Moonlit melodrama: Spoleto Festival celebrates 100th anniversary of Pierrot Lunaire
Before Stephenie Meyer authored the “Twilight” series, moonlit melodrama belonged to composer Arnold Schoenberg.
To understand atonality, a grasp of tonality is essential. Tonality is the musical force that pulls toward the “home” note, or the tonic. In a scale, the first note is the tonic; most songs end on the tonic note. Try singing “Happy Birthday,” but stop on the last “to,” leaving the last note unsung. If that sounds incomplete, tonality is at work.
Atonality is a disregard for the magnetic pull of the tonic. An overwhelming majority of music in Western history is tonal, so atonality can sound chaotic, wandering or random, but it’s just another way of writing music. Employment of atonality in early 20th-century music was an effort to expand musical possibilities.
The term for “speech song,” Sprechstimme, is a vocal technique Schoenberg frequently used in his music. Singers using Sprechstimme occupy a middle ground between singing and talking, their voices sliding freely up and down. The range of pitch varies more extremely than an entirely sung melody usually would. Bird explains the way she began learning Sprechstimme: “I spend some time at the beginning of the learning process experimenting with sounds and shape (how high, how low, etc.), but by the performance I will hope to have found some consistency.”
Today, Spoleto Festival USA presents one of Schoenberg’s most well-remembered and influential works, “Pierrot Lunaire.” Based on a set of poems by Albert Giraud, “Moonstruck Pierrot,” the work is a melodrama addressing love, sex, death, friendship, betrayal, piety and blasphemy. The piece is divided into three parts, each containing seven songs.
Written in 1912, this year marks the centenary of “Pierrot.” Spoleto Festival Resident Conductor John Kennedy leads soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird and an ensemble of instrumentalists in a 7 p.m. performance at the cozy Simons Center Recital Hall.
Schoenberg chose the pantomime stock character Pierrot, a sad clown, as the voice for this evocative piece. As Pierrot sings to the moon, a history of modernist music unfolds. The piece is atonal, sung in German, and employs Sprechstimme, a vocal technique that combines speech and singing.
“Pierrot’s” legacy is evident at Spoleto outside its own performance. Not only did Schoenberg serve as direct inspiration to other composers presented here (John Cage was Schoenberg’s student), his choice to explore the compositional frontier is heard throughout the festival.
“Schoenberg really laid a framework for trying something new, which inspired composers, though they weren’t necessarily writing atonal music, or serial music, or anything specific like that,” Kennedy said.
Bird hears the composer’s influence in numerous works written in the past century for the same ensemble of musicians.
“Composers have written more and more for the instrumental grouping that Schoenberg uses in ‘Pierrot Lunaire’: flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano,” Bird said. “The (Chicago-based) group Eighth Blackbird is one such ensemble, and they are having great success building the canon of music for this grouping through their commissions.”
“Pierrot” can be performed with staging and costumes, or in a concert format as a song-cycle.
“John and I both are performing this for the first time, and we agreed that a straightforward performance of the work would be best,” Bird said. “This way we can focus on the power of the music itself as it stands alone.”
The power of Schoenberg’s music has much to do with numbers, and in “Pierrot,” this obsession was in its infancy, manifesting as three equal groups of seven songs. In the early 1920s, Schoenberg would adopt serialism as his compositional method, sounding each of the 12 notes of the Western chromatic scale once before repeating any of them.
It might have seemed random to the uninitiated ear, but it was highly mathematical. At the time of its composition, “Pierrot” stood out as radical. In the 21st century, however, many of its qualities have become common, whether performed on stage or as part of something else, like film music.
“Given the text, atonality is not as foreign to us in the 21st century because of the onslaught of technology we encounter daily,” Kennedy observed. “And this text really fits with atonality.”
Bird is excited to present such a famous piece, both because of its place in history, and the challenge of the mechanics. “There is one movement, about a noose, that I love because it is so fast! I feel like I’m just spitting out German words as fast as I can while staying in the correct rhythm and tempo. It’s a really fun challenge, and such great poetry.”
Leah Harrison is a Newhouse School graduate student.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misstated the time of the performance. It is 7 p.m. June 4.