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.”
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?
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.