Charles Petzold

“Pierrot Lunaire” at Juilliard

January 19, 2011
New York, N.Y.

Last Saturday, one of the hottest tickets in New York City wasn't a ticket at all but instead a free concert. It was closing night of ChamberFest, the week-long series of eight concerts of chamber music performed by Juilliard students for an adoring public. Saturday's concert drew an eager crowd much too large for little Paul Recital Hall. On the program was one of the most beloved works of chamber music — Schubert's beautiful haunting entrancing String Quintet in C Major — but also one of the oddest: Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, for a singer and five instrumentalists.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951) has the distinction of being one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, but also the most reviled. The nose of the traditional concertgoer turns up in disgust at the very mention of his name. Although tonality had been stretched to its breaking point in the music of Wagner and Debussy, Schoenberg was the composer who cracked harmony wide open, writing increasingly atonal music until he was forced to re-axiomatize harmony with a system giving equal voice to all 12 notes of the scale. In the popular narrative, Schoenberg precipitated an alienation between composers and audience that has never healed.

Even the late philosopher Denis Dutton — who allowed all sorts of strange outliers to be classified as "art" in his wonderful book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (Bloomsbury Press, 2009) (discussed in my blog entry here) — drew the line at Arnold Schoenberg. To Dutton, Schoenberg devised his twelve-tone system to deliberately create music that was precisely contrary to natural harmonic sense.

It's startling to realize that Pierrot Lunaire is now nearly a hundred years old, having premiered in Berlin in 1912. It is written for an ensemble that consists of a vocalist (usually a soprano) and a unusual chamber ensemble of piano, cello, violin doubling on viola, clarinet doubling on bass clarinet, and flute doubling on piccolo. The text is based on 21 little 13-line poems by Albert Giraud translated into German. The poems portray the traditional clown-like persona of Pierrot getting drunk on the light of the moon and spending the night in various decadent and blasphemous adventures — such as smoking Turkish tobacco from a skull, and mimicking the Last Supper holding aloft the heart of a priest.

Prior to Pierrot Lunaire, it was very common for composers to write songs with piano accompaniment (the 600-odd lieder of Schubert, for example) and alternatively for a soloist accompanied by orchestra, such as the song cycles of Mahler and Strauss's Four Last Songs. But a singer with chamber ensemble was fairly unusual at the time. Only later did Pierrot influence similar vocal and instrumental ensembles, including those in seminal works such as Pierre Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maître (1955), Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), Morton Feldman's The Rothko Chapel (1970), and George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children (1970). The particular combination of instruments that Schoenberg used for Pierrot Lunaire is commonly called the "Pierrot Ensemble" and many composers have now written works for it.

But the most distinctive characteristic of Pierrot Lunaire is the vocal part itself. Schoenberg composed the work for an actress who was not a trained singer, so he wrote the vocal line in a sprechstimme style — a kind of sing-song lilt that hovers between speech and song, sometimes straddling the two styles, sometimes falling on one side or the other. Notice the X's through the stems of the notes that Schoenberg uses to indicate sprechstimme:

Hollow notes indicate a "toneless" sound:

(score from the International Music Score Library Project)

Consequently, Pierrot Lunaire sometimes appeals to singers who are not classically trained: It has been recorded by Cleo Laine and performed by Björk.

Pierrot Lunaire is perhaps above all a fun piece of music, as was clearly demonstrated by the six Juilliard students who performed the work Saturday evening. Soprano Catherine Hancock fearlessly embraced the over-the-top melodrama of the work with a startling stage presence and a strong voice, seemingly effortlessly gliding from the extremes of pure penetrating tones to growls and barks.

Although it wasn't staged as a mini-opera (as Pierrot sometimes is), this performance nonetheless had a strong theatrical component: Miss Hancock commanded the stage, standing in the center with the woodwinds seated to her left, the strings to her right, and the piano behind her. Everyone wore black with flashes of red — a dragon pattern on pianist Hui Wu's dress, red socks for flutist Daniel James, red ties for the other three men, and blood-red shoes matching her lipstick for Miss Hancock.

In character throughout the performance, Catherine Hancock seemed at times to reign as queen over the four men at her feet, and at times to flirt with them, and at times to extract from them a performance to match her own. One stand-out section for me was "Der Kranke Mond" ("The Sick Moon") that concludes the first third of the score: During this duet for soprano and flute, Miss Hancock and Mr. James maintained almost constant eye contact, and seemed to conjure steamy emotions more commonly associated with opera than chamber music.

I also enjoyed watching Paul Cho on clarinet at times evoking the more jazzy cabaret-like feel of the score, and violinist Ken Hamao and Cellist Patrick McGuire providing much of the harmonic backbone of this music. Hui Wu seemed to prefer not getting involved in whatever non-musical escapades were going on in the rest of the stage, content to mind her own business with the busy, complex, often dense pounding of the piano part.

The students' obvious love of this music carried over into the audience — those who could get in, anyway — who were entralled throughout and responded enthusiastically afterwards.

Perhaps Schoenberg is finally breaking into the mainstream. There have been suggestions in recent years that this is the case. I was very much taken with Hilary Hahn's revelatory recording of Schoenberg's Violin Concerto, perhaps his most difficult work, as well as pianist Shai Wosner's clever CD mixing up Schoenberg and Brahms.

Seeing Juilliard students performing Pierrot Lunaire — and audiences having as much fun as the performers — is perhaps the strongest indication yet that Arnold Schoenberg's day has finally arrived.