"The solar plexus of 20th century music."
- Igor Stravinsky

Pierrot Lunaire

Pierrot Lunaire is a musical work by Arnold Schoenberg that sets German translations of poems by Albert Giraud to music. It includes 21 poems in total, in the fashion of a song cycle. Pierrot, the main character, is a clown obsessed with the moon. The whole piece is split into three sections, with each section having its own mood or theme. It was composed in 1912, before Schoenberg developed his twelve-tone scale but after he began to work and experiment with atonality. It is performed by a small musical ensemble and vocalist; the vocals are performed in 'sprechstimme' (speech-singing -- a cross between speech and recitative).

Pierrot Lunaire was composed towards the end of Schoenberg's Impressionist period. It uses most Impressionist of the characteristics, especially the emphasis on emotion and the stream of consciousness style.


Pierrot, a clown based on 'Pedrolino' from Italian improvised theatre, takes a walk and is completely captivated (some might even say possessed) by the moon. During his constitutional he expresses several of his fantasies (some of which are of a sexual nature). As the poems progress his thoughts become more and more disturbed and begin to reflect death and religious themes. His fantasies become even more violent and dangerous before mellowing out and he returns to his home. There are also other characters -- Columbine is the object of Pierrot's affections, Harlequin is a conceited guy, and Cassander is a doctor. All four characters were based on characters from commedia dell'arte -- old Italian theatre.


The 'song cycle'-like piece is split into three sections, organized by their themes.

Part One

The first part's main themes range from the religious to the sexual. Modenstrunken sets the tone for the rest of the work and alludes to Pierrot's obsession with the moon. His desire for Columbine is also evident, and his thoughts begin to take on religious and sacred tones with pieces like Madonna. Contrasted with Part Two, these themes are pretty tame. This doesn't mean that they're any less important to the piece -- they lay the groundwork that makes Part Two's descent into more violent themes more shocking.

  1. Mondestrunken (Moondrunk)
  2. Columbine
  3. Der Dandy (The Dandy)
  4. Eine blasse Wäscherin (A Pallid Laundrymaid)
  5. Valse de Chopin (Chopin's Waltz)
  6. Madonna
  7. Der Kranke Monde (The Sick Moon)

Part Two

The work becomes much darker in this section as Pierrot's thoughts are overtaken by thoughts of death and murder. The religious imagery is still present (in Die Kreuze) but is also much more violent than in the previous section. The 'darker' tones are also displayed in a more literal sense in pieces like Nacht. This section has been described as "Pierrot's nightmare."

  1. Nacht (Night)
  2. Gebet an Pierrot (Prayer to Pierrot)
  3. Raub (Theft)
  4. Rote Messe (Red Mass)
  5. Galgenlied (Gallow's Song)
  6. Enthauptung (Beheading)
  7. Die Kreuze (The Crosses)

Part Three

In this section, Pierrot concludes his walk by returning to his home. His thoughts are no longer ruled by death and violence, and he thinks of the past instead. He once again focuses on the moon's influence on him.

  1. Heimweh (Nostalgia)
  2. Gemeinheit (Mean Trick)
  3. Parodie (Parody)
  4. Der Mondfleck (The Moon Fleck)
  5. Serenade
  6. Heimfahrt (Journey Home)
  7. O Alter Duft (O Ancient Scent)

(The titles without translations should be obvious enough).


Schoenberg's musical adaptation of Giraud's poems has in turn inspired a stage musical version of the work and a ballet. As mentioned earlier, Giraud adapted Pierrot and the other characters in the poems from characters from traditional Italian theatre. These characters also inspired other artistic works, including Punch and Judy. And yes, it is the same Pierrot in Au Clair de la Lune. Similar characters and themes also appeared in operas such as I Pagliacci.


Pierrot Lunaire is performed by one singer (usually a soprano but mezzo-soprano vocalists are sometimes used), piccolo, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, viola, violoncello, and piano. The vocals are performed by one singer in "sprechstimme." Schoenberg wrote the vocal parts to be performed between singing tone and speaking tone; he gave specific instructions for the singers to hit the notated pitch but to either rise above or fall below it almost immediately after hitting it, creating a blend between speech and song. The required pitches are what separates these kind of vocals from spoken word. Schoenberg also specified what kind of rhythms were to be used in this kind of speech-singing. One of the biggest misconceptions about sprechstimme is that it gave the singer freedom to speak/sing however they wanted to. The pitches and rhythms were all strictly defined.


Schoenberg's Pierre Lunaire was premiered on October 16, 1912. Sources indicate that it received a generally favourable reaction from those present; a small minority of audience members were unimpressed but people were generally enthused. Some reviews and articles seem to disagree on exactly how many people were hissing during the performance (I've never heard of more than three). One thing's clear -- its reaction was much more favourable than the initial reaction of another certain modernist piece. Schoenberg was pleased with the reaction.

This work is often cited as the first major work to make such major use of sprechstimme. The piece is also an example of the Impressionist themes of emotions.

Schoenberg - Pierrot Lunaire: an Atonal Landmark http://www.scena.org/lsm/sm5-7/schoenberg-en.htm 20 June 2004
Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21 http://www.usc.edu/isd/archives/schoenberg/as_disco/works/021.htm 20 June 2004
ACS Study Module: Pierrot Lunaire in History http://www.colleges.org/~music/modules/pierrot/history.html 20 June 2004
eye - OnStage - 04.27.00 www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_04.27.00/arts/onstage.htm 20 June 2004

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