20. Heimfahrt (Barcarole)

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.

Illustration by Paul Mercuri from Costumes historiques (Source: Wiki Commons)

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?

Just some lily pads! (Photo by the author)

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.

The Schoenbergian barcarole, with drops, “Heimfahrt,” mm. 1-3.

16. Gemeinheit

Into the bald pate of Cassander,

Whose shrieks shatter the air,

Pierrot cranks (hamming it up,

With tender care) – a cranium drill!?

As awful as it is (Gemeinheit: “foul play”; “nasty trick”; “just plain mean!”), it’s all actually quite funny, this one, if you’re in the right sort of mood. Just read the poem – all about Pierrot stuffing fine Turkish tobacco into Cassander’s head while he wails in agony, inserting the pipestem made of Vistula sour cherry wood, and smoking him, “comfortably” – and it might simply seem grotesque, but the music shifts it toward farce, I think. Does it ruin the joke to explain it? And yet look at Schoenberg’s brilliant comic timing after the line about Pierrot’s mock tenderness: a pause, then the punchline – “a cranium drill” (einen Schädelbohrer) – in the vocalist’s most deadpan basement range. The piccolo and clarinet cackle their goofy, razzmatazz laugh track. We are in a performance! Pierrot, fully costumed, has at last come into his own, is doing what he was born to do. He’s cutting up, and the crowd goes wild.

Schoenberg, master of comic timing, “Gemeinheit,” mm. 7-9.

Schoenberg is so economical, his language so packed with purpose, that the piccolo-and-clarinet laugh track isn’t just that. Look at how, at the end of the bar (m. 8), the duo have sextuplets in contrary motion for the turning of the cranium drill, and how immediately in the next bar they’ve traded it for the gruff, four-square repeated sixteenth notes with chromatic motion that opened the movement in the cello. I’m fascinated by the last gesture, I suppose because it’s less clear what it’s doing, but my sense of it is as follows: Pierrot is “rolling up his sleeves and getting it done,” a kind of nonchalance as he matter-of-factly shows the drill to the audience, perhaps, or checks that he has the right drill bit in, etc. Maybe you visualize it differently, but however you do, it’s still three meaning-rich gestures in four beats: one responding to the vocalist’s Schädelbohrer line, one mimicking the drilling motion, and one conveying character and giving us a sense of return in the movement.

Cassander’s squeal. . .and a donkey, “Gemeinheit,” mm. 13-15.

Since Giraud and Hartleben describe Cassander’s squeal in the poem, Schoenberg couldn’t very well leave it out of the music, could he? And there it is in m. 14, that hilarious isolated piccolo F sharp, just before the vocalist tells us what it is (“dessen Schrein” = “whose shriek”). But just as uproarious is the clarinet hee-haw at the end of the next bar, which makes me think of Mendelssohn’s music for Bottom as a donkey in the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The section after this all the way up to the end of the movement is consumed with the gruff repeated-note gesture, now exchanged among the instruments of the ensemble. It’s music of movement or activity underlying Pierrot’s sticking in the pipestem and puffing away. But Schoenberg brings back the laugh track razzmatazz (now in the piccolo and piano) for the final words of the poem: big finish; everybody cheers! And what about that note held over in the cello. . .spotlight on Pierrot? Plunks (piano) in the other instruments as lights out? Again, it’s a performance, from beginning to end.

Laugh track once more, and curtain? “Gemeinheit,” mm. 25-27.

Pablo, Presidents, Puerto Rico

Here we are at the beginning, in media res.

I picked a record off the shelf—that’s all. A completely unscientific way to demonstrate to myself that intuition was worth something. My intuition was that whatever I chose, no matter what it was, would be good enough and would allow for the requisite dipping of the toe into the waters.

R-9578152-1483059708-7980.jpegThe record was A Concert at the White House, November 13, 1961. Do you know this story? The great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, having refused to perform publicly in the United States since 1928 because of American recognition of Franco’s government, accepted President Kennedy’s invitation to perform because, in his words, of “my deep feelings for the American people and the faith and confidence we all have in you as leader of the Free World.”

The choice of pieces will likely seem unsurprising to chamber music regulars: Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, an arrangement of pieces by Couperin for cello and piano, Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro in A-flat Major, and as an encore Casals’s own arrangement of a Spanish melody, “Song of the Birds.”

The concert was a great success, widely seen (and spun) as part of the inauguration of a new age in which the White House would celebrate and encourage the arts and artists. Among the 153 guests in the East Room were Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Norman Dello Joio, Howard Hanson (my compositional grandfather!), Roy Harris, Alan Hovhaness, Gian Carlo Menotti, Douglas Moore, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Roger Sessions, Virgil Thomson, Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski. But here’s my favorite guest reaction: “Leonard Bernstein, who sat with his head buried in his hands during most of the recital, was nearly overcome. ‘I was deeply moved by the entire occasion,’ he admitted, ‘not merely by the music of Casals but by the company in which it was played.’” (Time, November 24, 1961) The folks at Columbia Records were similarly moved, so much so that “in appreciation of [the] opportunity to present this recording,” they donated their portion of proceeds to the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico.

Nexus entry.

How many questions could possibly emerge from the random selection of a record on a shelf? Here are some of my favorites. . .so far. 1) What was Elliott Carter thinking when he looked at the program? Did he roll his eyes at every perfect authentic cadence? 2) Why Mendelssohn? What did Mendelssohn mean to that octogenarian international superstar of a cellist in 1961? 3) Why is this performance recreated in Jackie, the 2016 film starring Natalie Portman? What are contemporary film audiences supposed to do with chamber music at the White House? Jackie_(2016_film)4) How’s the Casals Festival doing, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Maria? 5) Paul Henry Lang (musicologist alert!) was at the concert and wrote a review for the Herald Tribune in which he admires the first family for their “proper appreciation of the relation of art to life.” Was Lang, scholar of French Baroque music, thinking of the ancien régime when he wrote that, or of Bartók and Kodály, with whom he also studied? 6) U.S. Presidents and Puerto Rico. I’m sure there’s a question there, but I’m not sure I want to ask it, at least not in a first blog entry. Maybe it’s enough to say that the first democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Muñoz Marín, was the guest of honor at this state dinner and concert.

Nexus exit.

What do we do with these questions? Assemble a portfolio of hastily researched half-answers, labor to develop serious answers before posting an entry, or move on? What’s the responsibility of the blogger?

(So. Many. Records.)

For now we move on and mull over, with the enticing possibility of “return,” a phenomenon that takes many forms in the nexus.