11. Rote Messe

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 candles flicker in “Rote Messe,” mm. 1-2.

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.

Let ‘er rip, “Rote Messe,” mm. 11-13.

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. . .

Not just bangen, but bangen bangen, “Rote Messe,” mm. 21-23.

10. Raub

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)!

A Habsburg ruby, entombed in Vienna (detail), photo by the author.

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.

Make way for the recitative! “Raub,” mm. 4-5.

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?

Run away! Pierrot and friends freaked out, “Raub,” mm. 16-17.

9. Gebet an Pierrot

Pierrot! My laugh,

I’ve lost it!

That shining image

Has melted away – melted away!

Are you reminded of the Wicked Witch of the West? “What a world, what a world!” There’s so much to this connection – in my mind – that it would take novels to unpack it all. Makeup? Cosplay? To Oz and home again in a big moon-balloon? How much time do you have? All that to say that I wanted to be more. . .willful in my translation of the first stanza above, using “sense of humor” for Lachen, because I weary of Lachen always being translated laugh, although that’s clearly what it is: an action, a thing you do and not the underlying thing that motivates it. Maybe that’s better in Part Two of Pierrot lunaire, which moves from the personal world of Part One to a series of scenes and activities that Pierrot is a participant in. Another way to think of Part Two is as a set of skits, an album of Pierrot’s greatest hits gone wrong. Can you see him in this one? Mock-praying? (“Prayer to Pierrot,” after all. . .) Contorting his face to force a stagey smile, winding up for a guffaw only to collapse in extravagant boo-hoos? Is it funny, this lament for lost humor? Mime-funny, at least?

One of Margaret Mitchell’s designs for Pierrot in transformation.

Schoenberg pulls faces, too. He’s performing in every song, each time a new mask with new rules, and hanging over the proceedings is always a question about his own relationship to these words. How funny does he think them? How funny does he want us to think them, given the earnestness of his larger project to “emancipate dissonance”? Where does irony lie? When the clarinet squeaks out – an unforgivable description; I’m sorry – its opening phrase, isn’t it shrieking with laughter, play-acting at the thing that’s supposedly gone missing, like some second character tiptoeing behind you, giving you bunny ears and cutting up for the benefit of the crowd? Or here’s another one, more elusive, that gets me. When the poem turns to the black flag now waving on its mast, what is that curious music going on in the piano? A trumpet tattoo, the back-and-forth flutter of cloth in the breeze, its rippling sent up and down in the clarinet? So much activity, and so varied, for one little mention of a black flag, and Schoenberg gives us an entire maritime scene in mickey-mousing detail. . . He’s mocking himself, or us, or both. Here’s a place where I find myself wanting to see what a singing actor does. Is she tempted to raise a hand, fist clenched around an invisible mini-flag, and wave it like on the Fourth of July? Surely she hasn’t the time to busy herself with such antics. Not with such poetic compression.

The clarinet guffaws at a lost laugh? “Gebet an Pierrot,” mm. 1-4.

Compression itself is another fascinating topic in “Gebet an Pierrot,” because Hartleben’s translation loses a great deal of poetic real estate. That last line of the first stanza? “Zerfloss–zerfloss!” which I’ve translated as “melted away,” but the original French fourth line, which doesn’t even contain the verb, is “dans un mirage à la Shakespeare.” Hartleben lops off half the syllables! Schoenberg has been keen in his musically compact response, but the concision – rushed through, barked and whispered – exists in tension with the “prayer” promised in the title. Here the French title, “Supplique,” might have supplied something more pressing.

A raft of maritime signifiers, “Gebet an Pierrot,” mm. 7-8.

8. Nacht

Malevolent pitch-black moths

Slaughtered the sunlight.

A sealed spellbook,

The horizon is empty, silenced.

