Venice, also a work of 1912. If this is Pierrot’s exit from stage, sending him off to Bergamo in Charon’s Stygian ferry has a sort of watertight logic. I wish I had room for one more thing, and another, and another, but the entry is at its end, the performance over, and we’ve gone home. What remains is memory.

The Schoenbergian barcarole, with drops, “Heimfahrt,” mm. 1-3.

19. Serenade

With a grotesquely giant bow,

Pierrot saws away at his viola,

Like a stork on single leg

He glumly plucks a pizzicato.

I find “Serenade” very beautiful. Do you? It’s worth asking the question, because Schoenberg was capable – it needs to be said out loud – of writing music of striking beauty. (I was reminded of this in two different conversations with different people in different places within the span of the last six days. Both people, to be fair, were talking about Verklärte Nacht!) You want proof? I can’t prove it. This reminds me, in turn, of something I read not so long ago, attributed to artist Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011): “You can’t prove beauty, it’s there as a fact and you know it and you feel it and it’s real, but you can’t say to somebody this has it.” [1] That must be more or less right, but I’m looking at m. 30, when the cello soars above the repeated figure in the piano, and does anyone with ears hear this as other than beautiful, however strange?

Pierrot plays a beautiful line, “Serenade,” mm. 30-31.

Here’s a marvelous thing. Pierrot is serenading us on the Bratsche (viola) in the poem, but on the cello in Schoenberg’s score. Instead of a grotesquely large bow, it’s the instrument itself that gets distorted, magnified, on its way from words to sounds. The cello has already been identified as Pierrot in other movements; it also has associations with the male hero and antihero in nineteenth-century music and with Schoenberg himself – the authorial presence – because it was his instrument. (That point doesn’t need to be taken in any interpretative way; it can be as simple as a pointing out that the composer played the cello.) Pierrot, therefore, both is the cello and plays it, and Schoenberg both is the cello and writes it. The reason it’s worth teasing that out is that “Serenade” is the cycle’s most unrelentingly lyrical movement, partly because it describes a scene where lyricism is demanded. Schoenberg is answering the dramatic demands of the cycle, yes, but he is also daring to write a serenade in the bold new idiom that Pierrot lunaire exemplifies. And? Rejection! Cassander is the sidekick as he was in “Gemeinheit,” and yet again he’s the butt of the joke. Without missing a beat, Pierrot grabs the heckler, and bows his head instead of the Bratsche. Don’t you find it tempting to understand this, given the Pierrot-cello-hero-Schoenberg cluster, as the composer ignoring his critics and playing on, come what may?

Pierrot keeps playing, despite critical reception, “Serenade,” mm. 41-44.

How can we know, though, if the beauty that I hear in “Serenade” is beauty or mock-beauty? Is the dreamy Pierrot that Hartleben describes so taken with himself that he makes a mockery of beauty, using its component parts without being able to piece them together? Here I’m reminded of Beckmesser’s contest song in Die Meistersinger, where Wagner tries his hardest to write bad music for a character who “doesn’t get it” (much more could be and has been said elsewhere), before giving us the real thing. I don’t hear Schoenberg doing that. Cassander, I think, should have listened – what Pierrot was playing for him was top shelf, just beautiful.

[1] Quoted in Emily LaBarge, “At Dulwich” London Review of Books 43, no. 24 (16 December 2021): 27.

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.

17. Parodie

Bright knitting needles light

Her gray locks,

Mumbling, the duenna sits there

In her little red skirt.

