in: Reviews

February 6, 2012

Pierrot Still Feral After All These Years

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A manic, overripe portrait of emotional extremes — wonder, whimsy, ecstasy, and terror, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire represents one of the defining outpourings of Expressionism and early Modernism in music. On February 2, in Calderwood Hall, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum presented Pierrot Lunaire at 100, an absorbing, superbly executed celebration of this masterpiece.

When writing about such a profoundly influential work, one is tempted to focus on the piece itself at the expense of the specific performance. After all, Pierrot, which retains its freshness a century after its 1912 premiere, can be counted among the most impactful chamber pieces of the 20th century. Its visionary grouping of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano created a new instrumental genre, and since its time, composers from Ravel and Stravinsky to Berio, Boulez, Carter, and Ferneyhough, have felt compelled to respond. In the 20th century, the “Pierrot Ensemble,” with various additions and subtractions to its core instrumentation, became ubiquitous in contemporary music and has become the most common instrumentation for new music ensembles in America and abroad.

But Pierrot was equally important to the advancement of vocal technique. Strauss and Humperdinck were experimenting with various types of recitation as early as 1897, and Schoenberg himself used spoken song in his first attempts at writing his Gurrelieder in 1900. However, at the time of Pierrot’s completion, it was the first piece of its scale to limit itself to sprechstimme, a combination of singing and speaking in which pitches are approximated and smeared via deep glissandos. The implications this had for 20th-century vocal music were far-reaching; and the well-defined extended techniques explored in music after Pierrot, including Luciano Berio’s collaborations with Cathy Berberian, owe a debt to the expanded set of possibilities unlocked by Schoenberg.

Historical importance aside, this particular performance of Pierrot was special. Paula Robison’s sprechstimme was alternately light, primal, wry, hysterical, and explosive. Robison’s physical manner was equally striking; she often surveyed, pranced about, and stalked the stage, making direct eye contact with the audience and members of the ensemble, unpredictably oscillating between seduction and menace.  In the third stanza of Der Dandy, one of the 21 poems that comprise the work, she conjured a satirical, mocking effect, while reciting part of a verse that translates to “Pierrot with waxen complexion/ Stands musing, and choosing/his makeup for tonight” (from Robison’s own translation). Later she was both terrifying and terror-stricken when practically screaming lines that translate to “His hand with godlike power/ Rips wide the priestly vestments.”

The brand new Calderwood Hall, surely one of the most beautiful, oddly conceived concert spaces in Boston, provided the perfect layout for witnessing the music’s hair-raising eruptions. Laid out as a cube with three balconies that surround and look directly down onto the stage, the hall amplified the voyeuristic nature of the experience. There was a befittingly exhibitionist quality to Robison’s fiery histrionics. Indeed, the experience lent itself to incredulous gawking, and the layout of the hall magnified this, positioning the virtuosic performers like savage, other-worldly creatures surrounded in an invisible cage.

The performance was not all ferocity and dread, though. The nimble ensemble produced elegiac and tranquil moments with equal effectiveness. Sooyun Kim could be full-bodied and lush with her flute or searing with her piccolo. Violinist David Fulmer was vivid and exacting, displaying an enthusiastic mastery over the colorful complement of string techniques called for by the score. At the beginning of Part Two, during a verse which includes the lines “Fearsome, gruesome giant black moths/ Killing out the shining sun,” cellist Michael Kannen and pianist Steven Beck fashioned a sound that crept through the hall like a dark, foreboding fog, signaling a shift in tone from Part One’s somewhat sunnier subjects to Part Two’s violence and intensity.

One of the most striking facets of Pierrot is its juxtaposition of extremes of emotions. The piece often shifts from grotesquely agitated, to serene, and back again with little if any transition between the poles. All of this is dizzying, yet hilarious, moving, yet strangely disaffecting.  The irony is that these extremes of human expressiveness can almost induce numbness. One observes an uncomfortably familiar caricature: a lustful, bloodthirsty, yet sensitive and self-pitying expressionist archetype. The foolish, naive commedia dell’Arte pantomime, Pierrot, is updated for the early 20th-century. In this incarnation he reflects and serves the self-deprecating, angst-ridden early modernist, and the agenda of Schoenberg’s panicked but often-ironic expressionism.

The first three pieces of the program, providing a clever warm-up to Pierrot, feature the contrasting styles of Schoenberg’s two most important students, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Webern’s Two Pieces for Cello and Piano (1899) was completed when he was just 16. Tonal and rooted in the romanticism he absorbed during his youth, the piece is expressive and accomplished, but certainly not a mature work in the composer’s eyes. In fact, Webern did not begin assigning his pieces opus numbers until nine years later, effectively dismissing all he wrote before the age of 25.

Webern’s Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, op. 11 (1914), presented the artist at full maturity. By this stage in his development, Webern had arrived at the style with which he is most associated — an intensely concise, sculpted pointillism. The three pieces together last approximately two minutes and are composed of a series of brief but vivid gestures. Webern consciously left behind the technique of lyrical expressive cello writing that was previously expected; instead he favored harmonics, sul ponticello, and isolated pitches, contextualized by brief non-tonal chords in the piano. This piece, like Pierrot, was written during a period when the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern and Berg) was using “free atonality,” before the systematization of post-tonal pitch structure through serialism. As the program notes mentioned, the second movement is notable for its use of 12 consecutive discreet pitches in the cello, the technique that Schoenberg would develop and formalize seven years later.

Though equally under the influence of Schoenberg’s advancements, Berg used liberation from tonality to contrasting ends. In Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, op. 5 (1913), Berg’s lines, though eschewing a pitch center, are lyrical and connected. Clarinetist Carol McGonnell displayed her world-class dynamism and dexterity in the animated first movement, and her extraordinary control and sensitivity in the fragile, whispery second. Berg’s eloquent hesitance, exquisitely rendered by McGonnell and Beck, provided the ideal contrast to Webern’s abstractions and left the audience in a state of eager suspense, awaiting Pierrot.

The decision to focus the program on post-tonal, pre-serial works written within a two-year period was an inspired one. The Berg and later Webern piece served as an informative contextualization for Pierrot. In discussions of the Second Viennese School, the topic of serialism often looms large, but these works, written before that codification of non-tonal technique may have more in common with the freer methods of today. They showcase each composer grappling with the problem of losing a widely accepted set of governing aesthetic and structural principles. The solutions each discovered provide composers a roadmap of possibilities that remain relevant in today’s complex musical landscape.

David Dominique is a composer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.  He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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