The scrawny whore
With scraggly neck
Will be his final
And what should one say after such a quatrain? “Galgenlied” may seem calculated to offend, but in the decade after Strauss’s Salome (1905) and in the immediate aftermath of “Red Mass,” perhaps it’s a mistake to focus on that quality. In terms of the narrative of Part Two of Pierrot, Schoenberg has led us through a series of crimes and now anticipates Pierrot’s execution in a hasty administering of mock-last rites. And this rite – by far the shortest movement of the work, denied the resonance of the piano, with the text compressed to the utmost, the vocalist breathlessly motor-mouthing it – is, as the title might suggest, a bit of gallows humor. Essentially colorless except for the, um, fountain-like burst of piccolo in the penultimate bar, followed by the littlest post-cadential shudder – it is the opposite of erotic, a pitiful instance of Rothian self-abasement. And the shock of this musical negation after the excess of “Red Mass” presents a juxtaposition of extremes worthy of late Beethoven.
As with “Gebet an Pierrot” (No. 9), Hartleben practiced some powerful contraction on Giraud’s original. The first line above is “La maigre amoreuse au long cou” in the French, which becomes “Die dürre Dirne / Mit langem Halse” in German. I count these as, respectively, ten syllables over one line versus ten syllables over two – the French is halved. Hartleben, with his post-Wagnerian orientation, gives us a strikingly alliterative phrase that seems to disavow any possibility of tenderness. Nor is a hint of tenderness (amoreuse, after all) all that Hartleben excised from the original French. The missing parts of Giraud’s poem are by turns strange, wistful, and, at the end, explicitly sexual: Schoenberg’s parting shot with the piccolo has ample justification in the French. This brings up the interesting possibility of the composer restoring something missing from Hartleben.
This is the second time in this brief entry that I’ve mentioned absence or negation. It’s worth a third mention as a way of opening a can of worms that I can no longer avoid. I’ll put it as a question: Is Schoenberg’s musical language ever a language of negation – a matter of avoidance, of choosing against? In many cases the answer is obviously no. The pitch logic of “Nacht,” the repetition of meaningful gestures that sound out the text, or of compelling sonorities for whatever reason – in none of these approaches do I understand a spirit of negation. However, in a movement such as “Galgenlied,” deliberately trimmed of all fat, how do we understand what the composer is doing with pitch? I don’t say rhythm, because the rhythmic accumulation and release over the course of the movement couldn’t be clearer, but is the underlying impetus for the choice of pitches (beyond a preference for the major 7th) based on a pattern of denying pattern? If so, in this movement, Schoenberg’s embrace of a method of compositional negation parallels the self-negation also emphasized by Hartleben. That is, Schoenberg seems to be taking his cue for how to compose from the state of the poetic protagonist. But blink and the moment’s over.