Once more Schoenberg has taken casual, even flippant cues in the poetry and has turned them into endlessly fascinating music. In “Parodie,” all hinges on the pair of knitting needles, the sole source of interest in the duenna’s mop of gray hair. And here I can’t resist taking a quick detour into the poetry. Hartleben both added and took away from Giraud’s original. The French for “knitting needles” is “des aiguilles à tricoter,” but Hartleben takes advantage of the more compact German word Stricknadeln (“knitting needles”) and appends a pair of descriptors, “blank und blinkend” (“bright and shiny”?) The alliteration emphasizes the paired needles, as if they were the names of a comic duo. Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Blank und Blinkend. This becomes quite funny in the last line of the poem, another of those instances where Hartleben, in defiance of the French, has altered the repeated line to “Stricknadeln, blink und blank.” He’s switched the order and cut off the suffix of blinkend. “Blink and Blank. We’re the floorshow.”

Ok, look, it’s really Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Publicity photo by Hal Roach Studios, 1930 [Source: Wiki Commons]

Schoenberg musico-anthropomorphizes the knitting needles, giving us a not-quite-but-nearly-strict inverted canon between the viola and the clarinet. Not only do we get a real Blink and Blank, made sonically real through the music and visible through the two performers, but the two are related and different – like the words that gave rise to them – and they are “crossed,” through the use of inversion, like knitting needles might be if they were used to hold up someone’s hair. (It’s easier to see in the score than to explain.) Once you look, you’ll see that the voice is also involved in the canon, at least on paper, though because of the use of Sprechstimme, this is usually much less clear in performance. The piano also draws from the canon material but must tend to other things, too; it dips in and out, varies, anticipates, and goes off on its own. As so often, the piano presents a powerfully complicated piece of the Schoenbergian puzzle: Emcee? Glue? Magic hat? Harlequin-like patchwork, knitted together?

Clarinet and viola as comic duo in inverted canon, “Parodie,” mm. 1-3.

I’ll make one more visit to the original French. Giraud’s poem shows us the gray-haired duenna waiting, pining for Pierrot, with her hair “done up” pitifully, the needles identifying her as working class and piling another “mother” signifier on top of her identity as duenna. But Hartleben gives her a costume change. As you’ve read, the duenna wears a “roten Röckchen,” “a little red skirt,” in the German, but Giraud’s original is “casaquin cerise,” a much more elevated phrase for a much more elegant item of clothing, “a cherry-colored casaquin.” I confess that I had no idea what a casaquin was until working on this blog entry. Far from a red miniskirt, it’s actually a short, fitted coat, popular in the 1700s, often embroidered. So Giraud paints the duenna in a completely different, more sympathetic light. Hartleben lowers the scene with a touch of cabaret, making Schoenberg’s contrapuntal elevation of the whole pungently ironic. The performers, meanwhile, must labor away at their exacting exchange: they’re knitting needles, after all.

The casaquin on display, Les Palatines. Habit Ordinaire. Les Casaquins by Antonio Hérisset (1685-1769) [Source: Wiki Commons]

16. Gemeinheit

Into the bald pate of Cassander,

Whose shrieks shatter the air,

Pierrot cranks (hamming it up,

With tender care) – a cranium drill!?

As awful as it is (Gemeinheit: “foul play”; “nasty trick”; “just plain mean!”), it’s all actually quite funny, this one, if you’re in the right sort of mood. Just read the poem – all about Pierrot stuffing fine Turkish tobacco into Cassander’s head while he wails in agony, inserting the pipestem made of Vistula sour cherry wood, and smoking him, “comfortably” – and it might simply seem grotesque, but the music shifts it toward farce, I think. Does it ruin the joke to explain it? And yet look at Schoenberg’s brilliant comic timing after the line about Pierrot’s mock tenderness: a pause, then the punchline – “a cranium drill” (einen Schädelbohrer) – in the vocalist’s most deadpan basement range. The piccolo and clarinet cackle their goofy, razzmatazz laugh track. We are in a performance! Pierrot, fully costumed, has at last come into his own, is doing what he was born to do. He’s cutting up, and the crowd goes wild.

Schoenberg, master of comic timing, “Gemeinheit,” mm. 7-9.

Schoenberg is so economical, his language so packed with purpose, that the piccolo-and-clarinet laugh track isn’t just that. Look at how, at the end of the bar (m. 8), the duo have sextuplets in contrary motion for the turning of the cranium drill, and how immediately in the next bar they’ve traded it for the gruff, four-square repeated sixteenth notes with chromatic motion that opened the movement in the cello. I’m fascinated by the last gesture, I suppose because it’s less clear what it’s doing, but my sense of it is as follows: Pierrot is “rolling up his sleeves and getting it done,” a kind of nonchalance as he matter-of-factly shows the drill to the audience, perhaps, or checks that he has the right drill bit in, etc. Maybe you visualize it differently, but however you do, it’s still three meaning-rich gestures in four beats: one responding to the vocalist’s Schädelbohrer line, one mimicking the drilling motion, and one conveying character and giving us a sense of return in the movement.

Cassander’s squeal. . .and a donkey, “Gemeinheit,” mm. 13-15.

Since Giraud and Hartleben describe Cassander’s squeal in the poem, Schoenberg couldn’t very well leave it out of the music, could he? And there it is in m. 14, that hilarious isolated piccolo F sharp, just before the vocalist tells us what it is (“dessen Schrein” = “whose shriek”). But just as uproarious is the clarinet hee-haw at the end of the next bar, which makes me think of Mendelssohn’s music for Bottom as a donkey in the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The section after this all the way up to the end of the movement is consumed with the gruff repeated-note gesture, now exchanged among the instruments of the ensemble. It’s music of movement or activity underlying Pierrot’s sticking in the pipestem and puffing away. But Schoenberg brings back the laugh track razzmatazz (now in the piccolo and piano) for the final words of the poem: big finish; everybody cheers! And what about that note held over in the cello. . .spotlight on Pierrot? Plunks (piano) in the other instruments as lights out? Again, it’s a performance, from beginning to end.

Laugh track once more, and curtain? “Gemeinheit,” mm. 25-27.

15. Heimweh

Sweet and sorrowful – a sigh of crystal

From Italy’s theater of old

Reaches us: Pierrot is so wooden now,

Has become fashionable kitsch.

“Homesickness” is a rejection. Of where we are now, a realization that something about this moment isn’t enough for us, that we don’t belong, that we should go back. “Homesickness” is a longing. For that other place, for a place of fantasy where we know what we know and things are as they are or should be. Giraud and Hartleben had it easy in playing with nostalgie (the title of the French original); however surreal their poetry, it was not an experiment with the substance of language or a rejection of poetic form or inheritance. Quite the opposite: the poems are rooted in inherited poetic form and pull stock from Europe’s storehouse of theater history. Not so with Schoenberg, whose project was one of the most provocative that any single musician has ever conceived or carried out, more profoundly upsetting to the status quo, I would argue, than Joyce’s challenge to syntax or Picasso’s to representation. It is the Everest of early twentieth-century avant-gardism. Can we climb it? Let’s give it a go.

Fuji-san, not Everest, but you get the point (Photo by the author).

If you’ve been reading these entries, you’ve likely gathered a few things from my approach in “blogging the 21 movements of Pierrot lunaire,” but I should perhaps name a few of them. First, I’ve refused to be intimidated by Schoenberg’s accomplishment, because it is intimidating, particularly if one is driven to understand (at some level) the composer’s musical language on its own terms. But if we act that way toward it, it can only exist at a remove, and I want to hold it close in the mind and ear. Second, I wanted to accept Schoenberg’s invitation to embrace a radical creativity, to play fearlessly in the funhouse that he opens the door to. That has meant trying out different media, trying out different tones in my writing, fostering a fruitful inconsistency within a consistent form. Third, I wanted to focus on a variety of analytical approaches, including ones that would be widely accessible (as opposed to, say, highly specialized pitch analysis). I could mention a few others, but these three are most relevant.

A crystal sigh, the sweet lament, the marionette clicking – all before the words! “Heimweh,” mm. 1-2.

And now it’s the third paragraph, and I’ve yet to say anything about the music of “Heimweh,” which opens the third, and in some ways most complicated, part of Pierrot. I wonder if you’re longing for another place by now? I wonder if I am. Longing for the days, just days ago, when I could write about moon-wine-light or black moths (butterflies!) or sparkling rubies on coffins or even crosses. But now we’re grown up, in a land of confusion, and we’re torn between this and that. What does it mean, Hartleben (and Giraud), for commedia dell’arte itself to send out a krystallnes Seufzen, a “crystalline sigh,” a lament that Pierrot is not relevant or only relevant because he’s irrelevant, a meme of forgotten origin in a sort of ennui-infested kitschiverse? What does it mean, Schoenberg, to layer, thrillingly but overwhelmingly, the sweetness of the violin line with the marionettish clicking of the clarinet and the piano’s evocation of the mysterious “crystal sigh” (before we’ve even heard a word from the vocalist) in a texture that is shockingly new, the opposite of nostalgic? Are you rejecting rejection, Schoenberg? Unboiling the egg, un-meming the meme, unkitsching the kitsch? Are you un-homesick?

Self assertion? The cellist furiously rejects. . .homesickness? “Heimweh,” mm. 28-31.

14. Die Kreuze

Poems are the holy crosses

That poets bleed out on,

Blinded by the vultures

In phantom flapping flocks.

In the wake of Pierrot’s beheading, this last song of Part Two zooms out. Now we see everything from a great distance, are asked to reflect. Pierrot, without a trace of irony, as my ears hear it, has become the Christ-as-poet, crucified for and on his art, and our vocalist gives a homily. It reminds me of the framing pair of narrators in Benjamin Britten’s Rape of Lucretia (1946), who are given the task of making sense of the tragedy at the heart of that opera. I think one reason I make the link is because in both pieces the music makes the shift from action to reflection – it no longer feels like mickey-mousery, as has been the case with so much of the music in Pierrot’s Part Two. An immediate justification for this shift is that Pierrot doesn’t get named in the poem – the familiar protagonist’s moniker is missing from “Die Kreuze,” and in his absence, music has the freedom to shift, or the burden of shifting, into other modes.

The pianist’s cross to bear, “Die Kreuze,” mm. 7-8.

The first of these “other modes” haunts the piano. Voice and piano may seem to suggest art song, but Schoenberg’s writing for the instrument in the first section of “Die Kreuze” is orchestrally conceived: thick, spiky gestures detonate across its range in a way like an aerial bombardment, an impossibility in 1912 that feels impossibly predictive. Think of what it must require to play the over 50 notes, many of them in trichords that continually shuffle their intervallic content, in m. 8 alone. There is a preference throughout for a trichord built on a tritone plus a perfect fourth (E-flat, A, D, for example), but if that’s a referential sonority, it keeps coming in and out of focus in a way that defies prediction. If there’s a deeper logic of succession, a Messiaen-like pattern of sonority, understanding that intellectually would not, I imagine, make a great deal of difference when it came to playing the thing. For all that complication, Schoenberg doesn’t miss the opportunity to paint: the fluttering wings of the phantom scavengers (echoing the light-obscuring moths from No. 8), the flowing out of blood (echoing the moon-scimitar of No. 13, anticipating the red sun setting), and arguably an assortment of other poetic images in this, the cycle’s pinnacle of expressive pianistic excess.

Fluttering of ghost-vulture swarm, “Die Kreuze,” m. 5.

I hear a structural echo of “Enthauptung” in “Die Kreuze,” with an assertive (and yes, violent) first section yielding to a contemplative one. Almost as if the impact of No. 13 sends a ripple – crest and trough – through No. 14. And as the piano rode the wave, so the quartet of other instruments joins in the wake. I hesitate to use the overused word, but I can’t resist: This music, this second “other mode,” is epic, as in Ben-Hur, as in The Ten Commandments. Filmic, cast of thousands. There’s the vision of the body on the cross, harmonics ringing in the piano from the depressed but not sounded keys, ghost tones. But the thing that gets me, that slays me, is the “distant commotion of the commoners,” whose noise is raised by clarinet, violin, cello, ppp, “without expression,” and its transition into the sinking of a red sun over two eternal measures into the trilling night. The clarion calls in the clarinet, bell raised à la Mahler. Darkness falls. It is finished, abandoned to vultures.

Epic moment, cast of thousands from a distance, “Die Kreuze,” mm. 13-14.

13. Enthauptung

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.

Cello-hero, prophetic light-blade, “Enthauptung,” mm. 1-3.

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.”

Fall of the moon-blade, and the Berliozian punchline, “Enthauptung,” mm. 20-21.

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.

Quartet as all, “Enthauptung,” mm. 22-26.

12. Galgenlied

The scrawny whore

With scraggly neck

Will be his final


And what should one say after such a quatrain? “Galgenlied” may seem calculated to offend, but in the decade after Strauss’s Salome (1905) and in the immediate aftermath of “Red Mass,” perhaps it’s a mistake to focus on that quality. In terms of the narrative of Part Two of Pierrot, Schoenberg has led us through a series of crimes and now anticipates Pierrot’s execution in a hasty administering of mock-last rites. And this rite – by far the shortest movement of the work, denied the resonance of the piano, with the text compressed to the utmost, the vocalist breathlessly motor-mouthing it – is, as the title might suggest, a bit of gallows humor. Essentially colorless except for the, um, fountain-like burst of piccolo in the penultimate bar, followed by the littlest post-cadential shudder – it is the opposite of erotic, a pitiful instance of Rothian self-abasement. And the shock of this musical negation after the excess of “Red Mass” presents a juxtaposition of extremes worthy of late Beethoven.

The vocalist as motor-mouth, “Galgenlied,” voice, mm. 1-3.

As with “Gebet an Pierrot” (No. 9), Hartleben practiced some powerful contraction on Giraud’s original. The first line above is “La maigre amoreuse au long cou” in the French, which becomes “Die dürre Dirne / Mit langem Halse” in German. I count these as, respectively, ten syllables over one line versus ten syllables over two – the French is halved. Hartleben, with his post-Wagnerian orientation, gives us a strikingly alliterative phrase that seems to disavow any possibility of tenderness. Nor is a hint of tenderness (amoreuse, after all) all that Hartleben excised from the original French. The missing parts of Giraud’s poem are by turns strange, wistful, and, at the end, explicitly sexual: Schoenberg’s parting shot with the piccolo has ample justification in the French. This brings up the interesting possibility of the composer restoring something missing from Hartleben.

The piccolo has its moment, “Galgenlied,” mm. 12-13.

This is the second time in this brief entry that I’ve mentioned absence or negation. It’s worth a third mention as a way of opening a can of worms that I can no longer avoid. I’ll put it as a question: Is Schoenberg’s musical language ever a language of negation – a matter of avoidance, of choosing against? In many cases the answer is obviously no. The pitch logic of “Nacht,” the repetition of meaningful gestures that sound out the text, or of compelling sonorities for whatever reason – in none of these approaches do I understand a spirit of negation. However, in a movement such as “Galgenlied,” deliberately trimmed of all fat, how do we understand what the composer is doing with pitch? I don’t say rhythm, because the rhythmic accumulation and release over the course of the movement couldn’t be clearer, but is the underlying impetus for the choice of pitches (beyond a preference for the major 7th) based on a pattern of denying pattern? If so, in this movement, Schoenberg’s embrace of a method of compositional negation parallels the self-negation also emphasized by Hartleben. That is, Schoenberg seems to be taking his cue for how to compose from the state of the poetic protagonist. But blink and the moment’s over.

Composing by negation? Pitch un-logic, “Galgenlied,” viola and cello, mm. 1-3.