The power of “Nacht” – the coup de theâtre it manages – depends on context. It’s always disheartening, therefore, to see it, a stump of a work, in the Norton Anthology of Western Music, Vol. 3, longing for its roots and branches. To have heard the solo flute in “Der kranke Mond” in the previous movement is the essential history of “Nacht,” where, for the first time in the entire cycle, there is no flute or piccolo – no moon-flute-light. We are dropped into the dark that the movement’s title promises. But the world has also gotten larger. In “Der kranke Mond,” we had dwindled away, abandoned by the other instruments. However massive its sick moon, it shone on us alone. Now we are out in some strange world – the upside-down? Mothra vs. Godzilla? – but a world, a vision that sights a void writ in the vastness of heaven.

Moth wing detail (Photo by author)

I’m tempted beyond that which I can bear: as a teacher, I must return to the Norton Anthology. I could do no better – could I? – given my choice of movements than to anthologize “Nacht” and “Enthauptung” (Pierrot’s “beheading” in No. 13). They show Schoenberg exploring two radically different approaches to pitch organization within the same larger work. Moreover, “Nacht” adumbrates, through its motivic games, the serial procedures that Schoenberg would eventually develop, inevitably functioning in the anthology as a kind of stylistic prophecy, I guess. But the thing that strikes me again is the timbral shock: from solo flute in its middle register to bass clarinet, cello, piano, in their lowest. Timbral light is extinguished. And in its absence, Schoenberg draws the circling figure of the mammoth mutant moths – through the three-note repeating figures, through fugal entries, through chromatic descent – circumscribing light and snuffing it out with night-black wings. Ever closing and closing again, closing within closing until a muffled hailstorm of wings fills the skies. No moon. No light.

The cell, the fugal entries, the chromatic descent, “Nacht,” mm. 1-5.

I’m reminded of another piece in the same volume of the Norton Anthology: Ligeti’s Etude No. 9 for piano, “Vertigo.” The way those figures plunge and plunge, cascading over each other to suggest falling infinitely downward, couldn’t have a clearer precedent than in the final passage, tumbling headlong over itself, of “Nacht.” Or sometimes I think the closing page is a ladder, a sort of inverse of Jacob’s, or a journey through Dante’s nine circles, with the batlike level boss roaring and fuming at the center. Whirlpool, tunnel, ladder, or circle, we land in the pit, the bottom of the well. And, now plunged into these dark, unfathomable reaches, what unearthly voices will speak to us?

Infinite descent by ladder, circle? “Nacht,” mm. 22-23.

7. Der kranke Mond

You moon, nightly sick as death,

Up there on heaven’s black pillow,

Your gaze, so massive, fevered,

Captivates me like an unfamiliar song.

It may not seem much of a claim to say that “Der kranke Mond” is singular in a work that features a different deployment of instruments in each movement. Even so. . .it is singular – of twenty-one songs, it’s the only one for voice and a single instrument, and a linear one at that: the flute. (No. 14, “Die Kreuze,” which closes the second part of the cycle, starts with an art song texture of piano and voice, but at a crucial moment gains the full ensemble, on which more later.) Like each instrument in the cycle, the flute (doubling piccolo) has a unique role in Pierrot lunaire. It’s often enlisted, frequently in tandem with the piano in its upper range, to elicit various qualities of light, from beams to liquid light to flecks. And I’m afraid this brings us to the doorstep of a vast domain (Think Bluebeard’s Castle. . .), the question of to what extent the signification that adheres to timbre stays in place, takes part in a cosmogony of sound color, somewhere on an individual-to-cultural-to-universal continuum.

Surly satellite? (Photo by the author).

