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.
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?
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.