‘Pierrot lunaire,” Arnold Schoenberg’s early masterpiece, premiered Oct. 16, 1912 — a night that could be considered the first evening of the rest of modern classical music. One hundSred years later, the name Schoenberg is still synonymous with everything audiences dread: techniques they don’t understand and sounds they may think ugly.
Audiences, take heart. For “Pierrot” is also a captivating work of musical theater, and if it heralds modernity, it also projects ambivalence about it. On Tuesday, the ensemble eighth blackbird and soprano Lucy Shelton will bring their cabaret-style staging of “Pierrot” to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater and let listeners decide for themselves.
Schoenberg called “Pierrot lunaire” a cycle of melodramas — of spoken text with instrumental accompaniment. It was written to the specifications of Albertine Zehme, a Viennese actress who had studied opera. While working with the American teacher Frank King Clark, she had developed a unique Vortragstil, or style of recitation, that combined rhythmic speaking with pitch. Convinced that she had made a crucial discovery, she stipulated that Schoenberg figure out how to use it in the piece she commissioned from him.
Schoenberg was intrigued; he also needed the money. His solution was to have the vocalist speak the part, rather than singing it, but on pitch and in time: The result is a hybrid of speech and song called Sprechstimme. It can be a challenge for both singer and audiences.
If the development of Sprechstimme was one of history’s accidents, brought about by the proximity of two like-minded people, its realization certainly speaks to Schoenberg’s vision. “Pierrot” is the rare case of a new technique perfectly suited to its subject matter. Pierrot is a harlequin, one of the stock characters from the Commedia dell’Arte. In “Pierrot Lunaire,” he is recast as a poet.
Ultimately, “Pierrot” is a work about artists trying to find a balance between innovation and tradition. The Belgian symbolist poet Albert Giraud wrote the original work, “Pierrot lunaire: Rondels bergamasques,” in 1884 during a contentious feud between two rival poetic factions that at one point goaded the poet into a duel. Giraud used a form derived from the medieval rondeau to communicate Pierrot’s exploits and critical opinions — obviously, the poet’s own.
Like Giraud, Schoenberg was trying to pursue a modernist agenda within the framework of traditional forms and processes. In “Pierrot Lunaire,” the clown-artist becomes a spokesman not for Giraud, but for Schoenberg. Just as Pierrot becomes disenchanted with his muse, the moon, Schoenberg questioned the techniques of his immediate precursors, especially Brahms. Separated from his tradition and core values, Pierrot wanders lost. Similarly, Schoenberg explored the aesthetics of modern painting with mixed results and began to doubt his efficacy as a composer.
While retaining the post-tonal language he had cultivated, Schoenberg would return to classical form and the structural principals of his precursors (and Pierrot returns to his homeland). Indeed, Schoenberg’s first step on his homeward journey was to compose “Pierrot lunaire.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein was more witty than wise when he lamented that music died with Brahms, but he did have the date right. Schoenberg is the oldest composer to write what is still considered “modern music,” and “Pierrot” documents his struggle to reconcile the legacy of Brahms with a future of music he saw with uncommon vision.
Eighth blackbird’s abstract staging — the musicians double as actors while playing the complex score from memory, an extraordinary feat — explores the challenges of Schoenberg’s work. “Pierrot lunaire” is chamber music of orchestral scope, filled with traditional musical forms cast in unfamiliar ways: post-tonal fugues, minuets that cannot settle into triple meter. And it is a song cycle that externalizes the text in ways that anticipate the multimedia presentations of our current musical culture.
Staging “Pierrot Lunaire” underlines the dramatic struggle of a work in which the composer sought to find his creative space between tradition and modernity. One hundred years on, we can hear that Schoenberg was not only looking ahead in anger, but also looking back with surprising sentiment and reverence.
Paul Mathews is associate dean for academic affairs at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University and co-author, with Phyllis Bryn-Julson, of “Inside Pierrot Lunaire: Performing the Sprechstimme in Schoenberg’s Masterpiece.”
performance by eighth blackbird and Lucy Shelton, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater