At a gruesome Eucharist,
In a dazzling golden shimmer,
In the flickering of candles,
He nears the altar – Pierrot!
And now we arrive at the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom moment, when Pierrot-as-priest pulls his own heart from his body to offer it up to us, his terrified congregants. I remember misunderstanding this movement when I first listened to Pierrot many moons ago – I thought that the violence of the movement was directed outwards, that Pierrot was attacking a priest. (Probably John Williams’s fault. . .) But Giraud’s French and Hartleben’s German leave no room for doubt: “Son coeur entre ses doigts sanglants”; “Sein Herz–in blutgem Fingern–” It’s self-sacrifice, the recurring theme of Pierrot-as-martyr, the pitiable mime, here leaping over the line of good taste in this mock-tragic liturgy.
The intensity of Schoenberg’s musical language could hardly be greater given the ensemble; indeed, it’s difficult to imagine any composer alive in 1912 finding a richer, more inventive, more fascinating compositional solution to this moment. To a certain extent Schoenberg may be echoing the overall design of the first part of “Mondestrunken,” but instead of moon-wine-light tinkling in the piano, now it’s the flickering of candles off Byzantine friezes. As in “Mondestrunken” there are four exact repetitions of the light figure with a fifth that elides with the next idea, so in “Rote Messe” there are six exact repetitions with a seventh eliding with the next idea. And as the climax of “Mondestrunken” inhabits the movement’s central section, permitting a (relatively) long denouement, so it is in “Rote Messe,” with the moment of horror arriving early as Pierrot’s hand “rips through the priestly vestments.” It’s an unforgettable moment in the score: Schoenberg turns the flutter up, with the gesture of the flickering candles transformed as the bass clarinet, viola, cello, and piano trill furiously, fff, ripping through a riff that circles the trill and then returning to it. The vocalist shrieks at us to identify the gesture: “zerreißt” (“rips”) – also fff and slicing across her central octave, landing as the rending begins in the instruments. There’s an almost Newtonian logic to the downbeat in m. 12, the force of the vocalist’s impact so great that it sends another rip upward through the piccolo to a radical destination high above the other instruments’ ranges.
You can hear all that yourself – don’t need me to tell you, do you? – although it’s salutary in a work such as Pierrot to take time to meditate on all the minor miracles. But I want to ask you one more favor: to take a look at a subtler moment from one of the cycle’s most unsubtle movements. Schoenberg repeats a word. It happens in mm. 21-22, and the word is bangen (“frightened”). The poor souls witnessing the self-sacrificial gorefest – even we – are “bangen, bangen” and not just “bangen,” as Hartleben would have it. It’s a Schubertian bit of willfulness on the composer’s part, something exceedingly rare in Pierrot overall, and something that endangers his argument in the prefatory notes that “the mood and character” should not derive from the words “but always solely from the music.” And what does it mean to be doubly frightened, we wonder? Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. . .