Pierrot Lunaire

Pierrot Lunaire is costumed, staged, and illuminated with sets, props and special effects in collaboration with the Phoenix Theatre Department.   Students in the School of Music at the University of Victoria give its musical performance. 

My vision of Pierrot Lunaire, as a piece of music theatre, is a projected black Cabaret with Expressionist overtones  (cf., Fritz Lang’s film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” - more fantasy than expressionism, some say). Its beautiful music, a music from a past of which its present predicted a brave, new atonal future, is rendered a sentimental, passionate and lyrical interpretation.  As in “Dr. Caligari”, I wanted to explore a perceptual and psychological balance within watching a musical performance and dreaming it.  The music, alone and by itself, is a breakthrough in early twentieth century music language; its resonance is still prominent and significant today.  

This is the first occasion in the performance history of the work that the vocal ‘sprechstimme’ part has been parsed into three different roles and set in three different languages with female and male singers. Why three singers and three languages? The project presented an opportunity, in my opinion, for a new rendition at combining aspects of its performance history while creating a new ambience, a whole new Pierrot - a Pierrot of fun, drama, polyphony and a little kitsch.

The original composition, sung in German, was commissioned by the Cabaret reciter (diseuse) and actress Albertine Zehme.  The ensemble, under the direction of Schoenberg, gave 100 hours in rehearsing for the premiere.  Its success was immediate. The ensemble toured and recorded the work that included Schoenberg’s interpretive champion,  pianist Eduard Stauermann.  The composition marked the beginning of Modern Music in the 20th Century; all composers had to acknowledge its brilliance and vision (“Pierrot Lunaire is the solar plexus, as well as the mind, of early twentieth century music”, Stravinsky, a decade after Schoenberg’s death).  In 1920, Schoenberg attended a performance in Frankfurt where a male gave the singing role; he approved.  The next year, Darius Milhaud premiered it in Paris using the original French poetry; the Parisian audience loved it.  In Berlin, students gave it an impressive performance.  In the recent decade, the music scholar Andrew Porter translated the text into English for an excellent recording by Lucy Shelton and the Da Capo Players.

In “The Relationship to the Text” (published in the 1912 ‘Blaue Reiter’ Journal, edited by painter Wassily Kandinsky), Schoenberg discussed the direct contact with the sound of the first words being essential to a linguistic exploration of music as language, a relationship that would contain the spiritual, political and psychological functions in the music’s immediacy.  The Symbolist poetry of Albert Giraud mirrors extreme states:  the madness of creativity, the symbol of the moon, disillusioned sentimentality as well as the satirical and demonic allusions of the Pierrot figure.  Its pattern of lines and repetition suggested to Schoenberg a formal structure which the composer would utilize in the traditional forms of waltz, passacaglia and fugue.  Yet, the composer would breach conventional expression in art and tonality through a suspension of the tonal system and the creation of a new vocal instrument, sprechstimme – spoken song.  The interpretation of how to execute sprechstimme is still of interest and debate today.  Our performance places emphasis on pitch and expression.  In the orchestration, a different instrumental combination is used for each piece which ranges from a single instrument to the entire ensemble; a reaction, as noted by Pierre Boulez, to the “inordinately swollen and enriched orchestra of post-Wagnerian composers”.  Arnold Schoenberg achieved a modernist innovation and discovery shared at the time by only the greatest masters:  Debussy (“Jeux”), Webern (“Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 10”), Ives (“Fourth Symphony”) and Stravinsky (“Le Sacre du Printemps”).


I wish to praise the ensemble of talented School of Music musicians who asked to be a part of this production; and, who learned to share my vision and interpretation and make it their own.  I am grateful to Bert Timmermans of the Phoenix Theatre Department who helped coordinate and advise the major contribution made by Theatre to this performance.  And, I am deeply indebted to Dean Giles Hogya for his support through the Dean’s Special Events Fund.  Michael Huston of the Fine Arts Studios for Integrated Media (http://finearts.uvic.ca/sim) assisted in the post-production DVD as did Mark Franklin in post-audio production.  I am so very thankful and honoured.   I hope you enjoy our effort, our accidents and euphoria!

