Pierrot Lunaire by Schoenberg
at Hampton's American Theater

      In 1912 Arnold Schoenberg composed a musical melodrama for speaker and chamber ensemble using twenty-one poems selected from German translations of the French originals by Albert Giraud. Pierrot Lunaire has what Schoenberg described as a light, ironic-satirical tone. It is a sort of shadow play that shifts at random from menace to absurdity, from dream to lunatic activities of the clown Pierrot. Mockery morphs into good humor and exaggerated pathos into the heart-warming.

      I know this music from an LP recording and more recently from CD but had never thought of it as a stage work and neither had the composer. In conversation with Dr. Andrey Kasparov I learned that he has attended four or five stage performances and that this one was by far the best he has seen. Karen Scott Hoy suggested a review of Pierrot Lunaire after she and Gil saw it at the American Theater on March 1, 2005. Performed by eighth blackbird, a chamber sextet, the Hampton performance featured soprano Lucy Shelton as the poet. Pierrot, was a life-like puppet designed by Blair Thomas of Chicago and operated by three puppeteers. Shelton recites the poetry in this piece with its highly stylized use of the speaking voice notated by Schoenberg with relative pitch and exact rhythm, sprechstimme in German. Ms. Hoy says of the performance "The energy and attention to phrasing and style kept these enigmatic songs interesting for me. Lucy Shelton has a beautiful, warm lyric soprano voice with a solid technique making it easy to move the voice around the difficult and expansive intervals in this piece. Her sprechstimme was closer to actual singing to my ear."

      The text of the poems, in an English translation from the German, used by Ms. Shelton was on large cards that were turned by hand on the stage. The musicians glide slowly into different formations while playing from memory, following strictly choreographed movements.

      Though in one review there was a suggestion that performing the piece in English would have aided understanding of the text - Schoenberg advocated this later in his lifetime - I have my doubts. The poems are highly symbolic. On a bleak, surreal set, a landscape of moonstruck drunkenness, the actors in white makeup and bizarre white costumes bring to life the moods of this non-linear poetry. Being open to the emotional flow of the music is more important than struggling to grasp the text in this very alive, kinetic energy field.

      It happens that we do miss advertising some local events that belong on the Artsong Update calendar and Pierrot Lunaire is an example. My hope is that eighth blackbird will once again perform Pierrot in our region so I can see it live. Since the group is in residence at the University of Richmond it is quite possible. eighth blackbird performs there on September 14, November 4-6 and February 22. See the UR website for program details as they're posted. The group will perform Pierrot Lunaire in several US cities in the winter and spring of 2006. Visit for details.

      This review owes much to Andrey Kasparov, Karen Hoy, the New Grove Dictionary of Music and a review by Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press sent to us by Suzanne Ganschinietz. Any errors are my own.

      Schoenberg did not conceive of Pierrot Lunaire as a staged performance but rather as a chamber recital piece, but performers almost 100 years on have. In the same sense Arlene Shrut and her confederates are re-envisioning the art song recital to create a valid contemporary expression in ways not conceived of by the composers.

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