Hm. Maybe that isn’t perfectly clear. What I mean is: Is the flute, once linked with light, always or even mostly light? And is that because it’s light for Pierrot, for Schoenberg, for Vienna, for “Western concern music,” for humankind, for Rama, or, mutatis mutandis, ad infinitum? And why should that matter? Because it makes the light that might flow from the flute in “Der kranke Mond” a special kind of light, a relationship to a practice of flute-light, one color in a spectrum sparked by the prism of Pierrot. Here I think the case is easier than I’m making it. Yes, the flute in “Der kranke Mond” is light – a wan and morose light, as the poem explains. That moonlight could be this way isn’t surprising, is it? Oppressive, like the planet barreling inexorably toward Earth in Lars von Trier’s 2011 Melancholia. That film, incidentally, uses Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for much of its score – mostly the Prelude – which aligns with the longing for total annihilation that Kirsten Dunst’s character gives herself over to by movie’s end. Schoenberg does something very different, whittling down the ensemble to just one instrumental voice, as if the everyone else has jumped ship. This sense of abandonment and a consequent collapsing in on oneself is reinforced by some extraordinary expressive markings. I’m drawn to m. 15, where the flute is asked to play pppp, with the vocalist eking out that most Wagnerian of words, Sehnsucht (“longing”), in a counterintuitive ppp gesture that falls into subterranean realms. Listen to ten different recordings, and you’ll realize how unreasonable Schoenberg’s demand is, but it remains. . .an aspiration. How could you perform in that state of self-abnegation – all but absenting yourself as a performer from sound itself? Pierrot has many more surprises for us, but it won’t have anything like this again: a moon so large it fills the sky with its sickness, at the same time a pinprick of light in a field of unfathomable dark.

Schoenberg requests impossible quiet, “Der kranke Mond,” mm. 14-16.

Grotesquely, I’ve gone on too long in the first two paragraphs of my allotted three, so my last comment has to be brief. I hear “Der kranke Mond” in D phrygian, a strangely specific suggestion for what’s supposed to be atonal music. And I like the suggestion, because it is a duet of funereal signifiers: D, the final of the Requiem; Phrygian, the mode of finality.

I’d say it’s D Phrygian, wouldn’t you? “Der kranke Mond,” mm. 26-27.

6. Madonna

6. Madonna

Climb up, O Mother of all sorrows,

Onto the altar of my poetry!

Blood from your withered breast

Has been spilled by the sword of wrath.

Whenever I read the middle stanza of “Madonna,” with its description of “ever-open wounds like eyes, red and staring,” I think of Schoenberg’s expressionist portrait of 1910, The Red Gaze. (If you’ve ever looked at the composer’s paintings, you probably remember this one.)  When teaching I’ve often asked students whether they understood the painting as sending out a glare – of “wrath” or loathing – or as witnessing something so horrific that it scalds the eyes. To me the mouth in the painting – offen, but wordless; frozen in breathlessness – registers a horror seen, too terrible for description, a moment of trauma so great that it defies the tongue to tell. It burns the eyes going in.

There’s something stunning about how Schoenberg forestalls the climax of his “Madonna,” a movement about the trauma of seeing. Hartleben’s translation is baroque and thick as stew (“Doch der Blick der Menschen meidet / Dich”) and shares the same tick of enjambment as in the final line of “Mondestrunken.” There it seemed to point to the spilling over of the moonwine, as if it cascaded by accident into the fifth line. Here in “Madonna,” it’s different, shockingly so if we’ve been paying attention, because, for the first time, the ritual line changes by a single word. Instead of Steig (“climb up”), it’s Dich (“you”). This change of a single word does happen in several other movements, but the change in “Madonna” seems the most significant: from beseeching Mary (“climb up”) to the pronoun for her (“you”): she has arrived, or we have arrived at her. Schoenberg takes note. Much of the movement employs a trio of instruments – flute, bass clarinet, cello – but for the final ritual line, Schoenberg adds the others. The violin slices a zigzag across three octaves, and the piano detonates its sonic bomb (the wound itself, à la Parsifal?), all while the vocalist sustains, somehow, a Sprechstimme top-line F sharp. The contrast between etiolated weeping-sighing trio and full explosive ensemble gives us Pierrot’s most conventionally dramatic moment thus far. We see her: Mary. We bear witness to her psychic wound, unflinchingly.

The violin slices, and the piano is the wound, “Madonna,” mm. 21-24.