John Celona

The Pierrot Project

Sonic Lab
Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21 (1912), his most celebrated work in a new presentation conceived and staged by John Celona 
with assistance from the Phoenix Theatre Department

Friday, March 9, 2001, 8:30pm,
Philip T. Young Recital Hall
School of Music

Thrice seven poems from Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire
German translation by Otto Erich Hartleben
English translation (from German) by AndrewPorter
French interpretation by Sonic Lab

Cabaret Noir Performers:

Sabrina Schroeder, voice
Andrea Young,  voice
Morgan Jones, voice
Sarah Franks, flute/piccolo
Rebecca Fischer, clarinet
Shelley Hanson, bass clarinet
Eric Clark, violin
Laura Dunkley, viola
Karen Sunabacka, violoncello
Milos Repicky, piano
John Celona, conductor, director, design, concept
Jackie Adamthwaite,  stage/lighting/effects director
Jeremy Gordoneer, set construction (Belfry Theatre)


Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21 (1912)

Part I


1.            Mondestrunken [Moondrunk] (flute, violin, piano, violoncello) [Sabrina-German]
2.            Colombine [Columbine] (flute, clarinet, violin, piano) [Andrea-German]
3.            Der Dandy [The dandy] (piccolo, clarinet, piano) [Morgan-English]
4.            Eine blasse Wäscherin [A pallid laundrymaid] (flute, clarinet, violin) [Andrea-German]
5.            Valse de Chopin [Waltz of Chopin] (flute, clarinet & bass clarinet, piano) [Sabrina-French]
6.            Madonna [Madonna] (flute, bass clarinet, violin, violoncello, piano) [Morgan, Sabrina, Andrea-German]
7.            Der kranke Mond [The sick moon] (flute) [Sabrina-German]

Part II


8.            Nacht [Night] (bass clarinet, violoncello, piano) [Morgan-German]
9.            Gebet an Pierrot [Prayer to Pierrot] (clarinet, piano) [Andrea-French]
10.            Raub [Theft] (flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello) [Sabrina-English]
11.            Rote Messe [Red mass] (piccolo, bass clarinet, viola, violoncello, piano) [Andrea-German]
12.            Galgenlied [Gallows’ song] (piccolo, viola, violoncello) [Morgan-English]
13.            Enthauptung [Beheading] (bass clarinet, viola, violoncello, piano) [Andrea, Sabrina-French]
14.            Die Kreuze [The crosses] (flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello, piano) [Sabrina-German]

Part III


15.            Heimweh [Nostalgia] (flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello, piano) [Morgan-English]
16.            Gemeinheit [Mean trick] (piccolo, clarinet, violin, violoncello, piano) [Andrea-German]
17.            Parodie [Parody] (piccolo, clarinet, viola, piano) [Morgan-French]
18.            Der Mondfleck [The moon fleck] (piccolo, clarinet, violin, violoncello, piano) [Andrea-English]
19.            Serenade [Serenade] (flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello, piano) [Andrea-German]
20.            Heimfahrt [Journey home] (flute, clarinet, viola, violoncello, piano) [Sabrina-French]

  • O alter Duft [Oh ancient scent] (flute & piccolo, clarinet & bass clarinet, violin & viola, violoncello, piano) [Tutti-English, French, German]



Arts:  Victoria Times-Colonist Sunday March 11, 2001

Sonic Lab’s Pierrot sounds superb

By Deryk Barker

Time-Colonist staff

   For Arnold Schoenberg,  experimentation was  not an option,  it was a necessity – “I am a conservative who was forced to become a revolutionary,” he once remarked.
   In the first decade of the 20th century it was thought by many that tonality was exhausted, that there was nothing more to be said.  Schoenberg’s total abandonment of tonality in 1909 began what is often seen as his middle period; a decade later, fearing that “unbounded atonality”would  eventually lead to musical chaos, Schoenberg attempted to impose a formal structure upon it with his Twelve Tone Method.  (Little did he realize that he would eventually nurse this particular viper in his own bosom when, in 1935,  John Cage was, briefly, one of his pupils.)
   The greatest work of this middle period, and certainly one of Schoenberg’s most famous is, to give its full title, Pierrot Lunaire, three times seven melodramas, first performed in 1912.
   On Friday night, the UVic Sonic Lab gave a staged performance of Schoenberg’s masterpiece, in which the set, lighting and music combined to make an unforgettable experience.
   The sight of the huge full moon hanging over the horizon as the audience made its way to the hall set the scene; inside the stage was set with a number of large, painted canvases of a distinctly Expressionist nature, the lighting subdued and slightly eerie.
   This was a unique Pierrot for several reasons.  Not only did it consist of “three times seven melodramas,” it also had three vocalists and they employed three languages – German,  French and English.
   John Celona, who conceived this entire production,  directed a superb performance of considerable precision and almost limitless rhythmic vitality.  A Pierrot, in short, to remind us of the composer’s remark that the work was conceived in a “light, ironical, satirical tone,” while not underplaying the more violent and dramatic music in part two.
   Although on occasion it appeared that the ensemble had two basic levels, piano and fortissimo, with not much in between – which tended to swamp the vocal lines (except the ones in German) – this is a relatively minor criticism to set beside their excellent ensemble and superb sense of Schoenberg’s idiom.
   And while I admit to not having been totally convinced by the division of the vocal responsibilities between three people, their unison delivery of the final piece, Oh alter Duft, gave it something of the feeling of a chorale and enhanced its almost tearful sense of nostalgia.

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