Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (excerpts)


performed at Staunton Music Festival

August 11, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA


Gwen Grastorf, pantomime

Megan Chartrand, soprano

Airi Yoshioka, violin

Immanuel Davis, flute

Igor Begelman, clarinet

Jan Mueller-Szeraws, cello

Heini Kärkkäinen, piano


video by Stewart Searle





About the Music

Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) achieved canonic status in the genre of psychologically powerful vocal works.  Pierrot is an intense melodrama on texts by Belgian symbolist Albert Girard; the poems were originally written in French and later translated into German.  These texts center on the commedia-dell-arte figure of Pierrot, perennial sad-faced clown who pines away in unrequited love for Columbine.  Schoenberg scored the work for narrator and chamber ensemble. Premiered in Berlin in 1912, Pierrot achieved notoriety and fervent accolades among the avant-garde primarily for two aspects.  First, the music explores free atonality; in other words, it speaks a compositional language freed from the expectations inherent in tonal music (such as a single key being a focal point, that dominant chords express tensions resolved in consonant tonic chords, etc.).  For years Schoenberg had been moving toward some kind of post-tonal compositional system.  His eventual solution—the so-called “twelve-tone method”—represents a logical evolution of Pierrot’s free atonality.  For that reason alone it is a watershed moment in music history. 


Its second innovation concerns vocal technique.  Schoenberg did not specify a voice range for the narrator (though it is, as tonight, often taken by soprano).  Indeed, melodic figures push the boundaries of what would have been regarded as “melodic” at all.  The technique is called sprechstimme, literally “speech-song,” and it resides in the nebulous realm between singing and speaking.  Schoenberg specified rhythms, but indications of pitch furnish only starting points.  Once a tone is sounded, the performer quickly moves up or down from the pitch.  The composer’s own notes on Pierrot show that he sought something that was neither speech nor song.  This ambiguity provided fodder for Pierrot’s first critics, who couched their negativity by claiming that the texts were morally offensive.  A century on, the work remains a strikingly novel, and at times disturbing, creation. 


Pierrot contains three sections, each with seven pieces—Schoenberg’s interest in numerology revealed in the 3x7 grouping.  Most of the 21 songs are about 90 seconds in duration, though they range from 20 seconds (Golgenlied) to the two-and-a-half minute Serenade.  Part I reveals Pierrot transfixed by the radiant moon, ruminating over thoughts of love, sex, and religion.  Part II becomes more emotionally strained as the poems veer off into blasphemy.  Finally, in Part III Pierrot takes a nostalgic journey back to his home in Bergamo.  Schoenberg derives incredible variety from the seven-member ensemble, creating textures that sparkle and haunt.  Alhough he favors a freely atonal compositional method, there is method at work.  Motives are treated contrapuntally (in one case going so far as to present a thorough fugue in "Den Mondfleck"), and recurring pitch patterns provide careful listeners with the occasional sense of return to familiar ground.  Thus despite a chaotic musical surface, numerous studies have shown deeper coherent strategies throughout Pierrot.


In performance, listeners can generally take structural cues from the text.  Giraud explored symbolist themes that push back against a generation of gritty realism in favor of esoteric, implied meanings, valorization of dreams, and an indirect approach to the most fundamental truths.  Surfaces provide an evocative veneer that, rather than inhibiting entry to deeper spiritual realities, actually foster it.  Music itself can be regarded as a symbolist art form in which sounds point toward the inexpressible, saying more than words can.  Through Schoenberg, French symbolism helped influence the development of German expressionism, which pushed even further along the lines interiority, psychology (supplanting any “realist” understanding of the outer world), and the fragmentation of the external world after World War I.  All of these descriptions aptly convey the experiences of Pierrot Lunaire, a work that presages a century torn asunder by the darker side of human nature.


© Jason Stell, 2018




Gwen Grastorf is a performer and actor in the DC area, where she performs with Happenstance Theater. As a permanent company member, she creates devised physical theater with Happenstance throughout the year, touring in Baltimore, New York, and beyond. Gwen has worked additionally with Constellation Theatre, Faction of Fools, Taffety Punk, We Happy Few, Rorschach Theatre, the Kennedy Center Page to Stage Festival, the Capital Fringe Festival, and the Source Festival. Raised in Frederick, Maryland, Gwen has a strong background in dance and music and loves working on physical, ensemble-based shows. She holds a B.A. in Theatre Performance from the University of Maryland, College Park.  



Praised for her “light, fleet soprano” and “soaring, diamantine high notes” (Opera News), Megan Chartrand feels equally at home singing early music, art song, chamber music and concert repertoire. Notable solo performances include Dalila in Handel's Samson with American Classical Orchestra and Mozart's Requiem with True Concord, both in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. Megan has also sung Bach's St. Matthew Passion, St. John Passion, and B Minor Mass with numerous ensembles, and Mahler's 4th Symphony at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in Finland. Megan sings frequently with the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Clarion Music Society, Seraphic Fire, American Classical Orchestra, and many others. 




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