21. O alter Duft


O fairyland fragrance of long ago,

Once more you cast your spell on me!

And a horde of roguish knaves

Drifts weightless on the air.

That “ancient scent,” “fragrance of long ago,” the unforgettable perfume of the land of fairy tales – I suppose Schoenberg uses tonal artifacts to suggest it, as everyone else says and writes. He does frequently enough draw on E major. Look at the right hand in m. 1 of the piano with its descending thirds taken from the key of E major or the chord in m. 3 (E major) that closes the vocalist’s phrase on the word Märchenzeit. There’s another telltale moment in m. 16, where the right hand of the piano has the E major chord again, albeit rhythmically activated. And in the penultimate bar of the piece, there’s a sort of landing on E in the bass (in octaves, that rarest of rare intervals in Pierrot), again on the word Märchenzeit. Here it is, then: whenever that word appears, in its three ritual statements over the three stanzas of the poem, the music holds up its E major card. But it’s crucial, I think, to realize that this E major chord, figure, or bass note is always presented as one layer in a multilayered texture that is layered vertically, yes, and also horizontally. The left hand in m. 1, for instance, undercuts E major and is also fascinating: a much better candidate than the right for the wafting scent of fairyland, moving smoothly, gently, in a way that is strikingly linear for Pierrot.

E major as a layer, the ancient scent wafts in the left hand, “O alter Duft,” mm. 1-5.

This sort of text painting, bringing images and ideas from the poem to new life through musical figures, is relatively understated in “O alter Duft.” Here Schoenberg seems to take a step away from the musical “performance” of the poetry to focus on a deeper through line. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that he’s willing to repeat the music of mm. 1-2 in mm. 14-15, only slightly altered, and again in mm. 26-end, though here it is subjected to greater change. The idea of refrain, so familiar to the poetry, has been meticulously avoided through most of the cycle, and now, we have it in such clarity that a first-time listener can hear the “tune” that returns. Inevitably, this is a way of cultivating the sensation of nostalgia within the movement itself. Schoenberg makes the tune so clear, by making it a tonal artifact and linking it to a certain word, Märchenzeit, that we are invited to long for its return. But there’s also the possibility of us hearing the cultivation of nostalgia more globally – and I think many people have suggested as much – because by linking tonal artifacts and nostalgia, Schoenberg might lead us to long for the tonal system as a whole, to see the common practice period as a prelapsarian age of innocence.

That undiscovered country where Pierrot performed. . . (Photo by the author, courtesy the real moon.)

In its last movement, Pierrot lunaire asks us who we are. Are we people who long to turn back the clock, to return to an imagined time when we “thought as a child”? Or do we understand the place we long for, the Märchenzeit, as that undiscovered country where Pierrot performed: those extraordinary movements that passed by so quickly, like dreams, each a little miracle of craft and intelligence, wit and jest, horror and delight? Who are we when we yearn? What ancient scent lingers for us after the vocalist, alone, intones her final Märchenzeit? One thing we must allow Pierrot is that it has the power to change our answer. We grow up through it.

Which Märchenzeit would you prefer? “O alter Duft,” mm. 24-30.

15. Heimweh

Sweet and sorrowful – a sigh of crystal

From Italy’s theater of old

Reaches us: Pierrot is so wooden now,

Has become fashionable kitsch.

“Homesickness” is a rejection. Of where we are now, a realization that something about this moment isn’t enough for us, that we don’t belong, that we should go back. “Homesickness” is a longing. For that other place, for a place of fantasy where we know what we know and things are as they are or should be. Giraud and Hartleben had it easy in playing with nostalgie (the title of the French original); however surreal their poetry, it was not an experiment with the substance of language or a rejection of poetic form or inheritance. Quite the opposite: the poems are rooted in inherited poetic form and pull stock from Europe’s storehouse of theater history. Not so with Schoenberg, whose project was one of the most provocative that any single musician has ever conceived or carried out, more profoundly upsetting to the status quo, I would argue, than Joyce’s challenge to syntax or Picasso’s to representation. It is the Everest of early twentieth-century avant-gardism. Can we climb it? Let’s give it a go.

Fuji-san, not Everest, but you get the point (Photo by the author).

If you’ve been reading these entries, you’ve likely gathered a few things from my approach in “blogging the 21 movements of Pierrot lunaire,” but I should perhaps name a few of them. First, I’ve refused to be intimidated by Schoenberg’s accomplishment, because it is intimidating, particularly if one is driven to understand (at some level) the composer’s musical language on its own terms. But if we act that way toward it, it can only exist at a remove, and I want to hold it close in the mind and ear. Second, I wanted to accept Schoenberg’s invitation to embrace a radical creativity, to play fearlessly in the funhouse that he opens the door to. That has meant trying out different media, trying out different tones in my writing, fostering a fruitful inconsistency within a consistent form. Third, I wanted to focus on a variety of analytical approaches, including ones that would be widely accessible (as opposed to, say, highly specialized pitch analysis). I could mention a few others, but these three are most relevant.

A crystal sigh, the sweet lament, the marionette clicking – all before the words! “Heimweh,” mm. 1-2.

And now it’s the third paragraph, and I’ve yet to say anything about the music of “Heimweh,” which opens the third, and in some ways most complicated, part of Pierrot. I wonder if you’re longing for another place by now? I wonder if I am. Longing for the days, just days ago, when I could write about moon-wine-light or black moths (butterflies!) or sparkling rubies on coffins or even crosses. But now we’re grown up, in a land of confusion, and we’re torn between this and that. What does it mean, Hartleben (and Giraud), for commedia dell’arte itself to send out a krystallnes Seufzen, a “crystalline sigh,” a lament that Pierrot is not relevant or only relevant because he’s irrelevant, a meme of forgotten origin in a sort of ennui-infested kitschiverse? What does it mean, Schoenberg, to layer, thrillingly but overwhelmingly, the sweetness of the violin line with the marionettish clicking of the clarinet and the piano’s evocation of the mysterious “crystal sigh” (before we’ve even heard a word from the vocalist) in a texture that is shockingly new, the opposite of nostalgic? Are you rejecting rejection, Schoenberg? Unboiling the egg, un-meming the meme, unkitsching the kitsch? Are you un-homesick?

Self assertion? The cellist furiously rejects. . .homesickness? “Heimweh,” mm. 28-31.