But about that Sprechstimme F sharp. . . One of the other strange things about it – other than the fact that sustaining Sprechstimme on a pitch makes it singing more than Sprechstimme – is its very length: a half note tied to an eighth. This note, on the word Mutter, is the movement’s longest agogic accent, made more dramatic by contrast with the much faster and frankly unrelenting rate of text delivery in much of the rest of the movement. Possibly a vocalist wouldn’t forgive me for this, but it almost seems like she is mumbling for most of the movement or, at best, carrying on an internal dialogue that suddenly erupts into a public declaration in the final stanza. Inner/outer, private/public, hidden/revealed. But what on earth does it have to do with Pierrot? Is Mary’s wound one of convenience, capitalized on for self-pity’s sake? Or is the proposal that this is the wound we must understand to gain wisdom: the Ur-wound, the sign of signs at the center of history? Back to Wagner. . .

Our Lady of Sorrows, Iglesia de la Vera Cruz (Salamanca, Spain) [Creative Commons]

5. Valse de Chopin

Like a faint drop of blood

Shading diseased lips,

So over these notes looms

A desperate desire for self-destruction.

The waltz is dead. Love live the waltz! Waltz-death, love-death, wild chords of passion, tarantella with blood-lipstick. Here’s where things. . .go off, where what had been a little strange, fantastic, or mystical takes a decisive turn toward the gruesome. That it does so with Chopin reminds you – doesn’t it? – of those skull-stacked catacombs stretching beneath the streets of Paris, or perhaps of that famous photo of Fryderyk, our consumptive Polish exile in the cholera-infested City of Lights. And yet there he is, dancing – whether in the salon or with les polonais – floating, gossamer, in the moonlight. Dancing to his death.

The famous daguerrotype of Chopin by Louis-August Bisson.

We were warned. The vision of eine blasse Wäscherin (“a waxen laundress,” I suggested) removes whatever comfort we had drinking moonwine or musing about Colombine or what makeup to wear. That washerwoman – nameless peasant? mother? – wrests us away, forces us to look away from ourself, from Pierrot. We look out at her, at her thankless task – the fathomless abyss she plunges her arms into, the bleak and mournful chorale chords of the opening stretching out, beyond, into the deep. The piano was absent in that place, and it will be silent again in nos. 6 (mostly) and 7. It’s more than that. In the first three numbers the piano was participant in the ensemble, doing what the other instruments were doing – painting the picture, drawing out the text, or (if you prefer) contributing to the richness of Schoenberg’s atonal idiom at its freest and most inventive. Not so in “Valse de Chopin.” Now, for the first time, isolated by its absence from surrounding movements, the piano becomes a character, or perhaps a presence, through its sheer sound and also, wryly, through flashes of waltz idiom and perhaps the occasional musical pun. Most obviously, in the final two bars, the repeated A sharp I hear as a through-the-looking-glass version of the repeated B flats that launch Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante, Op. 18. Not a direct copy, because Schoenberg wouldn’t, but playfully respelled, retaining the hemiola effect of the original, and transported to the end of the movement – manifold topsy-turveyism.

My ending. . . (“Valse de Chopin,” mm. 40-44)
…is my beginning (Chopin, Grande valse brillante, Op. 18, mm. 1-4)

There is something more here, though, in the reference to Chopin’s waltz. Yes, the repeated A sharps suggest a distorted quotation, but more immediately they are a distilled presentation of the Tropfen Bluts (“drops of blood”) that are part of the language of the movement from the vocalist’s first phrase. Schoenberg is creating a sort of imagistic trope on top of a borrowed rhythmic gesture – looking for drops of blood in Chopin’s music – in a way that shoots the listener backward and forward in time, a musical malady. “Melancholy, gloomy waltz / You won’t leave me alone! / You’ve taken hold of my mind,” goes the poem. And this a year before Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, where the title character also hears a tune obsessively, a musical marker of another self-destructive obsession. Oh, you just have to hear it. . .and you can, on October 28 and 29, 2022, in San Antonio, Texas.

4. Eine blasse Wäscherin

The waxen laundress

Washes her pale load in the night

Her bare arms, silvery white,

Plunges it deep in the current.

