19. Serenade

With a grotesquely giant bow,

Pierrot saws away at his viola,

Like a stork on single leg

He glumly plucks a pizzicato.

I find “Serenade” very beautiful. Do you? It’s worth asking the question, because Schoenberg was capable – it needs to be said out loud – of writing music of striking beauty. (I was reminded of this in two different conversations with different people in different places within the span of the last six days. Both people, to be fair, were talking about Verklärte Nacht!) You want proof? I can’t prove it. This reminds me, in turn, of something I read not so long ago, attributed to artist Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011): “You can’t prove beauty, it’s there as a fact and you know it and you feel it and it’s real, but you can’t say to somebody this has it.” [1] That must be more or less right, but I’m looking at m. 30, when the cello soars above the repeated figure in the piano, and does anyone with ears hear this as other than beautiful, however strange?

Pierrot plays a beautiful line, “Serenade,” mm. 30-31.

Here’s a marvelous thing. Pierrot is serenading us on the Bratsche (viola) in the poem, but on the cello in Schoenberg’s score. Instead of a grotesquely large bow, it’s the instrument itself that gets distorted, magnified, on its way from words to sounds. The cello has already been identified as Pierrot in other movements; it also has associations with the male hero and antihero in nineteenth-century music and with Schoenberg himself – the authorial presence – because it was his instrument. (That point doesn’t need to be taken in any interpretative way; it can be as simple as a pointing out that the composer played the cello.) Pierrot, therefore, both is the cello and plays it, and Schoenberg both is the cello and writes it. The reason it’s worth teasing that out is that “Serenade” is the cycle’s most unrelentingly lyrical movement, partly because it describes a scene where lyricism is demanded. Schoenberg is answering the dramatic demands of the cycle, yes, but he is also daring to write a serenade in the bold new idiom that Pierrot lunaire exemplifies. And? Rejection! Cassander is the sidekick as he was in “Gemeinheit,” and yet again he’s the butt of the joke. Without missing a beat, Pierrot grabs the heckler, and bows his head instead of the Bratsche. Don’t you find it tempting to understand this, given the Pierrot-cello-hero-Schoenberg cluster, as the composer ignoring his critics and playing on, come what may?

Pierrot keeps playing, despite critical reception, “Serenade,” mm. 41-44.

How can we know, though, if the beauty that I hear in “Serenade” is beauty or mock-beauty? Is the dreamy Pierrot that Hartleben describes so taken with himself that he makes a mockery of beauty, using its component parts without being able to piece them together? Here I’m reminded of Beckmesser’s contest song in Die Meistersinger, where Wagner tries his hardest to write bad music for a character who “doesn’t get it” (much more could be and has been said elsewhere), before giving us the real thing. I don’t hear Schoenberg doing that. Cassander, I think, should have listened – what Pierrot was playing for him was top shelf, just beautiful.

[1] Quoted in Emily LaBarge, “At Dulwich” London Review of Books 43, no. 24 (16 December 2021): 27.