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 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.
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.