It is a deep current, a high-tide of interpretive possibility, that Schoenberg invites us to in Pierrot lunaire. I was reading Jonathan Dunsby’s brief comments about the “pallid laudrymaid” (from his 1992 Cambridge Guide), which, despite the concision, introduce important points. For example, people in German musical circles in the 1910s likely would have seen the opening of the movement as an example of Klangfarbenmelodie (sound-color melody), because the flute, clarinet, and violin don’t follow the voice-leading that the part-writing seems to demand. Look at m. 2 below, where the three sonorities share a common tone, B, which Schoenberg gives to each instrument in turn, so that if you train your ears on the B, your experience will be one of shifting instrumental color. For the rest of his commentary – it is brief! – Dunsby explains that Schoenberg would probably have heard “Eine blasse Wäscherin” as tonal, cadencing in G minor, that stable sonority (with an added ninth, A) repeated four times in the closing bars.[1]

Klangfarbenmelodie in the shift of B from flute to violin to clarinet, “Eine blasse Wäscherin,” mm. 1-3.

The question of when and how tonality is or isn’t present in Schoenberg is significant, of course, but 110 years after Pierrot was written, other thoughts top my list. One has to do with instrumentation. This is the first movement without piano, and it’s the first that lands us in a natural environment – in and around a river, as the laundress washes her bleiche Tücher (bleached towels? faded linens?). Schoenberg’s gone pastoral, aligning what Dunsby called a clear example of Klangfarbenmelodie with the old historical mode of using wind instruments to call to mind the countryside. But this is not a rustic dance or a mock-pastoral mode – nary a trace of rib-pokery in this movement. Instead, its opening hints at a chorale, reverential. The effect is very different, but it reminds me of the opening of the third movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. Nature is holy here, or something is.

That something brings me back to the narrative dogging Pierrot’s steps, the promise of a tale told, where what appear distractions are actually essential elements of its unfolding. I’m thinking about how “Colombine” and “Der Dandy” work together – lovestruck and lovelorn – and how “Eine blasse Wäscherin,” which might seem like it comes from outer space and does indeed shift us to the outer space of a rural reality, both begins and prefigures a new focus on an older feminine presence, eventually revealed as a mother. Mary, moon mother; Pierrot as Christ-like martyr. Is she there with her holy chords, washing the funeral wrappings, adumbrating Pierrot’s beheading in No. 13? What shift has taken place in Pierrot’s mind that he has stopped thinking of Colombine and started thinking of that crouched figure, laboring over rags in the dark?

die saufte Magd des Himmels?

[1] Jonathan Dunsby, Schoenberg: Pierrot lunaire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992): 37-40.

3. Der Dandy

With a capricious beam of light

The moon sets the crystal vials ablaze

On the sandalwood lavatory

Of our pensive dandy from Bergamo.

And just who is the “dandy from Bergamo,” listless at his toilette, rejecting first the red and then the green makeup in favor of moonbeam white? The German is elusive on this point, and English translations typically follow suit. Schoenberg’s title is “Der Dandy,” so the protagonist might arguably be another figure from the commedia dell’arte tradition – Arlecchino, perhaps? – who more neatly fits the descriptor. But Giraud’s poem leaves no room for doubt: his title is “Pierrot Dandy,” and that’s that. It’s a title that belittles its hero at every turn, emasculating him, making fun of him for imagining that makeup could make a difference. If we’re tempted to trace a narrative arc through Pierrot lunaire, “Der Dandy” follows “Colombine,” where Pierrot had longed to strew moon-petals over the object of his desire. Now, dejected, he paints on his mask. Passing over colors associated with his rivals in love, he will remain Pierrot, daub himself with his trademark cake, however painful that is. “Ridi, pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto,” as Canio has it in Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci.

