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Classical 101

What Was "New Music" 103 Years Ago? Pierrot Lunaire.


Pierrot Lunaire: it's iconic, it is long and dark, and it is coming to Columbus for a free performance hosted by the generous Johnstone Fund for New Music. So what makes this atonal piece written in 1912 something that warrants a performance, and how can listeners appreciate it? My first suggestion is: "Do you like Björk?" In 1996 Kent Nagano convinced pop icon and Iceland's resident eccentric, Björk , to perform the piece, written more than a century ago, and rumor has it that she was a bit nervous to undertake such a work. I don't blame her. The vocal part was written specifically as a melodrama to be 'spoken-sung' with a chamber ensemble. It's atonal and the pitches are not entirely determined. For those reasons, Bjork would have been my first pick, too. Arnold Schoenberg's setting of Pierrot Lunaire was written by contract for a certain Frau Albertine Zehme on the poetry of Belgian writer Albert Giraud (translated to German by Otto E. Hartleben in 1892). Zehme, an actress from Leipzig, was trained in Wagnerian roles and popular melodramas by none other than Cosima Wagner. Her talent was most evident in her ability to marry speaking and singing in a form known as, spechstimme,(literally: "spoken voice"). Spechstimme You may be familiar with this type of singing already if you are a fan of electro-pop singers such as Björk. Here is a sample of her using sprechtimme in, "Moon," from her most recent album, Biophilia. http://youtu.be/Kgm1zi0135E (If you are not familiar with the Icelandic songbird or much of Schoenberg's work, you may recall a scene played by Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles. Her piece, "I'm Tired," is another popular example of what sprechstimme sounds like.) The Reception Zehme premiered the work herself in Berlin, October 1912, after 25 rehearsals. It was instantly appreciated and Schoenberg received an immediate ovation with emphatic calls for an encore. Famous composers Igor Stravinsky, Ravel, and Puccini were in attendance for the premiere, and Stravinsky declared Pierrot to be: "the solar plexus as well as the mind of early-twentieth-century music." The Poetry With such a grand declaration from one of the 20th-Century's greatest musical masters, one would expect that the poetry is quite lovely, right? Not so much... "Black gigantic moths blot out the shining sun. Like a sorcerer’s sealed book, the horizon sleeps in silence." -Translation of "Nacht," #8 Pierrot has 21 pieces of poetry/music set in 3 groups that roughly outline the character Pierrot's narrative; 1.) his entry, 2.) experiences of death and terror, 3.) a return to his world of commedia dell'arte. The character Pierrot has a rich history spanning from the 16th-Century's fascination with stock character drama. (Think Punch and Judy.) For more on the history and cultural implications, take a look at this great page: http://www.culturedallroundman.com/2013/03/07/pierrot/   http://youtu.be/N-zW10__i4M Details for this weekend's performance: Columbus is quite lucky to have this opportunity. In addition to enjoying such a prestigious work for free, it is also a bit of an odd performance; it's being narrated by a man. Ohio State University's Professor of English, Sebastian Knowles, has actually translated the work into English and will be playing the evocative role himself this weekend. More details can be found on the Johnstone Fund's Facebook page. The performance will be at 3pm at the Columbus Foundation, 1234 E. Broad Street this Sunday, February 1st, 2015. It's definitely on my calendar.