Arnold Schoenberg is the least understood composer of the 20th century, especially to the uninitiated, to whom he represents all that ails modern music: no tunes, strange textures, dissonance, shock.
If the uninitiated chooses to listen to “modern” music of the beginning of the 20th century, it most likely would be the much more primal and rousing, yet elegant and crafty music of Stravinsky — and with good reason. Yet, why is it that even after 100 years we still cannot put Schoenberg in the right context, like his music, or at least recognize it for the value that it rightly possesses?
These thoughts were going through my mind during the other-worldly textures of “Pierrot Lunaire,” presented in Monday’s Intermezzo concert. We’re talking about a dark period in classical music, awkwardly wedged between the end of the Romanticism and the chaos of the two big wars that would soon follow, a period of decadence and decline.
Schoenberg stood alone for most of his life. A Jew in a German land consumed by nationalism and hatred, later an expatriate in Los Angeles, struggling both artistically and financially, yet delivering, one after the other, works of extreme depth, scope and innovation.
Are they pretty? Who cares? Schoenberg along with his two students Alban Berg and Anton Webern carve the road for contemporary music in more than one way for the rest of the century. The serial method of composition gets them the trophy among music theorists, however Schoenberg’s early works are even more important, as they connect in several ways with his milieu, and transcend genres.
Schoenberg’s earlier expressionist dramas, “Die Glückliche Hand” and “Erwartung,” are visionary works as well, with one foot in the past and the other in the future. Inward looking, highly self-referential and psychoanalytical, they predate the first expressionist works of the century by a few years. Here, the composer, raised in Strauss and Mahler, tries to break away and reflect his own time. Driven by bizarre texts, his only anchor on a deep dive from the safety of tonality, Schoenberg includes lighting and directing instructions in his scores.
Then comes the exact opposite of a subjective “Ich-Drama,” starring Pierrot, an inconsequential clown in a deeply melancholic mood, a stock character from the 16th century “commedia dell’arte” howling at the moon.
Pierrot Lunaire is more than a song cycle; it’s essentially a “melodrama,” as defined by J.J. Rousseau, a work with pantomime gestures and spoken declamation, as much as it is simply an act from a cabaret. Seen under this light, both the “Sprechstimme” vocal style and the sound-world of the piece make sense. “Sprechstimme” is a half sung, half spoken way of delivering text, first used in the melodrama “Königskinder” (1897) by Engelbert Humperdinck, but also present in cabaret as well as lieder and popular song styles.
The instrumentation, a quintet of wind, string and piano players (the “Pierrot ensemble”) that double on additional instruments, is another trick Schoenberg took from the cabaret. It’s an ensemble that has become a standard configuration of 20th century chamber music.
Each of the 21 brief songs in “Pierrot Lunaire” uses a different combination of the available instruments, with only the last one using the entire lineup, doublings and all. One relied on solo flute (“Der Kranke Mond”); another on clarinet (“Gebet an Pierrot”).
Tonight’s performance was the first time “Pierrot Lunaire” was presented at Spoleto, and it was appropriately introduced by John Kennedy, who read aloud an excerpt from the score — instructions that request a complete absence of sentiment in the singing so the tone painting of the music can convey the emotion intended by the composer.
The performance was presented unstaged, which helped the audience concentrate on the superb delivery by soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, who managed to transcend the hurdles of a difficult score with minimal slip-ups. Bird has an agile, light voice with a powerful high register, and it blended well with the transparent instrumental textures, never overpowering or being overpowered. A confident stage presence showed her to be right at home in this piece.
Schoenberg’s affinity towards pale, veiled timbres that emerge with an icy, detached quality was handled successfully by the ensemble, save for a few moments when the strings’ sul ponticello (bowing across the bridge) wasn’t quite as glassy as required by this music.
As the performance came to a close, I thought that it went by almost as fast as the past 100 years, leaving us without a clear narrative, and lots of unanswered questions. Could the standing ovation that followed be a sign that maybe we can live with the ambiguity after all?
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