This is a good time to mention that my plan to produce Pierrot lunaire was sparked by Opera San Antonio’s forthcoming production of Leoncavallo’s scorcher of a score. I thought it would be marvelous, frankly, to have Pierrot one weekend and I pagliacci the next, and as it turns out, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. The marvelous. For anyone attending performances of both works, I imagine that the redefinition of Pierrot – the “translation” of him by this assemblage of poets and musicians – will prove thought-provoking, especially since only two decades separate the works. This is one of the things that a tradition as rich as commedia permits: the possibility of infinite translations (even when temporally proximate), including willful and misleading ones.

Translation problems from the penultimate line of “Der Dandy”

Here’s one example to stand for the whole. I became a bit. . .obsessed about the “black sacrosanct washstand” (in Stanley Appelbaum’s translation from my trusty Dover score) in “Der Dandy.” What kind of thing must that be? Appelbaum did his best to accurately render Hartleben’s “schwarzen, hochheiligen Waschtisch,” although managing the explosion of hs and schs would give any faithful English translator fits. But take a look at Giraud’s original line: “Sur le lavabo de santal.” That’s santal as in sandalwood, a far cry from the ebony altar that Hartleben conjures. And when I’ve used “sandalwood lavatory” above, then I’m flying in the face of Schoenberg, whose piccolo-spiked, prism-sparking moonbeams doubtless derive from Hartleben’s black-and-white opposition: the washstand-as-abyss against the pale-as-moonlight face paint. To conclude these pensées on “translation,” take a listen to this: “Der Dandy,” in Erwin Stein’s arrangement of Pierrot for voice and piano, with Akane Kudo (voice) and Yumiko Meguri (piano) managing it all sans winds!

The moonbeam gleams and becomes Pierrot’s makeup, from “Der Dandy,” mm. 30-31

2. Colombine

Pale petals of moonlight,

roses of translucent white,

flourish in the summer night –

how I yearn to pick just one!

A wonder. A miracle? Wunderrosen. That’s how Hartleben translates Giraud’s original “roses de clarté.” I’m trying something a bit different above – “roses of translucent white” – in the direction of the miraculous. The poet pines, longing to collect petals of moonlight, proclaiming that he can be assuaged only by scattering them over Colombine’s brown tresses. Double entendre? Perhaps. But it doesn’t have to be. I was reminded of those petals today, walking along the creek that runs next to Mission San Juan Capistrano, the air alive with migrating American snout butterflies (Labytheana carinenta), the dance of their multitudinous wings a minor miracle.

A little ambient fantasy on those three chords, with butterflies.

But another minor miracle has always captivated me in “Columbine.” Scored for flute, clarinet, violin, reciter, and piano – a unique gathering, as with each of Pierrot lunaire’s twenty-one movements – it features neither wind instrument until m. 33, the moment when Pierrot fantasizes about scattering the petals. To suggest this, Schoenberg loops three sonorities, the record skipping ten times to end where it began – the clock’s hand stilled, an image of petal-counting, eyes-glazed-over, lovestruck bliss. The violin meanwhile carries on in lyrical abandon, dolce espressivo, as it has for much of the movement, in parodic heartache as the poem describes. Those chords, though. . .a minor seventh chord (without its fifth) in the piano, descending; ascending perfect fourths in the flute and clarinet (in A). I’ve loved those blissed-out, petal-plucking chords since the first time I heard them, since the first time I sat down and listened to all of Pierrot. So much went over my head, I’m sure, but those three chords lodged in my ear for good.

Three chords on loop from “Columbine,” mm. 33-34

When the opportunity arose to produce a performance of Schoenberg’s masterwork, my colleague Ken Metz and I thought we should invite composers to submit new “preludes”: inspired by any aspect of Pierrot lunaire, written for subsets of the Pierrot ensemble (vocalist, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, cello, piano), and under three minutes in length. The timeline was short, but dozens of composers submitted. We were able to program twelve pieces, one of them mine: an ode to those three chords, with textures and gestures that point to other favorite moments here and there. It’s a way to pick petals along with Pierrot and to scatter them, too. You can hear what grew from Pierrot in eleven other composers’ sound gardens on October 28 and 29 in San Antonio.

The opening of my ode to the petal-plucking chords, from Petal Pedal Mettle Meddle, mm. 1-4